Some trade delegations take a shotgun approach to opening new markets: pick influential cities and work backwards to find appropriate connections.
Not the Netherlands or Flanders, the Belgian region, whose heads of government led a collaborative and precisely targeted mission to Atlanta last week with more than 100 business leaders and officials in tow.
Organizers say they honed in on Atlanta — the top officials’ only destination on the four-day trip — thanks to nexus between the city’s strengths and their target industries.
The three-day mission focused on financial technology, cybersecurity and what the delegation called “smart” logistics, sectors where each locale lays claim to world-leading assets. Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world, while Amsterdam has Schiphol Airport, a model for connectivity and airport-led economic development. Georgia has the Port of Savannah, while the Netherlands and Flanders have the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, respectively, two of the leading gateways for goods coming into Europe, especially via Asia.
But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Global Atlanta that the trip was as much about learning from Atlanta’s people and institutions as anything else. Entrepreneurs in metro Atlanta, including Dutch companies that have made it in the region, have important lessons for the firms that traveled with him, he said.
Failing forward, the concept of entrepreneurs learning from their mistakes, dusting themselves off and trying again, is something that is only just now catching on in the Netherlands as the startup culture grows there, Mr. Rutte said.
“Five years ago, people in Flanders and the Netherlands would say, ‘Why did you try in the first place?’ In the U.S., people will tell you, ‘At least you tried — next time, do better,’” Mr. Rutte said. “We think that there is an ecosystem here from which we can learn.”
That sentiment of sharing best practices was embodied in agreements signed between the delegation and knowledge centers in Atlanta.
The first was on Oct. 6 at Georgia Institute of Technology in the presence of Mayor Kasim Reed, who later that evening welcomed the ministers to a dinner focused on Dutch/Flemish investment. Dutch investment and trade support nearly 24,000 jobs in Georgia, according to the Netherlands embassy, and some 48 Belgian companies — including many manufacturers — employ more than 3,600 people in the state.
Georgia Tech’s Supply Chain Logistics Institute inked a memorandum of understanding with Dutch Institute for Advanced Logistics, or DINALOG, and the Flemish Institute for Logistics, or VIL, to share research on technology in the movement of goods.
After all, it’s talented people and a spirit of collaboration — rather than physical infrastructure alone — that make a hub what it is, said Arthur van Dijk, president of the Dutch Transport and Logistics Association, an industry association, who spoke during a logistics seminar at Georgia Tech.
“Having a little bit of water and a road and a railway doesn’t make you a logistical hotspot. You need more,” Mr. van Dijk told Global Atlanta. “You really need to have a vision.”
Sometimes that means looking “under your nose,” he said. The U.S. and the Netherlands are strong partners and can grow stronger even as each pursues parallel relationships in the ascendant Asia region, he said. Complementary hubs, Atlanta and the Netherlands have both made forward-thinking investments to achieve “excellence” as gateways, he said, and that effort must be both continued and broadened to fend off competition.
As traders from a small country, the Dutch have been particularly adept at serving customers internationally and finding ways to develop advanced technology, he said. Mr. van Dijk pointed to innovative Dutch firms with a presence in Atlanta, like supply-chain software firm Ortec and baggage handling systems manufacturer Vanderlande Industries.
“What we do is try to trade and recognize where the customer is in the world and what our role can be. That’s the same with the hub in Atlanta; a lot of companies like to have a hub like that in the neighborhood,” he said. “I think that’s where we look alike, and that’s where I think the focus was on Atlanta.”
The memorandum of understanding with Georgia Tech calls for the sharing of top academics as well as expertise on interpreting data, which will become all the more important as warehousing and transport grow more digitized.
And Mr. Bourgeois, the minister-president of Flanders, said logistics is not just for its own sake: the sector enables certain industry clusters like the chemical sector that has expanded near the Port of Antwerp.
“It’s not only to be the gateway to Europe, it’s to create added value, to send your products abroad. It’s in both directions,” he said of investment in the region’s infrastructure.
Equally important to the flow of goods in the global economy is the flow of data, specifically the bits and bytes of digital commerce that now underpin many sectors. Atlanta is a hub for the financial technology and payments sectors and is becoming known as “Transaction Alley” around the world, a fact that Mr. Rutte pointed out in a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta on Oct. 7.
As commerce goes online, making sure the payment system is secure becomes ever more vital, the prime minister said, and collaboration is the only way to combat threats in a fast-moving, globally connected system.
“I believe that it’s vital that we bring together expertise from the Netherlands, Flanders and Atlanta,” Mr. Rutte said. “All have large, tech-savvy workforces with lots to offer each other, and that could lead to new innovations, economic growth and jobs, but it goes deeper than that. It’s about enhancing our safety and security, reducing terrorist threats, enhancing privacy and quality of life — and that’s what makes today’s discussion so crucial.”
That’s reflected in the growth of Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or FS-ISAC, an organization focused on the sharing of threats and information across physical and digital borders. While few organizations were doing so in 2006, the year of its founding, now more than 200 companies per month are joining as high-profile breaches dominate the headlines, said Bill Nelson, president and CEO of FS-ISAC.
The group signed agreements with the Dutch Payments Association and Belgium’s Febelfin to share information and enhance organizational cooperation — backing up the consensus view of experts from all three countries on a cybersecurity panel discussion held at the Fed: that multinational cooperation is needed to tackle the increasingly complex problem.
“We can never deal with this at the national level,” Mr. Rutte said in later remarks.
Banks, Mr. Bourgeois added, are particularly squeezed on the cybersecurity front. On one hand they face the pressure to innovate and offer new, convenient products for customers. On the other, they have to deal with the ever-growing threat of hacking from increasingly sophisticated foes all over the world.
“The old models will not hold,” Mr. Bourgeois said, urging the established financial institutions to partner with startups to innovate more rapidly.
During the trip, the prime minister and minister-president visited companies from their respective regions making new investments in Atlanta:
Mr. Rutte officially opened the new Midtown offices of this banking software firm, which has plans to hire 150 people at its new North American base. Backbase moved down from New York earlier this year, citing strong tech talent in its sector and convenient connectivity with its base in Amsterdam.
Mr. Rutte visited Clayton County attended a ribbon-cutting for the aerospace component manufacturer’s new $3 million facility, which is slated to create 100 jobs within three years.
Mr. Bourgeois visited the new North American headquarters in of Aluvision, which makes aluminum frames for trade show displays. The company is investing $3.6 million and plans to hire 30 over the next three years.
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