Business Monday

Spanish investment and trade ties with Florida offer business gold

Arriving in South Florida, visitors from Spain might feel as if they’ve never left the Iberian Peninsula.

They can arrive aboard the Spanish airline Iberia, drive on a highway that a Spanish company built, stay at a hotel that Spanish investors own, take in a flamenco show, and finish the day with tapas and wine from Spain at their choice of Spanish restaurants.

If they need money, they could stop by the Miami branch of Banco Sabadell or another Spanish-owned bank, pick up the El País newspaper that is printed locally by the Miami Herald Media Co., or shop for clothes at Spanish stores such as Mango and Zara. And if they were too busy to pack gifts for their South Florida friends, they could pick up espadrilles, painted ceramic plates and traditional polvorones cookies at local stores such as Brisa de España or Delicias de España.

If the baguette they crunch down on in their sandwich from 100 Montaditos has the taste of home, that’s because the bread for all the Spanish chain’s local restaurants is made in Spain, frozen, sent to PortMiami in a container ship and baked just before serving.

South Florida has become a magnet for Spanish investment and trade. Not only does the region have cultural and language ties to Spain, but its advantageous location allows Spanish companies to establish an outpost here for business in both the United States and Latin America.

The ties between Spain and La Florida endure 500 years after Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first made landfall just north of present-day St. Augustine in April 1513.

And as Spain moves out of its recession, the investment and trade links between the two are likely to expand and strengthen, said those who promote business with Spain.

“Our goal this year is to make the link between the 500th anniversary and business with Spain,’’ said Mario F. Buisán, Spain’s trade commissioner in Miami. Both the trade commissioner and Spain-U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Miami are taking part in networking events and business conferences to tout Spanish companies and products.

The chamber, one of the largest binational chambers in the Southeast United States, has 500 members and maintains a database of 7,000 companies interested in its networking and other events.

Buisán said about 40 percent of the Spanish companies that have planted the flag in the United States are in Florida, and of those, about 80 percent are in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

An estimated 350 to 400 Spain-affiliated companies are registered to operate in Florida. They include insurance giant Mapfre, Eulen America, whose workers do contracted passenger service jobs at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport; Areas USA, the food and retail concessionaire at service plazas along the Florida turnpike; and the U.S. affiliates of Spanish construction companies OHL, FCC, Dragados and Global Via Infraestructura.

“But we know there are more companies with links to Spain,’’ says Javier Pérez-Palencia, executive director of the Spain-U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Miami.

The reason? Spanish professionals, who arrive in Florida, sometimes set up and incorporate new companies that are counted the same as any other Florida business, he said.


While Spain isn’t the largest foreign investor in Florida — the United Kingdom and Canada were in terms of jobs generated in 2010, according to Enterprise Florida — anecdotally, there seems to be an uptick in interest on the part of Spanish companies and professionals.

“It’s amazing how many people are passing through this office looking for opportunities,’’ said Pérez-Palencia. “A lot of people are coming here and trying to work but visas can be a problem,’’ he said. That’s especially true because H1B visas, which permit U.S. companies to temporarily employ foreign workers in technical and specialized fields, tend to go so quickly.

It isn’t just big companies that are looking beyond Spain’s borders.

“Once the crisis hit in Europe, we began to see the boom of smaller companies,’’ said lawyer Yosbel A. Ibarra, who is with Greenberg Traurig’s Latin America/Iberia practice. “A natural place for them to enter the U.S. market is South Florida.”

In recent years, he said, Spanish investors also have looked to Texas, Panama, New York and Chicago for expansion.

“There’s been an acceleration [in investment] since 2005” — first because the Spanish economy was doing well and then because it wasn’t, said Buisán. “Spain is one of the great foreign investors in Florida.’’

As the Spanish economy boomed from the late 1990s to 2007, companies there looked abroad for expansion opportunities.

“There was a maturity in the Spanish market, and they began to see the market as the world market,’’ said Buisán.


But in recent years, Spain’s housing bubble burst, the country suffered through a double-dip recession, unemployment soared, and the EU had to bail out Spain’s ailing banks. With a lingering economic slowdown in Europe, the European market was no longer as promising, either. Companies and individuals with the wherewithal went searching for greener pastures. Florida beckoned.

“It was a question of survival. They needed to look beyond Europe,’’ said Buisán.

Antonio Peña, a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig who has worked on deals involving Spanish companies, agrees.

“Spain has very sophisticated businesses. Their investments are usually strategic,’’ said Peña. “In many cases they are bringing in know-how to make U.S. products better. We see them testing the waters in South Florida with the idea of expanding to the rest of the United States or Latin America.’’

One area where Spanish companies have been most active is engineering and construction.

FCC (Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas), one of Spain’s largest construction companies, announced last spring that it was setting up its North American headquarters in Miami. The company built the I-95 express lanes in Miami-Dade.

Through acquisition of three Florida companies, Spain’s OHL Group also has become a major force in Sunshine State construction, working on everything from road projects to condominium, hospital and educational construction.

