Jacksonville Fights to Focus on International Trade; Experts Say the First Coast Has a Lot of Promise but Has to Figure out How to Use the Resources Properly

Article excerpt

Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS, The Times-Union

Jacksonville's newest export to the Caribbean: Hot water.

Not, to be precise, actual gallons of hot water -- just the means to create it.

Thermal Conversion Technology, which manufactures passive solar water heating systems, has seen its business grow after targeting Caribbean islands, which now make up about 35 percent of its sales.

"They can reduce water heating costs by 80 to 90 percent," said TCT Chief Executive Officer Steve Gorman. "It represents a very attractive economic proposition."

Although the company has strong U.S. sales as well -- "Our model indicates that unless we have a reasonably good domestic market, you can't get aggressively involved in international sales," Gorman said -- overseas sales have been growing, so much that the company recently moved to Jacksonville to be closer to the port, through which it ships many of its products.

Expanding its international efforts, particularly into South and Central America, will be the fuel for the company's future growth, Gorman said. "We're just getting it under way," he said. "It's a long sales cycle. You have to make a commitment."

TCT isn't alone in making that commitment. From small exporters like Resource Point, which ships groceries to India, to big players like CSX, which owns part of one of the world's largest ports, being constructed in Korea, many international players call Jacksonville home. The First Coast has the infrastructure and the industries to succeed in the international marketplace, say those who make a living in overseas trade.

Nevertheless, international business is an oft-overlooked part of the local economy, and much more has to be done, experts said, to use those resources to the best advantage. The international trade community is "fragmented," several local officials said, and both public institutions and private businesses need to make more of a commitment to developing overseas markets.

"Jacksonville should be exporting more now than it is," said Jorge Arce, director of the U.S. Commercial Service's Jacksonville office, the division of the Department of Commerce tasked with helping with overseas trade. "There's enough businesses here that have room for growth."

Arce has been in Jacksonville for a year, coming from South Florida to set up the local office. He expected North Florida to have different challenges compared to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where "international trade is not spoken of as a specialty; it's just a way of life."

Here, he said, many businesses seem afraid or at least unwilling to consider looking beyond the U.S. borders.

"My frustration is I'm talking to deaf ears," he said, comparing his experiences to a salesman who keeps getting doors slammed on him. "I give leads and I get a slap in the face."

Jacksonville has two big things going for it, Arce said. First are the types of industry on the First Coast: medical, aviation, telecommunications -- all growth areas in overseas markets. Making international trade even more attractive, he said, are the ports, as well as the shipping, logistics and other related companies that have grown up around them.

Of course, the growth of those things are all a fairly recent phenomenon, one reason Jacksonville businesses might be loathe to enter foreign markets.

"Jacksonville wasn't built around international trade," said Roy Schleicher, senior director of trade development, marketing and customer service for the Jacksonville Port Authority.

Baltimore, where Schleicher used to work, has been dealing internationally since 1772, he said, giving it a leg up in any competition. But, he added, "any city has to embrace international trade. There's so much money out there."

That's been a mantra the state has been sounding for years, hosting trade missions to other countries and fighting to get the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami. …