Global Conversations with: Linda Conlin, President of World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia

Kathleen Quigley, for GPA -- In preparation for the 2012 Philadelphia International Showcase and Philadelphia International Week, Zabeth Teelucksingh of Global Philadelphia Association spoke with Linda Mysliwy Conlin, President of the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia. Linda graciously offered in-depth insight into the WTCGP’s mission of increasing Philadelphia’s economic prominence on a global scale. By providing its members with top of the line services and training, WTCGP represents an invaluable asset to the city and the surrounding region through its world-class economic outlook. As Linda reveals, WTCGP doesn’t just serve the area’s major corporations, but rather the spectrum of Philadelphia’s many businesses with global aspirations:

“I’d like people to know that whatever their business, whether they are exporting or importing, that World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia has the resources to help companies succeed in global markets, and to help attract international investment into the region.”

We’re here to talk to you about yourself and the presence of the organization, globally, in Philadelphia. Could you first speak perhaps to yourself and how you came to be in this role?

Actually, I’m going on my fourth year as President of the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia. Prior to this time, I served in the Bush Administration as Member of the Board and Vice Chair of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Prior to that, I served as an Assistant Secretary for Trade Development at the International Trade Administration at the US Department of Commerce. So, over that ten year period, I had the opportunity to work with many companies and to help them expand their reach in major markets around the world, addressing any barriers that there may be to trade. It really is very natural for me to be able to take that experience and offer it to the many companies in the region- New Jersey as well as Pennsylvania , which is the region the World Trade Center covers, and help these companies succeed in markets around the world.


Would you mind speaking specifically to the areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and what kind of companies and outreach you supervise?

Well, let me first talk about prior to working in Washington for almost a ten year period, and before coming back to the Greater Philadelphia area, my very first job was owning and operating my own small business, and I say that because at heart, I’m very much a small business owner and entrepreneur. And that really helps me, together with my state experience and federal experience, working with Governor Whitman for four years, as well, in the Commerce Department, hopefully provide me with a very helpful perspective on the great satisfaction as well as the challenges of owning your own business domestically as well as globally. I mention that because I learned some of the best life lessons and business lessons in owning and operating a family-owned business with my father.  It was experience that really served me very well as I continue to work with many small and medium-sized businesses in this area that are looking to diversify beyond domestic markets to go into global markets.

Was your family business global, as well?

It was a travel business. I worked with major companies, providing travel assistance as well as leisure travelers, and of course they traveled all over the world. At another time in Washington, I served as Assistant Secretary for Tourism and Marketing, marketing the United States as an international visitor destination. That was a position at the US Department of Commerce, as well. Broadly, within trade, there is trade and tourism, and I have that kind of experience.

Fascinating. Could we go back to talking about New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the kind of companies that you are encouraging and supervising?

As a World Trade Center, we are part of a very important and powerful network of over 300 World Trade Centers in some 96 countries. All of us are focused on providing our member companies with services and key global connections to help expand their global business. Here, the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia is really a regional economic development organization. We cover not only the five counties in south eastern Pennsylvania, but also eight counties in southern New Jersey, so we work with both Pennsylvania and New Jersey companies in helping them to expand their global sales. We look upon ourselves also as a catalyst to spur economic growth through trade.

Specifically right now, are there any topics or objectives that are coming up frequently? Or are you finding any change in patterns in areas that are developing more, or new questions that are arising in that global realm?

Our major challenge is just increasing awareness of the services and programs that we have available to help companies grow their business. When you consider that 95% of the world’s consumers lie beyond our borders, that 85% of growth over the next five years is expected to take place in countries beyond the United States, this represents a very important opportunity for businesses, particularly when we have a struggling domestic economy. So our challenge is really to make sure that companies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are aware of the services available to help them tap into these promising markets. As the WTCGP, we’re part of this global network of World Trade Centers. That’s an important resource to tap into because when you think of it, we can connect our members with members of these World Trade Centers globally. We also serve as the official representative of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in southeastern Pennsylvania, charge with providing technical assistance and trade counseling to companies in southeastern Pennsylvania. A little-known fact is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has the largest trade development program of any state in the United States. The WTCGP is part of a network of ten representatives who work on behalf of the state offering companies trade assistance and trade counseling to help them break into markets globally. Our challenge is making sure that companies are aware of all the services we can provide: individual trade counseling, market research, market strategies, as well as educational programs and conferences, which are everything from market-specific seminars to seminars on export financing and global banking services, to seminars specifically designed for technology companies and life science companies to help them break into new markets. We want to make sure that wealth of information is made available to the companies that could best use these services and information.

