Coral Gables Has Always Been an International City. Now, New Opportunities Abound
From his office at 201 Alhambra Circle, Manny Mencia can see the broad avenue where scores of multinationals keep their offices. Within walking distance are dozens more.
“When I was hired to run the international program for Enterprise Florida [the state’s economic development group], one of my first executive decisions was to move the office to Coral Gables,” says Mencia of his choice decades back. “I wanted to be in a location that was most conducive to international business,” he says. “And Coral Gables was the preferred location for multinational companies coming to Miami-Dade County. It was ideal geographically, with fantastic access to the airport, the port, and downtown – and it had unsurpassed amenities.”
In particular, Mencia thought the city was the perfect environment for hosting international businesses and their delegations. “The environment of Coral Gables was a way to put our best foot forward and show Florida from an advantageous position,” he says. “And in terms of environment it was conducive to high-end investors and decision makers.”
Dutch dairy giant FrieslandCampina made the same decision last year in relocating its Latin American headquarters closer to that market. Executives knew they wanted to be near Miami International Airport and its abundant flights to the Latin region. But they weren’t sure exactly where to put their office.
Multinationals with warehouses often set up in Doral, big law and accounting firms often choose downtown Miami, and tech startups are keen on Wynwood. But the milk and cheese maker (worldwide sales: $13.4 billion last year) wanted a walkable area, near good restaurants, with not too much traffic – in a welcoming community that was business friendly with a global outlook.
FrieslandCampina now operates on Ponce de Leon Boulevard near Mencia’s office – with an aim to double its sales in Latin America within the next few years.
“It’s like being in a big city in a big country, but it feels like a small town, with a lot of contact with neighbors,” including fellow executives heading up Latin American operations, says Jose Alonso-Iñarra, the Spaniard who leads the new locale. “We’re happy to discover the good vibes in Coral Gables.”
For generations, the City Beautiful has been known as a global gateway, especially as a hub for multinational companies that often run Latin American, US, or even global headquarters from the city.
Economic development leaders have sought out these large corporations to open offices in the city, encouraging construction of Class A office space and helping newcomers with permits.
Today, some 150 multinationals have offices in the Gables, from Fresh Del Monte Produce, Bacardi, and Hyatt to American Airlines, Tiffany, and Kayak, says Julian Perez, who leads the city’s economic development department. The global roster also includes home-grown firms with offices abroad, from builder MasTec to such tech ventures as AppGate and Cyxtera Technologies, launched by Gables entrepreneur Manny Medina. Helping lure them all: Nearly two dozen consular and trade offices representing Spain, Colombia, Italy, and other nations, here to facilitate commerce.
Technology Making Headquarters Leaner, Attracting Smaller Firms
Now, the face of international business is changing – and not only because Covid halted most overseas trips, disrupting shipments, squeezing economies, and shifting communication online.
Even before the pandemic, technology was making it easier to operate headquarters with leaner staffs. Executives who wanted to stay in Latin America or elsewhere could do so and still communicate effectively via the internet. Some Latin American headquarters have shrunk South Florida staff in recent years, while new ones tend to stay compact, often employing 10 to 20 top people, says Ken Roberts, CEO of WorldCity, a Coral Gables media company that tracks international trade and multinationals.
“Multinational headquarters are maturing and appreciating that they can find the talent they need in the [Latin American] region,” as education levels rise and technology becomes more widely available, says Roberts. “There’s a talent pool in the region that is better understood, and expanding.”
FrieslandCampina shows the trend. The company, with roots in farming since the 1800s, has more than 20,000 employees worldwide. It had been handling Latin American business largely from its New Jersey hub, but saw a chance to boost Latin American sales by working more directly with big retailers in the region, like WalMart and Carrefour. “We needed to be closer to customers and consumers,” says Alonso-Iñarra. But rather than move a large crew to the Gables, they are keeping their office here lean, likely to no more than 20 employees. This cadre will be sufficient, however, to coordinate hires in Latin America and communication with company offices in US, Europe and beyond, says Alonso-Iñarra.
The lean approach has an upside: It helps smaller international players that might have considered it too costly to set up in Coral Gables before, says Perez. Newcomers also are aided by a profusion of co-working centers that let businesses start with a desk and expand as needed. Among recent inquiries for space: A mid-sized Argentine law firm, says Perez.
Indeed, with the new norm of remote workers interconnected by highspeed networks, international business opportunities abound even for the solo entrepreneur. Consider Frank Lora, a Millennial who grew up in South Florida and graduated from Florida International University. He owns TickSites, a four-year-old company that creates and maintains WordPress websites for clients worldwide. Lora runs his four-year-old business from WeWork in the Gables, teaming with software developers in Venezuela, Ukraine, India and other nations to provide services around the clock.
“What I find fascinating is you can literally run an entire company without ever meeting any of your employees, which is what I’m doing,” says Lora, the 29-year-old sole proprietor.
Covid has sped up decentralization, making it easy for many to work from home. That’s prompting debate over the future of offices in general. Lots of employees now want to keep working from home at least part-time, sparking talk of a “hybrid” office configuration where some come daily but others only occasionally. “We won’t know until maybe a year from now what the impact of technology and Covid will be on the size of the headquarters offices,” says Perez.
PortMiami, MIA Rebounding, But Latin America Lagging
Two of South Florida’s international engines were hit especially hard by the pandemic: PortMiami and Miami International Airport. The impact in the first half of 2020 was “nasty,” with many shipments and flights canceled, says Roberts.
But trade began rebounding by summer 2020 and has continued to rise this year. Indeed, in March, the seaport had its second busiest month ever by tonnage, says PortMiami CEO Juan Kuryla. That’s partly because of imports from Asia to supply fast-recovering Florida.
The seaport and airport have different profiles, however. PortMiami tends to handle bigger, heavier, lower-value items like cement and clothes. In dollar terms, it brings in more than it ships out. MIA instead flies lighter, higher-value items like gold, cellphones, medicine and sensitive perishables like salmon and flowers. Its export value typically tops imports.
Yet one big question for both is when Latin America, a top trading partner, will rebound. The region fared among the world’s worst from Covid; confirmed total Covid deaths in Brazil are second only to the US, and Peru is suffering one of the highest death rates. In 2020, the region’s economy shrank seven percent, double the average world decline. And economic growth is projected at just four percent this year, staying below pre-Covid levels at least into 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund. The outlook depends largely on how fast Covid vaccines can be rolled out, Roberts and others say.
International Travel Still in the Doldrums
Slow vaccine rollouts abroad raise questions for international travel, too. MIA depends on international passengers for about half its traffic. Today, domestic US leisure travel is roaring back, but domestic business trips lag, and international business travel has practically stopped since March 2020.
Many executives wonder if Covid and Zoom meetings will take a long-term bite out of international business as well. And if so, what might that mean for hotels in the Gables that rely on international visitors, and for the restaurants, shops, galleries, law firms and others who serve them?
Unfortunately, there’s no quick turnaround in sight for international business travel. Many embassies and consulates that provide visas closed or worked in limited capacities during the pandemic. That’s created a backlog for visa appointments that’s making it harder for non-US entrepreneurs to visit Florida and develop businesses, says Deidre Nero, an immigration lawyer who heads the global affairs division of the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce. Changes in quarantines, lockdowns and testing rules also complicate overseas trips, potentially stranding travelers – at least for now.
“As much as I don’t want to, I’m telling clients here in the US if they don’t have to travel internationally right now, they shouldn’t,” says Nero, who leads Nero Immigration Law in Coral Gables. “It can be very frustrating, costly and time consuming.”
“Keep Earning Your Stripes” To Attract Tech, Finance, and New Business
Instead, what’s hot these days for new business are US domestic tech and finance companies that are relocating to South Florida in what Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and others have dubbed the “Miami Movement.” Many are setting up offices in downtown Miami and Wynwood, but the Gables has mainly benefited from top executives and financiers who are buying luxury homes (or second homes) here.
Enterprise Florida’s Mencia sees opportunities for Coral Gables and other areas to garner more of that migrating business, both directly and indirectly. That’s because the tech-finance moves are sparking buzz globally about South Florida as a good place for companies – not only sun and fun. The state as a whole is increasingly being seen as business-friendly, with low taxes and welcoming officials, and offering high quality of life, from warm weather to diverse culture.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as bullish about Florida as an international center. We’re getting investment leads from places we’ve rarely gotten before, like Finland, Hungary, and New Zealand,” says Mencia. But converting buzz to bucks will require a pro-active approach by the state, cities, and others, he says: “You have to keep earning your stripes every day and finding ways to refine your product.”