Florida Gov. Rick Scott leading visit to Colombia

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauDecember 3, 2012 

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott headed to Colombia on Sunday to drum up business with Florida’s second-largest trading partner, his seventh overseas trip since taking office.

Scott is leading a delegation of nearly 200, a bigger entourage than any of his previous trade missions.

The three-day visit to Bogota is yet another opportunity for Scott, the onetime CEO of the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, to act as his state’s chief salesman and promoter.

“The purpose is to build relationships with Florida businesses so either we sell something to them or they invest in our state,” Scott said. “One of the biggest things that we get out of Colombia is flowers.”

Millions of cut flowers pass through PortMiami every year, a sweet-smelling part of the $9 billion annually in two-way trade between Florida and Colombia. Other major products Colombia exports to Florida are gold, oil, coal, and men’s clothing. In less than two years, Scott also has visited Panama, Canada, Brazil, Israel, Spain, and Great Britain, trips aimed largely at pitching foreign investment in Florida. All told, those trips cost taxpayers more than $332,000, with some travel and lodging donated by hotels and airlines.

Scott’s office said hundreds of jobs are being created as a result of the trade missions, including three Spanish companies setting up shop in Miami-Dade.

Security alone for the trip to Brazil totaled $77,000. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement declined to say how many agents are guarding Scott and first lady Ann Scott in Colombia. Also accompanying the governor’s party are his traveling press secretary, a travel aide, and Mrs. Scott’s chief of staff.

The governor noted that in his career as a hospital executive and mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, he had traveled to 43 countries but not Colombia.

Scott, who turned 60 Saturday, already has traveled more extensively than former Govs. Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush did in office. Crist made three trips in four years, the last a controversial, 12-day journey to England and Russia with then-fiancée Carole as a “guest delegate.” The trip cost taxpayers more than $430,000, including $2,200-a-night London hotel rooms. Bush paid a four-day visit to Bogota in February 2005.

Scott’s Bogota trip will focus on boosting exports of Florida products and services, which include electronic telephone equipment, aircraft and auto engine parts, and printer’s ink.

Scott’s top economic development adviser, Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope, said the trips build relationships that help diversify Florida’s economy.

“We’re an international state,” Swoope said. “We need to do more of it, and we need to tell our story.”

In Colombia, Scott will lead a delegation of 191 people, the largest of any of his missions, all organized by Enterprise Florida. The governor will meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley and will tour a flower farm in Bogota.

The trip concludes Tuesday evening with a reception hosted by Holland & Knight, the Tampa-based law firm with a presence in downtown Bogota.

Holland & Knight also lobbies the Florida Legislature and Scott’s executive branch on behalf of various clients, including the city of Tampa, the Florida Hospital Association, and the Florida Press Association.

Scott’s entourage in Colombia also includes: David Armstrong, president of Broward College; Park Brady, CEO of the St. Joe Co., the state’s largest real-estate developer; former Gov. Bob Martinez, a lobbyist for Holland & Knight; Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo; PortMiami director Bill Johnson; Port Everglades CEO Steven Cernak; Paul Anderson, chief executive of the port of Jacksonville and the leading choice to be Tampa’s new port director; and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

“Having the governor there brings a certain stature to the trip,” Buckhorn said. “I think these countries want to know that our government, both local and state, are engaged in this.”

Lahnie Johnson, president of Acoustiblok, a Tampa-based maker of soundproofing devices, hopes to open some new doors in Colombia.

“When an esteemed official goes with you, the officials in the other country are bending over backwards to show they are willing to get into the game,” Johnson said. “Colombia is so close, and the language is not that distant from ours.”

Underscoring Colombia’s special significance to the Miami-area economy, 71 members of the Florida traveling party are from Miami-Dade, many of them international finance executives based in Coral Gables. They include Michael Gerrity, who runs a Miami real-estate website, worldpropertychannel.com, from offices on Brickell Avenue.

He said he jumped at the chance to join the state’s entourage in Colombia. Gerrity, who also traveled to Brazil with Scott and Florida business leaders last year, hopes to parlay this journey into new business connections and contracts.

He sees the nation of 45 million as a lucrative trading partner because of a new free-trade agreement signed by President Barack Obama last year. The deal eliminated or eased tariffs on many U.S. exports to Colombia.

“I can talk to people on the phone around the world or email them, and that’s great,” Gerrity said. “But when you actually meet with someone face to face and talk about your needs, their needs, that leads much faster to partnerships and opportunities.”

Entrepreneur David Michaels, managing director of HairMax, a Boca Raton-based hair-growth-device maker, hopes to drum up Latin American business for his product, LaserComb, an anti-baldness remedy.

“We have about eight staff members dedicated to helping us with our exports,” Michaels said. “We’re looking to bring that number up to about 15.”

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