And you do a fantastic job of that. Coming up is something that is of interest to us all, and that is the trade showcase and your international week. I know part of that are these trade representatives from all over the world working on behalf of Pennsylvania. We’d love to have your explanation and view on exactly what this is about so that our members and others can find out more.

This is probably one of the most important international business events that takes place in Pennsylvania on an annual basis. Each year, Pennsylvania’s authorized trade representatives, who are positioned in major markets around the world (there are over 20 of them representing over 50 major markets), come to Pennsylvania to meet with pre-scheduled appointments with Pennsylvania companies to explore global business and market opportunities for these companies. Our authorized trade representatives will actually sit down, face-to-face with these companies. They will take a look at their product or service and start the process of designing a results-oriented, international business strategy for these companies. It may be targeting a specific market, it may be finding a distributor or an agent in this particular market for the company, it may be exploring opportunities at trade missions and trade shows for these companies to connect with prospective buyers, distributors, agents, so that they can expand sales in the best markets of opportunity for these companies. It is also simple as “how do you do business in these markets? What are the requirements for doing business in these markets? Is this the appropriate market for your product or service?” All of those questions begin to be addressed through these meetings with authorized trade representatives who are experts on these major markets.

Would you mind telling us what those major markets are?

The major markets are in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America. They’re from South Korea, Brazil, Indonesia, as well as the major European markets. As a result of these kinds of meetings and our trade assistance given to these companies, last year, we helped many of these companies generate a total of $148 million in incremental exports, and those are documented sales that are directly attributable to our helping these companies, together with the authorized trade representatives to break into these markets. One example of that is K’Nex, a popular toy manufacturer. They participated in a trade mission that we led last year to Brazil and Peru. They were able to negotiate and finalize a major sale  that resulted in them sending two container loads of their product to Brazil, which was a major sale. This was quite an accomplishment.

It’s interesting that you mention that Pennsylvania invests much more than many states in this process. Would you mind explaining why that is?

I think it all boils down to leadership and great demand for these services. There is great potential for companies in Pennsylvania to expand globally. It took leadership way back, starting with Governor Tom Ridge continuing to right now with Governor Corbett, who just concluded a very successful mission to Germany and France. All of these leaders, together with the legislature who supported their priorities understood the importance of international trade. It took gubernatorial leadership to develop, under Gov. Ridge, the World Trade PA program, and the leadership of governors after Gov. Ridge, to continue with the program. I’m proud to say Gov. Corbett is supporting a very vibrant World Trade PA program, which includes export promotion, facilitating inward investment, foreign direct investment, as well as expanding traffic and trade through our ports. These are very important components overall of trade. So that’s why I say it takes leadership as well as the talent and ability of the many people that work together to identify and expand business opportunities for Pennsylvania companies. I think there is a recognition that international trade can help generate economic growth and jobs, which are so important in this economy. I’m delighted that this program continues to be supported in some very challenging budget times.

We read in your biography that you’re a linguist and a Francophile, and I know that your middle name is Polish in origin. Would you speak a little to how language plays into your position?

I think it’s very important to learn languages, and at the earliest possible age, because with that will come an appreciation of other peoples and other cultures, and it will contribute to a perception of Americans being interested in other cultures. I was a foreign language major, and probably one of the most defining years of my life was my junior year abroad. I spent a year in Paris. It was there I had an opportunity to not only increase my language skills, but really gain an appreciation for other cultures. It changed my life, and at that point I knew I always wanted to be involved, in some way, in international work. It continued after I graduated, when I did graduate work in French and Russian, and in owning my own travel business for a number of years. Then I eventually worked for the US State Department and the US Information Agency, and then in the International Trade Administration in the US Department of Commerce, and now the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia. It’s really a privilege to be involved in the work I’m in today, and I want to commend the leadership of John Smith, and the leadership and talent of his team in putting together the Global Philadelphia Association. It’s an honor to be part of this wonderful effort, because you realize, as I realize how important it is to strengthen this region’s position in the global economy, as a great place to do business and a great place to visit.

Could you speak to how you see Philadelphia as a global city?

