Editor’s note: Al Hodge, a professional economic developer with more than 40 years’ experience, is contributing his unique perspective on fostering trade and recruiting foreign investment with a new series of columns for Global Atlanta. Mr. Hodge writes about Georgia’s role in trade conversations, global issues and how the state can better foster partnerships in the “two-way street” of international engagement.
Red-hot Chili Peppers is more than the name of a rock/funk band: It is a significant export from Colombia.
But this land of ecotourism, minerals, fuel, fruit, precious stones, metals, pharmaceuticals and machinery has so much more, and the coffee is always ready.
Beyond traditional goods, Colombians are ready to move to the next level in trading with the United States.
Georgia is in a good position, as ties in biotechnology, agriculture and financial technology are ripe for mutual cultivation.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with this enterprising republic’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos Calderon, a former Colombian vice president. I visited him at his official Residence along Embassy Row in Washington during an event organized by the Society of International Business Fellows.
The timing was serendipitous, as the ambassador was preparing for a visit to Atlanta next week that will include speeches and meetings at Georgia Tech, the Atlanta Council on International Relations and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Among Mr. Santos’ messages for the state: Colombia is the ideal Latin American partner for trade and investment, boasting business-friendly policies spurred in part by 15 trade agreements, including one with the United States enacted in 2012. Colombia is now one of the most open economies in Latin America; it is the second-largest importer of U.S. goods in the region.
“Colombia’s governance and fiscal policy is stable (and has never defaulted on debt),” Mr. Santos added.
The opportunities are easily within reach from Atlanta. With a five-hour direct flight from Atlanta to Bogota and with only a one-hour time difference, doing business during the workday can be simpler than Europe or Asia (or California, for that matter.) Delta’s very recent investment in LATAM Airlines holds the prospect of enhancing travel convenience to the region.
Discovery Channel has a major hub there, and Mr. Santos notes that CEO David Zaslav claims it is the ‘Best place to do business in Latin America.’ The World Bank has ranked it as the No. 1 country for business climate in the region with the No.1 workforce. Outside Brazil and Mexico, Colombia has the region’s largest population, with about 50 million people.
Among major exports destined for the United States are oil, textiles, food, automotive parts and mining products among others. There is also a two-way street within the service sector, given Colombia’s role as a center for banking, telecommunications and insurance.
Designated as possessing the some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, ecotourism now and in the future is dynamic and full of growth.
Agriculture is a great sector and there are competitive advantages. For example, blueberries and peppers – both growth sectors – can be produced in the fall when the weather is not conducive for growing these crops in the Southeastern U.S.
Perhaps more pertinent to metro Atlanta’s growing tech hub, Colombia is the third most vibrant startup country in the region and already has its first unicorn, Rappi. The delivery company is valued at $3.5 billion following an investment from SoftBank, the Japanese telecommunications giant.
There are more where this came from — for example Platzi, a major online education platform — and deeper exchange could enhance opportunities for Georgia venture capitalists and businesspeople.
Colombia boasts seven years of tax benefits for creation of certain types of new businesses; tourism-based businesses receive five years of tax breaks.
With regard to growth opportunities, the Ambassador proudly notes that infrastructure is a top priority and during the next two years $13 billion of bids are going to be offered.
Established in 2013, Georgia is the only U.S. state with a professional economic development office located in Colombia. The Georgia Department of Economic Development, led by Commissioner Pat Wilson, has produced results leading to $400 million of recorded investment from Georgia to Colombia, and an impressive $120 million from Colombia to Georgia. Juan Carlos López Gutiérrez leads the state’s Bogotá office. Georgia has done its job very well! Just this week, the trade office in Colombia announced that a buyer there is looking for Georgia suppliers of biodegradable polymers for packaging.
And the interest goes both ways: ProColombia maintains an Atlanta office headed up by Hernando Galindo.
Opportunity is clearly knocking!
Of course, Colombia and its neighborhood have had some challenges, and this column wouldn’t be complete without sharing the ambassador’s direct response to questions about the crisis in Venezuela.
“There are one and a half million new immigrants in Colombia during the past two years. This is burdening our social provisions. On the other hand, many of them are professionals – doctors, lawyers, and engineers who are an asset. We are working closely with the U.S. regarding this major need to support restoration of democracy there,” said Ambassador Santos. “This is another opportunity for business – infrastructure and so many more needs for goods and services when stability is returned there.”
As for now?
“I enjoy being in this country which I love and admire. I went to college in the U.S., and it is great to be here on behalf of my country,” he said with pride in both statements.
Georgia business executives and scholars: check out Colombia. It is abundant with opportunity.
Learn more about Ambassador Santos’ Atlanta speaking engagements below:
11/11 – 3-4:30 p.m. at Georgia Tech – Colombia at the Crossroads of Peace: A Conversation with Ambassador H.E. Francisco Santos
11/12 – Meeting with the business community at the Metro Atlanta Chamber
11/13 – Luncheon at the Atlanta Council on International Relations – Colombia – U.S. Relations: Today and Tomorrow
Al Hodge retired as president and CEO of the Rome Floyd County Chamber of Commerce in 2018, founding Hodge Consulting Services to bring his four decades of experience to bear for private clients.
Mr. Hodge has served as the head economic development professional in communities in two states, including Rome and Augusta, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., in addition to his speaking and professional development opportunities across the country and the world. He has led meetings, workshops and formal presentations, and been an active member of delegations to Japan, Italy, China, Canada, France, Germany, England, Spain and Sweden. He has recruited companies from Asia, Europe and more, along with working with South Korean, Swiss and other executives. He takes pleasure in the two-way street of trade and helps numerous U.S.-based companies with exports to countries around the world.
Both statewide economic professional associations – the Georgia Economic Developers Association and the Georgia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives – have benefitted from Mr. Hodge’s leadership as chairman, as has the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. His leadership on the Georgia Board of Education and the Georgia Northwestern Technical College added to his local experience with education and work force preparation.