And the U.S. subsidiary of Spain’s ACS group is working on the massive I-595 corridor improvement project in Broward County. Fort Lauderdale-based Dragados USA, a subsidiary of Spain’s Dragados, has worked on the North Terminal at Miami International Airport and also on the I-595 improvement project.

While the Spanish recession may have encouraged large companies to seek business beyond Spain’s borders, it has taken a toll on trade between the United States and Spain.

As the global economic crisis took hold in 2008, Spanish exports to the United States began to fall. But last year, as a percentage of total U.S. exports, products from Spain were at a higher level than before the crisis.

Spain sent $11.8 billion worth of merchandise to the United States last year, a 7 percent increase over 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. It ranked as the 11th most important source of merchandise imported into the United States.

Spanish trade with Florida also fell off during the recession, but in recent months, the Spanish economy has shown some signs of perking up and trade with the Miami Customs District, which includes airports and seaports from Palm Beach to Key West, was up slightly during the first half of this year.

That’s especially true for imports. During the first seven months of 2013, Spanish imports through the Miami district reached $201.5 million, compared to $187.6 million during the first seven months of 2012, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by WorldCity, a Coral Gables media and data research company.

Among the biggest sectors are tiles and food and wine, said Buisán, who promotes Spanish investment and trade ties in a region that includes Florida as well as Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma.

But sometimes Spanish products destined for Florida arrive via New York or other ports, he said.

“It’s not easy to reach a perfect conclusion about trade, but with more Spanish firms here, it’s very likely there’ll be an increase in the flow of trade in the next few years,’’ Buisán said.


Angel Santibañez, proprietor of Brisa de España in Doral, is doing his part when it comes to trade.

“Nearly everything you see is imported. About the only things that aren’t are the Coca Cola and the Pepsi Cola, and we’re working on getting people to have wine with their meals,” said Santibañez as he looked around his business — a combination Spanish store, bakery, sandwich shop and restaurant in Doral.

Brisa de España is packed with paella pans in sizes from four to 120 servings; Spanish hair products; creams and black Magno soap; plates for serving olives; Valor chocolate bars; canned white asparagus; jarred baby eels; frozen bacalao; crystal wine decanters; cruets for oil and vinegar; children’s flamenco dresses; Colocao powdered chocolate mix; a wide variety of olive oils; all manner of canned and jarred olives and sardines; and even fresh fish that arrive on overnight flights from Spain.

Imported hams, including the coveted pata negra produced from pigs that graze on acorns and costing $95.50 per pound, hang from the ceiling. And Santibañez already has started to receive shipments of some 30 varieties of turrón, the nougat candy made from almonds and honey that is a Christmas staple.

He works with 10 to 12 food distributors who supply his wine, ham, cheese, chorizo, beauty supplies and some other products. But Santibañez imports his ceramics, crackers and cookies, olive oil, turrones, chocolate, lentils, fava beans and other dry goods directly. The varied products are put together by a consolidator in Valencia and he brings them in by the container-load.

Santibañez arrived in the United States 45 years ago and learned the food and wine business when he worked as a waiter at the Oak Room of New York’s Plaza Hotel. He came to Miami in 1988 to semi-retire and ran a gas station in Pembroke Pines before opening Brisa de España 10 years ago.

“I want to give people a little bit of Spain in Miami,’’ he said.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 20,000 Spanish citizens live in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

About 20 percent of Santibañez’s customers are Spaniards. The majority — about 75 percent — are Venezuelan, which is no surprise because Doral has a large Venezuelan population. And they’re very familiar with Spanish products and food traditions, he said.

“All Latin Americans are children of Spain,’’ said Santibañez.

But he added, “I’d like to see more Americans’’ — even though some could use a few lessons on Spanish food. “Sometimes they come in thinking they’re going to get a burrito,’’ he said.

Santibañez’s sales are around $2 million annually — down from the $3 million of his peak year of 2007 — but Santibañez said as the economy picks up, business is starting to grow again.


Imports of glazed ceramic tiles also have started to pick up this year. In the first seven months of the year, tile imports — the second most important Spanish import through the Miami district after perfumes — increased from $10.78 million in the first seven months of 2012 to $12.72 million, according to World City.

Stephen Musolino, Jr., manager of Casa Linda, a Doral tile and marble distributor, said his Spanish tile business is showing signs of perking up. Musolino’s 81-year-old father, Stephen, is one of the Doral tile district pioneers and was the first tile distributor to bring in ceramic tiles from Europe.

Currently about 25 percent of the tiles Casa Linda stocks are from Spain. Musolino brings in 30 to 40 containers of Spanish wall tiles annually. Each container holds around 15,000 feet of tile, he said.

While that may seem like a lot of Spanish tile, Musolino said he used to stock far more. Taste in tiles have changed. Hand-painted terracotta tiles from Spain that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s are no longer in vogue, he said, and customers tend to favor the sleek look of larger tiles in neutral colors. But the big change is China’s role in the tile trade. China is now his top tile supplier.

During the economic crisis, Musolino said, Spanish porcelain tile manufacturers took their technology and designs to China where they could produce at a fraction of the cost. Now the Spanish and Chinese products are similar, but Spanish-style floor tiles made in China cost only about one-third as much, he said.

Spanish wall tiles are still holding their own against Chinese versions, Musolino said. Casa Linda also imports decorative bathroom tiles and non-slip patio tiles from Spain.

Some customers still prefer Italian and Spanish floor tiles, Musolino said, but in general, Florida buyers are very price-conscious.

Now Spanish tile makers are trying to win back the U.S. market. “They’re getting more competitive to accommodate the changing market,’’ he said. As a result, Musolino will be buying more Spanish tiles this year.


Wine is a growing segment of U.S.-Spain trade. During the first seven months of 2013, U.S. imports of Spanish wines were up 8.4 percent to $194.4 million, making wine the fourth most significant U.S. import from Spain.

In the Miami district, wine also ranked as the fourth most important import, increasing from $8.8 million in the first seven months of 2012 to $11.8 million in the similar time frame this year.

Miami-based VinAmericas, which represents 35 boutique family-owned wineries, started with a portfolio exclusively dedicated to Spanish wines. It still represents some 30 Spanish wine labels but it has expanded to handle wines from France, Portugal, Italy and Argentina and now serves distributors and retailers in 22 states.

On the smaller end of the Spanish wine spectrum is Monica Casas, president of WOW (World of Wines), a Doral wine importer and distributor.

To supplement her wine portfolio from South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia, and Italy, she is the Florida business reprentative for wine from Bodega La Remediadora under the La Villa Real brand and from Bodega Centro Españolas under her exclusive Aldoba label. Both wineries are in Spain’s La Mancha region.

Casas, who is from Argentina, began traveling in 2010 to identify family-run boutique wineries to represent and last year was WOW’s first full year of operation. Now most of her sales are to restaurants in South Florida and Tampa, but she’s also started to make inroads at resorts in the Caribbean.

Casas said she’s finding the world of Spanish wine highly competitive.

“The Spanish wine market is very old and there are a lot of established brands. People tend to choose the well-known brands,’’ she said. “We’re babies at this.’’

To break into the market, Casas said, she chose some good Spanish wines that are available at reasonable prices ($6 to $25 wholesale) and does a lot of tasting and social events to get their names before the public. At this point, Casas, said she is importing just a half container-load of Spanish wine at a time.

Sometimes a company that begins as an importer ends up as an investor.

That was the case for Elore Enterprises, which makes Quijote Spanish-style chorizo sausages in a Miami Gardens factory.

Elore began by importing sausages from Spain in 1997, started manufacturing locally in 2004 and inaugurated a new plant in Miami Gardens in 2009, said Philippe Pinel, executive vice president of Elore Enterprises and Wines from Spain.

“The volume of sales had grown to the point where it was logical to have our own factory in Florida,’’ said Pinel in a telephone interview from Spain. “Florida is a very strategic location for us.”

Quijote chorizos are now sold in Publix, Winn-Dixie, Sedano’s and Presidente supermarkets, are available at restaurants, Costco and BJ’s and are exported to Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, and Puerto Rico. And Elore still imports Palacios chorizos from Spain.

Two years ago, Wines from Spain, a Spanish wine importer, and Amplus Select, a wine and artisanal beer distributor that is located next to the chorizo factory, were added to the mix, said Pinel. Amplus distributes TRUS wines and Nivarius white wines from Rioja, as well as Ceriux beer to Florida stores and restaurants.

While distribution of food and wine has been a traditional link between Spain and Florida, more recently Spanish Internet and tech companies and Spanish banks have found Florida fertile territory. Transactions between Spanish and U.S. companies also give the legal industry a boost.

Greenberg Traurig, for example, was the transaction counsel for MasterCard in a 2011 joint venture with Spain’s Telefónica that allows Movistar customers in 12 Latin American markets to use their mobile phones to pay bills, make money transfers and access other financial services.

Peña, of Greenberg Traurig, also served as interim general counsel for the joint venture, whose brand name is Wanda.

Spanish banks with a presence in Florida include Sabadell United, International Finance Bank, Santander, BBVA, and Caixanova Bank. Grupo Banco Popular Español, one of the largest banking groups in Spain, is the parent company of TotalBank, and City National Bank’s Spanish parent, Bankia, is in the process of selling it to Chile’s Banco de Crédito e Inversiones.

To weather Spain’s crisis, Spanish companies have become more international. As the Spanish economy slowly improves, Pérez-Palencia said, that will only serve to strengthen business relationships with Florida.

During the second quarter, the pace of Spain’s economic contraction slowed and economic growth of .7 percent is predicted for next year — even though unemployment remains stubbornly high at 26 percent.

For Spanish companies with big dreams, expansion to Latin America and the United States has been the logical choice.

“A very high percentage will remain here’’ — even after the Spanish economy shifts, said Pérez-Palencia. “In some cases, the new market has become the big one.’’