I love answering that question. Through my work in Washington, I’ve had the opportunity to work in destinations around the world, and I’ve seen what some cities do to strengthen their positions as international cities. First and foremost I would say that the Greater Philadelphia region is blessed with so many assets. They’re blessed by geography, infrastructure, and the ability to improve upon that infrastructure. They’re blessed with cultural and historical assets that many cities would dream about. There has to be coupled with this a recognition of these assets, the political will, and the community buy-in to positioning this region as a major international area. Between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we account for over $78 billion in exports. That’s significant, but there is a lot of room to grow. There are major international corporations looking to locate in the Philadelphia region. In terms of trade and investment, there is wonderful opportunity to grow this region. What I’d like to see in the future is the public will, community support, and resources to strengthen Philadelphia’s position as an international region. I should mention our centers of institutional learning. The advancements in life sciences, clean energy, all of those attract people as well as businesses to this area. With acknowledgement and recognition will come revenues that will help provide services for the city, jobs, and with that will come pride. The same things that attract international business here attract US businesses, so we need to pay attention to what are the infrastructure commitments that we can make to strengthen trade coming through our ports. Ten years in the future, my dream would be to see a World Trade Center Building. That would be a gathering place of government organizations, corporations, and companies, all gathered to focus on international business in this region. Symbolically, it would be a statement that we are part of a global community and a global economy.

Where are your favorite places to take visitors from all over the world?

We do receive a lot of delegations. One that comes to mind is the delegation from Uruguay last year. They were coming to Philadelphia to expand imports of Uruguayan meat and citrus products. We were able to arrange a dinner where members of the delegation would meet with leading restaurateurs, as well as food wholesalers, distributors, and I believe we took a major step forward expanding the overall bilateral relationship between Uruguay and this region. Philadelphia is blessed with so many wonderful restaurants, and since my return to the region I’m still trying to sample more of them, so I can’t recommend a favorite one. Something that is near and dear to my heart is making sure visitors have a sense that this city’s place in the history of the United States, and making sure they go to places like Independence Hall, the Constitution Center, because I believe those will distinguish this place from others in the United States. One thing I’ll always point to is the history of Philadelphia and the United States.

Could you tell us how your Board is composed? It seems like a very eclectic group of people, and I was wondering how that came about.

We were founded in 2002, so we’re just about ten years old.  We were part of the Delaware River Port Authority, and then individuals had the vision to conceive of a World Trade Center. So our Board is comprised of individuals who are involved in global business, or who have a commitment to expanding global trade in the region. Our Chairman, Tony Bartolomeo, is President of a very successful engineering firm, Pennoni Associates, who are breaking new ground in terms of global infrastructure and other projects, but he also appreciates how global trade contributes to economic growth and jobs. I would say that’s the common denominator of all of our Board members.

Can you talk about the importance of China to our region?

China is a very important market for many companies in the region. It is our second largest market, recently overtaking Mexico. We provide, in addition to our one on one trade counseling, educational seminars and conferences on a variety of markets, including China. We also have special programs, like our China CEOs Operations Club. It is comprised of companies who are doing business with China or who have operations in China. These companies will meet during the year, covering a variety of topics, everything from global banking issues, to intellectual property issues, labor issues, and legal issues. They’ll hear from subject matter experts, and they’ll also have an opportunity to discuss issues of concern with members doing business in China, and they’ll have an opportunity to learn from one another and share best practices. Collectively, we at the WTCGP have experience in 75 markets globally. That is a tremendous amount of experience we can offer. We hope to replicate the success of the ‘China Club’ in other markets. It is undeniably one of most popular programs because it allows companies to take advantage of sharing their own experiences in the market with others so they can learn from one another, and identify new opportunities for doing business in China. We’re always working with an eye to how best to deliver information to people, recognizing that many of the companies with whom we work are small to medium sized businesses, and time is of the essence. In the future, what we will hopefully be doing is introducing a program that focuses on mentoring, where qualified companies will be able to learn from other companies and professionals who are experts in legal matters in a particular market, global banking, and we will gather these individuals and companies together to address the challenges that companies are having in particular markets.

Linda, you’ve been so gracious with your time as chair of Global Philadelphia Association’s International Month Committee. Can you talk about what you think this will do for our city?

It’s so important for Philadelphia to be recognized for the tremendous amount of assets that it has, that already make it an international city. It’s shedding a light on the wealth of events and cultural attractions and dining experiences that truly make this an international city. I’m pleased to be involved in the effort to enhance awareness of the diversity of events taking place in Philadelphia.

Interview by Kathleen Quigley for Global Philadelphia Association. This text has been condensed from its orginal source.