Business Monday

My View: Local consuls are bridges to foreign economies

Cami Hofstadter, Ph.D., is a retired university administrator and lecturer in Miami, where she also served as a consul for many years.
Cami Hofstadter, Ph.D., is a retired university administrator and lecturer in Miami, where she also served as a consul for many years.

A year ago, the local consul of one of our major trading partners told me how often he hears from businessmen in South Florida saying something like, “We’d like to expand into your country, but we don’t know how.” He went on to say a statement like that, or versions of it, shows the confusion surrounding the foreign consuls as trade facilitators.

“At the very least, they should do their homework before contacting us,” he said.

Generally proud over their time-honored role as bridges to the economies in their own countries, these officials do, indeed, tend to expect a certain amount of basic knowledge from potential business interests. In Miami-Dade and Broward alone, more than 80 countries, ranging from Antigua and Barbuda to Venezuela, have official representation that’s capable of assisting in the development of commercial ties with their country — if only their role isn’t misunderstood.

Here are three basic ways for all business people to do their “homework” before presenting their query at a consulate (that being the generic term of the office):

1. Know the consulate. Make a point of learning how your target country operates locally. Is the office headed by a career officer or is someone serving another sovereign nation in an honorary role? This dual division of consuls doesn’t mean one is inferior to the other, but it may determine the outcome of each situation.

For instance, when principals of a medical supply company wanted to explore the market in a foreign target country they knew to engage a local honorary consul whose “civilian” business complemented their needs. Career officers, who by nature are not permitted to engage in private business where they are posted, often have to be “educated” about the industry before they can be as useful as an already knowledgeable honorary consul.

In the old days, it was commonly assumed that all honorary consuls represented only small nations with small economies, but today, this is no longer true. For instance, Canada, our No. 1 trading partner, has greatly expanded its network of honorary consuls and — moreover — specifically tasks them with trade matters.

A look into the career-honorary split may also reveal other useful information, such as staff with special skills or connections. And don’t make the mistake of referring to career consuls as “real” or “professional” (as opposed to imaginary or unprofessional?), lest you run the risk of being considered ignorant and not taken seriously.

2. Understand consular functions. Historically, the traditional duties of consuls fell mainly in industries like shipping and aviation, but an international treaty broadens the charge to “the development of commercial, economic, cultural and scientific relations” between the consuls’ countries and the communities where they are authorized to function. This has led to an expansion into such fast-evolving areas as investment banking, information technology and biotechnology, to mention just a few areas of consular expertise.

Homework should also include an understanding of the geographic reach of a local consulate. For instance, some consuls in Miami have jurisdiction in only Miami-Dade and Broward whereas others cover all of South Florida, or the whole state, and in some instances even other states. Make sure inquiries aren’t dead on arrival in the wrong office.

Although a consul’s representation duties are not among the formal functions fine-tuned by time and law, such social venues as athletic and high-society events can often be the beginning of a desired business relationship. How important, then, that the tool box of the business community also include a modicum of knowledge about consular titles and ranks.

3. Consulates as site-specific bridges. In the old days, top-down management of the South Florida consuls meant that trade inquiries were often best directed to the commercial section of the Washington embassy. Whether it’s due to fiscal austerity or changing leadership styles, or even the creation of new economic zones, the fact is that less monitoring from above has led to expanded authority for local consuls. As these officials become site-specific decision-makers, the cumbersome process of dealing with an embassy is avoided.

Further evidence of the site-specific approach is the plethora of print and on-line publications that focus on different world regions and binational leads, while also providing useful contact information for readers (e.g. names and numbers for local consuls). Atlanta is one of the new leaders in this field.

Based on the old truism that knowledge breeds the confidence and know-how needed to approach a consul, the above nuggets will give you a better chance of being heard than someone not bothering with any kind of pre-contact homework.

As a lifelong internationalist, and former educator (associated with three local universities), I find it particularly ironic that the business of international education — and yes, universities are a serious part of the global economy — commonly ignores the “consular component” of their teaching objectives. For now, self-learning is the obvious answer to this dilemma.

Cami Hofstadter, Ph.D., is a retired university administrator and lecturer in Miami, where she also served as a consul for many years. She has written on the legal status of consuls and diplomats, and is the author of a practical reference book, “The Foreign Consuls Among Us: Local Bridges to Globalism” (2d. ed., 2015).