PORT MANATEE -- When Kevin McLaughlin attends international trade events, he always hopes for the chance to sell a boat.
On Wednesday, he might have earned the chance to sell more than just one.
McLaughlin, vice president of Manatee County boat-builder Hann Powerboats, was one of about 35 people gathered for an international trade roundtable at Port Manatee. The event put Florida business owners in the same room with trade representatives and consultants from Europe and Latin America -- part of the port's ongoing drive to attract import and export business, as well as foreign companies in need of a Florida base of operations.
Two of McLaughlin's conversations produced sales leads for Hann. The company builds pleasure boats as well as military-style patrol craft. One of those leads came from a trade official he met last year at a Spanish trade mission event hosted by the port.
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"Reconnecting with him has opened up an opportunity in Europe we're both going to explore," McLaughlin said.
The backdrop for the four-hour event was the port's growing International Trade Hub. Consisting of a set of offices at the port's Intermodal Building, the hub has attracted 15 overseas manufacturers, high-tech companies and service businesses that use it as either a physical or virtual U.S. base. Several of those companies have employees on site.
Established a little over a year ago, the hub last week launched a website, internationalhubportmanatee.com. The trade roundtable is an outgrowth of a set of trade missions between Manatee and Sarasota counties and the Catalonia region of Spain. It is expected to become a biannual event.
Carlos Buqueras, the port's executive director, said one of the port's goals is to boost trade for companies already in Manatee and Sarasota counties. He believes the port and surrounding area is an attractive place for European and Latin American companies to do business with Florida and the rest of the hemisphere.
The port, he said, will be at the center of that future business.
"Ninety-eight percent of everything you buy that is imported into this country comes in by water," Buqueras said.
The international connections are paying off. Last year, Enzo Anzellini, a Sarasota commercial real estate agent with Keller Williams, sold 24.5 acres next to Port Manatee to Venezuelan metal building components fabricator Preacero Pellizzari. At Wednesday's event, he said the company plans to build a U.S. facility on the land in the near future.
Tony Cooper, another Keller Williams real estate agent attending the roundtable, said more sales will be coming because of the port.
"Import and export is always looking for an office or ground," he said.
New trading partners
Port Manatee already has a solid foothold in Latin America through the business it does in the fresh fruit and juice markets, in containerized cargo and bulk cargos including lumber, aluminum and salt. For the past few years, it has been seeking out new trading partners and new imports and exports. Ivan Mutis, an international business consultant who is helping the port attract importers, used Wednesday's event to single out top trade regions in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. He said that with the dollar increasing in value against the euro, now is an opportune time to do business in Europe.
"For the U.S., Europe is on sale," Mutis said.
The port is also looking to politically complicated markets. Port officials are expecting Cuba to become a trading partner within a few years. More accessible in the near term may be Colombia. Long engaged in a multifaceted civil war, the South American nation expects to sign a peace deal with one faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, this year.
Jose Rafael Daste, an official with Colombian nonprofit trade group Invest Pacific, traveled to the roundtable to speak for his nation's trade interests. He said the promise of greater peace is opening trade possibilities across a number of industries, including in fruit production.
Strong market ties to the U.S. will speed the development of that industry.
"We lack technical development, we need machinery, we need this sector to be even more professional," Daste said.
Events like Wednesday's roundtable are what Florida's trade is built upon. Jorge Riano, an official with the state's trade organization, Enterprise Florida, said the $156 million in trade Florida did in 2015 had much to do with building relationships. Trade missions undertaken by his organization and Port Manatee are often the start of those relationships.
"In reality, what it is is serious business-to-business matchmaking," he said.
Future trade roundtables at the port are likely to range from events that include multiple international markets and those that focus on single nations, according to Buqueras.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter