PORT MANATEE -- Carlos Buqueras does business the old-fashioned way. He flies to meet potential clients.
Buqueras, Port Manatee's executive director since the start of 2012, is in the business of attracting import and export companies, shipping companies, and entire nations to the port. He wants to bring in investors to what he sees as the Florida port with the greatest growth potential. He contends, doing that requires a bit more than just picking up the phone or sending an email.
Marketing by way of travel was not the Port's strong suit prior to Buqueras. The previous Port director David McDonald rarely traveled, according to Port officials,
Travel was a requirement of the job when Buqueras applied. It is not optional in the current market.
"To my knowledge, most port directors spend time pressing the flesh with prospective clients," said Mike Reuben, vice president of governmental affairs for Tallahassee-based Florida Ports Council.
Face-to-face marketing gives Buqueras the chance to address nuance in business conversations. When he started selling Port Manatee as a place for foreign companies to do business, he discovered that potential South American clients didn't understand the port's place in the Florida market.
"They know Miami and Or
lando," he said. "I tell them we are Orlando's port."
Since the start of 2013, the port has spent about $32,000 flying Buqueras to Brazil, Argentina and Spain. He got back from his most recent trip to Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro two weeks ago.
Fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English, Buqueras has made seven trips in the past year to "get Port Manatee on the map." He has traveled to South America's most populous nation more than 50 times.
The travel is a sign the port is reaching out for new business, but it is also a nearly opaque process. Publicly owned ports throughout Florida and the United States compete to have the same companies and countries trading through their ports, so they don't publicize details about these marketing trips.
Port Manatee is no exception. Buqueras said he rarely takes notes at his overseas business meetings.
"We can't reveal projects we're working on with clients that would jeopardize a project with Port Manatee," he said. "They want to keep the projects as confidential as possible."
Eventually, the results of some of those trips do surface. The port is one of the top U.S. import portals for Brazilian orange juice. Among Brazilian lumber importers, Port Manatee is one of the top three choices in the state.
What the port looks to gain are more relationships like the one it has with Fresh Del Monte Produce. That company, one of the nation's largest fruit processors, has made Port Manatee its second-largest U.S. receiving port. Del Monte is expected to partner with stevedoring company Logistec to build a giant cold storage warehouse at the Port, giving it more space to store fruit coming from the tropics.
The port brands itself as the trade gateway to Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Arguably the closest U.S. port to most of these regions, it has already cemented some business relationships in the region. It signed an agreement last year to become a sister seaport to Rio de Janeiro, its first big foray into what Buqueras terms "Florida's China."
During his most recent trip -- a five-day junket in Brazil -- Buqueras met with business and government officials. He spent the time promoting Port Manatee as the closest U.S. port to Brazil. He said he came away with the beginnings of business deals, but said he couldn't discuss the details publicly.
Carol Whitmore, chairwoman of Manatee Port Authority Board, is the one person privy to at least some of the details of the Port's overseas business dealings. She speaks to Buqueras after each of his trips.
Whitmore said she has every confidence in Buqueras' "hands-on" marketing style, and is willing to wait for his trips to pay dividends.
"You may talk to 20 or 30 customers and one pans out," Whitmore said. "You've got to wait until something happens." Even though the port is owned by the public, Whitmore said it operates like a private business. Divulging all its business dealings would leave it at a competitive disadvantage.
Travel expenses relative
Technically, travel expenses are not on the public dime. Port revenue, which is earned from port operations, pays for travel and most everything else at Port Manatees. Plus, the travel budget is considerably smaller than that of Buqueras' former employer, Port Everglades. Buqueras was Port Everglades' director of business development for 22 years.
It helps Buqueras travels alone, and he knows how to travel on a budget while abroad. The bill for his most recent trip was $5,341.
The port's travel budget is small compared with those at Port Tampa Bay and Port Everglades. Tampa spent $145,944 on travel last year, according to spokeswoman Renee Dennis. Buqueras said Everglades spent about $150,000 last year.
Ellen Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Port Everglades and a former Buqueras colleague, said she's not surprised Port Manatee is beefing up travel budget.
"It's really important to have that business-to-business direct contact," she said.
While the port has yet to ink a deal with a Central American, South American or European company, at least one current Port tenant -- petroleum logistics company Vecenergy -- is confident more business is coming. Richard Vogel, Vecenergy director of environmental and regulatory affairs, was familiar with Buqueras' marketing style before he came to Port Manatee. The company has facilities at Port Everglades and Port Manatee.
"While working for Port Everglades, Mr. Buqueras was extremely successful in growing and diversifying the Port's revenues by attracting foreign companies to use the Port," Vogel said in an email.
Buqueras said in his last 10 years with Port Everglades, container traffic and cruise traffic doubled.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.