Q&A: ProColombia Celebrates Another Successful Event Promoting Business in Colombia with $36 Million USD in Sales
For nearly 25 years, ProColombia has been promoting business in and outside of Colombia. Formerly known as Proexport, the government agency rebranded in 2014 to better align itself with the larger mission.
“As a result of the progressive increase of its functions, its expansion and delivery of results, Proexport has become ProColombia,” said the agency in 2014 announcement. “ProColombia is the response to the progressive increase of organizational functions, its expansion, and its results: a survey of Colombian and foreign entrepreneurs concluded that the name of Proexport did not reflect its reach (in addition to exports, it also includes investment and tourism) nor convey its link to Colombia.”
To further discuss how the agency operates in the United States, Finance Colombia Executive Editor Loren Moss recently sat down with Luis German Restrepo of ProColombia. He talks about the importance of the United States as a trading partner, how foreign firms can enter the Colombian market, and the various services offered by ProColombia.
Finance Colombia: So, Mr. Restrepo, for the United States. Can you tell me a little bit about your role there?
Luis German Restrepo: ProColombia is the entity in charge of promoting four things for Colombia. We are promoting exports to the world, investment, tourism — international tourists coming into Colombia — and the image of Colombia abroad. So those are our four core businesses.
I am the director for the U.S. office. We have offices in Miami, Washington, and New York, and we have reps working out of Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Austin, in Austin, Texas.
Finance Colombia: Very impressive. I did not realize that you had such a large footprint in the United States. I also know that you guys recently had an event promoting Colombia. How did it go? Are there any successes that you can announce from that event?
Luis German Restrepo: Yes. Our 65th Matchmaking Forum, one of the services that we provide to both buyers and explorers, had somewhere around 106 Colombian exporters. This time it was focused on the IT service industry, and we had somewhere around 86 buyers from Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico as well as 60 investors from the United States. Throughout two days, we had more than 1,300 meetings in total, and we had sales reported for more than $36 million USD.
Finance Colombia: Wow. Impressive. Very impressive. How important is the United States as a trading partner for Colombia?
Luis German Restrepo: Well, the U.S. is our number-one trading partner, today Colombia is exporting almost 29% of our total exports to the U.S., Florida being our number one port of entry — not necessarily that the market is in Florida, but it’s the port of entry. As I said, we have markets and offices throughout the U.S. because different products require different services.
The products that we sell in Texas are not necessarily the same ones that we sell in Los Angeles or in New York. Therefore, we specialize in all of the different sub-sectors so that we can provide the right product to the right market.
Finance Colombia: And how important is the United States as a source of foreign direct investment for Colombia?
Luis German Restrepo: Also number one on our list. Just this office in 2016 will be reporting somewhere around $650 million USD worth of investment in Colombia. And again, that’s just this office, but it is definitely our number-one partner in investment.
Investment and exports go hand-in-hand, and also tourism, because some of our investments are coming, for example, into the tourism industry. So we believe that there’s a connection between investment, exports, and tourism, and they all work together somehow, as to the U.S. market.
Finance Colombia: It’s very visible here on the ground in Colombia. The growth and the footprints of a lot of the major global brands, and even high-end business and luxury travel that are opening in places like Bogotá where you have the W that opened, you have Four Seasons. Then here in Medellin some new things are being built.
You also mentioned the exports. Colombia and the United States signed a free-trade agreement a few years ago, but it seems that it’s been difficult for some of the Colombian companies to begin to take advantage of that. What have been the challenges for Colombian companies to export into the US? Why is it that the numbers… as far as exports going from Colombia into the U.S. have maybe not been as high as some people expected? What are the roadblocks in the way, and what’s being done to remove those roadblocks?
Luis German Restrepo: That is definitely a very important question, and I would start by saying this first: Colombia had a trade agreement with the U.S. more than four years ago. We had the ADFA, then the ADFADEA which basically gave us that venue, that highway to bring products into the US. So I try to compare the whole of the trade agreement, because we did benefit from those duty-free products coming into the U.S. That’s number one.
Number two, Colombia’s local economy has been strong for the past 10 years. Diversifying the portfolio of clients for our exporters is one of our biggest challenges because there is a local economy, a very strong local economy, and you know, it’s faring well and some just don’t change anything. They want to keep that local market a strong local market. So that is why the challenge to diversify that portfolio more is what ProColombia is here for, and we try to show those exporters the benefits of doing business, not just to the U.S. but to all of our 28 offices that we have throughout the world.
Finance Colombia: If you have a business — for the SMEs, for the small and medium-sized enterprises — in Colombia that wants to look at the U.S. as a market, what services does ProColombia offer and how would they go about taking advantage of those services?
Luis German Restrepo: Our services are designed not only for the SMEs — the small and medium-sized companies — but for the large manufacturers as well because we can customize our services to the different needs.
Basically, an exporter that goes to ProColombia will look at us as their international department, as the “branding” of their products abroad. We have the ability to establish a relationship with buyers and various methods. Matchmaking Forums accompany all the exporters all the way so that they can sit down and finish their business deals with buyers.
So our portfolio of services is getting very dynamic. We can help all the exporters at the different stages where they are, depending on what markets they want to see, what markets they’re planning to enter, we can help them with a specific service custom-made for them.
Finance Colombia: And what about people in United States — either companies or institutional investors — that want to look at Colombia as a new market or as a base for operations? Maybe expanding operations or making Colombia their hub for South American operations? Are there services that ProColombia offers to U.S. entities that want to look at Colombia?
Luis German Restrepo: Most definitely. We are working with those companies that want to establish and invest in Colombia, not only because we know that there’s a local market — a very strong local market — but we have signed agreements with more than 13 countries so that they can export that product abroad. So there is an interest from corporations establishing in Colombia.
Finance Colombia: If a U.S. company was looking to buy products or services — or to find out about an upcoming trade event — or to contact you to avail themselves of your services, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with ProColombia?
Luis German Restrepo: Yes. Since we are working with many of our sectors directly, we have a marketing department that is constantly talking and sending information — technical information on the different sectors — to our clients, and that’s one way of getting in contact with them.
Of course, our normal webpages and so on, but we are also working directly with exporters to identify those specific buyers that are more apt and we help them to establish that relationship and do the marketing campaigns around those specific niches.