“I’m guessing that I’m the only one at this table born in this country,” said Stephen Owens, a native of North Carolina and the president of Swire Properties, when he introduced himself at WORLDCITY’s most recent
monthly CEO Roundtable breakfast. He was right.
Owens’ companions were Cuban-born lawyer Ramon Rasco, chairman of US Century Bank; Brazilian-born and Argentine-bred Nicholas Anderson, president of John Crane Latin America; Chilean Luis Eduardo Riquelme, vice president for North and Central America at LAN Airlines; and South African Bernhard Schutte, CEO of software company DMNI (Ditigal Media Network) based in Fort Lauderdale.
Despite Owens’ homegrown status, the company he heads is anything but parochial. Swire Properties is part of a global behemoth, the Swire Group, with two international headquarters, one in Hong Kong, home to publicly traded Swire Pacific, and another in London, John Swire & Sons, a private holding company.
Founded in 1816 in Liverpool and present in Hong Kong since 1870, the Swire Group today has 136,000 employees working in shipping, airlines, beverages, marine services, road transport, trading, real estate and agriculture across the globe. The group’s crown jewels include Cathay Pacific Airways, China’s Coca Cola operations, vast agricultural holdings in Australia, massive property development in Asia and a prominent North Sea oil service company, not to mention the venerable British tea company, James Finlay & Co. Limited, founded in 1750 with plantations in East Africa, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
In South Florida, Swire Properties, the developer of swanky Brickell Key, is leaving its distinct mark on the
Miami skyline and shoreline. That a Hong Kong and London-based group would establish such a strong presence here led to a lively discussion about what is touted as one of South Florida’s most important comparative advantages: its ethnic and cultural diversity.
From a sleepy backwater, Miami has evolved – in large part due to the influx of Cuban exiles – into a cauldron of entrepreneurial activity. And now it is increasingly a magnet for multinationals. “Diversity,” said Owens, echoing a common refrain, “is Miami’s greatest strength.”
But Schutte, whose software business is booming in South East Asia, southern Africa and other parts of the
world – with the notable exception of Latin America – challenged that conventional wisdom. “When it comes to diversity,” said Schutte, “Miami is way behind other international business hubs. The diversity here consists of Latin Americans and that’s about it.” Schutte said companies in South Florida have barely begun to look at Asia and Africa, and only when they really take an interest in the world beyond Latin America and Europe will diversity really flourish.
“The Asians are not even here yet, but the prospects for Asia doing business in Latin America are huge,” Schutte said. He sees the recent opening of the Malaysia trade office in Miami (see Miami’s Malaysian Connection, p. 24) as just the beginning of Miami’s Asian awakening. Accepting Schutte’s challenge, Owens revealed that the Asians are already present in a big way, at least in Miami’s real estate market.
“Over the past 15 years,” said Owens, “some of the principal owners of the major buildings in the Brickell area of downtown Miami have been Malaysians, Singaporeans and investors from Hong Kong.” Swire is currently working with a Malaysian partner on a major real estate development that has yet to be announced.
“Asians may not be here in terms of numbers or in terms of restaurants – we all know how hard it is to find a good Malaysian curry – but there certainly is an awareness of Miami and real estate investment is often a precursor of other things to come,” Owens added. That may very well be, said Anderson, who runs the Latin American division of British-owned John Crane, a precision manufacturer of mechanical seals for heavy industry, but he maintained “Miami is still heavily biased toward Latin America.” He acknowledged that more than 60 percent of the population was born outside the United States, the highest percentage of any major urban area in the country, but said “85 percent of those people are probably from Latin America.”
And while the number of Asians may increase, every participant at the CEO Roundtable said it is unlikely to shift Miami’s makeup in a significant way any time soon. “It’s a simple question of geography,” said Rasco, the co-founder of US Century Bank. Rasco, however, is not concerned about the origin of Miami’s residents. His company is too busy leveraging the diversity, regardless of its breakdown.
US Century Bank, which focuses on small and medium-sized businesses, is literally banking on the entrepreneurial forces that diversity unleashes in South Florida. “This area attracts people from all over the world. They come here not just to buy a second home but to do business and to open businesses,” he said. “We see that every day.” One sector attracting a lot of new investment at the moment, said Rasco, is healthcare. “We see a lot of loan demand for new healthcare ventures.”
Miami’s diversity is also a direct driver of business for LAN, the successful Chilean-owned airline that is a model of efficiency and profitability. Growing trade with Latin America is boosting LAN’s lucrative cargo operations and Miami’s concentration of corporate regional headquarters is feeding its business travel segment. But the market known within the airline business as VFR, for “visiting family and relatives, is also contributing to LAN’s success. Latin Americans in South Florida are an important component of that market. “As long as people who live here but still have their families in Latin America continue to do well, this will be an important driver of our business,” said Riquelme at LAN.
Although the roundtable participants disputed details of South Florida’s demographics, they agreed on the importance of a diverse community in building and energizing the area’s appeal for businesses. All five participants at this gathering – banker, real estate developer, airline manager, software developer and industrial manufacturer – are clearly the richer because of it. But if diversity is Miami’s biggest strength, then measures to discourage immigration in the U.S. may be its biggest threat. Said Swire’s Owens, the lone U.S.-born participant at the table: “Immigration and the immigrant work ethic are fundamental to this country and it’s critical that we not lose that. And it’s particularly important for Miami because it brings that international energy.”