Gearing up Seattle to compete in the international game

The founder and leader of the Trade Development Alliance tells the story of this pivotal organization, and outlines tasks that remain to make Seattle fully competitive internationally.

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Bill Stafford, Seattle's world citizen

The founder and leader of the Trade Development Alliance tells the story of this pivotal organization, and outlines tasks that remain to make Seattle fully competitive internationally.

Editor's note: One of the most influential figures in Seattle during the past 30 years has been Bill Stafford, who is stepping down as head of the Trade Development Alliance next June. By force of personality, good cheer, and high energy, Stafford convinced many Seattle mayors to get active in national organizations and learn from other cities. And he did the same thing in encouraging the governmental, labor, and business leaders to position the city in the international competition for trade, ideas, and visibility. The many inter-city visits that Stafford put together and tour-guided not only put Seattle on the map and learned from the most advanced city-regions; they were also great bonding experiences as these leaders traveled, wined, and dined together. What follows is Stafford's summing up, in the form, slightly edited, of the letter he sent to his board late last month.

Twenty years ago, George Duff called to say a new organization was being created. The organization was to be a partnership between the Port of Seattle, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which George then headed, and organized labor. George said a study of organizations in the Seattle area found that none was promoting our region’s international business interests.

George observed that the world economy was changing and realized that our area had to become better organized. He told me, “Only a few metros Seattle’s size would receive an international franchise and I want ours to be one of them.”

George wanted the City of Seattle’s participation in this new organization, and someone like me, then working for the city, to head it up. He said it was a political management job since the board would be composed of leaders from business, governments, and labor. He observed that if the director knew the politics of Singapore but did not understand the politics of Seattle, he or she would not survive the job.

It has been a fascinating 20 years since I took that job. We have seen significant change in the world and equally major change in our area. It has been a tremendous educational experience for me — an opportunity to invent and be creative and to meet a vast number of interesting people from around the world and contribute to our region’s economic competitiveness.

The time has come to pass the torch to the next generation. I will retire on June 30 after our 20th anniversary event. This will allow sufficient time to prepare a transition. It is also recognition that budgets for organizations are becoming stressed and you do not want an organization to become top heavy.

The challenge George and the original board assigned me was to create the Trade Development Alliance as the Chamber's global-business arm, and to institutionalize it. The purpose was to better coordinate our local international actitivities and to promote and brand our area in international markets. Since there were no examples in the United States, Amsterdam became our model.

How a highly fragmented metropolitan region competes in a global economy is one of the most important challenges confronting our country. Success requires that local governments, education, labor, and business institutions understand and pursue their common interests. Success requires cooperation, partnerships, and coordination. One of the most important functions of the Trade Alliance has been to develop a more internationally sophisticated local leadership.

Our country, state, and region have become smug since WWII. The global competition for jobs and economic success becomes fiercer every year, but our policies and institutions are slow to change. The public is now recognizing that our country exists in a different international environment. However, recent polls have seen a major shift in public opinion on the value of trade, as reflected in growing support for protectionism.

America still needs a proactive trade promotion program. Other societies have different values, and the activist role of government in the economy is different. We have philosophical debates on the role of government while the Visigoths approach Fremont. As an example, search for “C919” in Bing and see the future aviation competitor.

So how have we done, and what am I proud of? First on my list is the evolution of the Trade Alliance to cover our complicated metro. Organizing marketing missions where all three Ports present our region as a logistics center has been satisfying. By working cooperatively with other organizations, we’ve integrated the marketing of all our international business interests including goods and services, ports, international education, tourism, and foreign investment. We professionalized the management of inbound business delegations and VIPs, and thereby allowed access by smaller companies.

We became an international press center of our State Department and a Private Sector Liaison office of the World Bank. We became trusted enough to manage VIP visits for Boeing. We gave out over 30,000 marketing kits, raising our profile from Bakhcisaray in the Crimea to Helsinki, from San Paulo to Christchurch and from South Africa to Abu Dhabi.

The Trade Alliance has developed many international agreements from the Confederation of Indian Industry to the Shanghai Chamber. We provide administrative support to the Washington State China Relations Council. We have partnered with virtually every local international organization and assisted with the APEC leaders meeting and the WTO meeting. We have assisted or managed a number of head of state visits. The Prosperity Partnership evolved from the Barcelona Study Mission. The Benchmarking Consortium that grew out of that Barcelona visit was a suggestion from our staff.

We took risks such as organizing the first business mission from the US to Vietnam, before there were official relations. We brought a business delegation to Northern Ireland at the request of the British and American governments preceding the President Clinton visit.

We also took care of the basics. Sam Kaplan developed a great web site. We created a catalogue of locally made gifts to give  international visitors. We have an international journalist reference guide and materials in 18 languages. We assisted sister cities, ethnic chambers, and other international organizations with their programs and visitors. We kept a small staff and used our connections to be efficient. We organized a database that allows matching of countries and local business. The Trade Alliance Partnership has been recognized many times over the years.

Recently, the Brookings Institute advised the Obama administration on the National Export Initiative, highlighting TDA as a way to organize at the Metro level. In her book, World Class, Harvard’s Rosa Beth Moss Kantar cited the Trade Alliance as the national model. TDA has received awards from the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, the National League of Cities and other organizations. Michael Porter of MIT recommended to Bogotá that they model their international promotion efforts on the Trade Alliance. Christchurch NZ, Spokane, San Francisco, and others have copied us.

What I enjoyed most was organizing the program for the International Study Missions that furthered the education of our community leadership. It was a challenge to arrange memorable experiences. Amsterdam’s presentation of their promotion agency took place in the room where the decision was made to settle New York City. Stockholm and Microsoft recreated a complete Nobel dinner and entertainment, with male choir and marching waiters, at the same site where the Nobel dinner is given each year. Boeing assisted with a dinner in the Banqueting House at Whitehall Place, a room designed by Inigo Jones, and from where King Charles I was executed. The chairman of British Airways was the speaker.

In Bristol we had dinner in the refurbished dining room on the historic Brunel ship, SS Great Britain, with the Bishop of the Bristol area speaking. The governor of Brandenburg made a presentation while we stood around the negotiating table where the Potsdam Conference took place. We’ve had a presentation at the Sydney Opera House, a tour of the second largest mosque in the world in Abu Dhabi, dinner in the bakery of a Russian fortress on an island off Helsinki with the former Prime Minister of Finland. Erwin Rommel Jr., the mayor of Stuttgart, spoke to the first study mission delegation about the challenge to Germany of integrating minorities into its society.

It has been fun to mix history, education, and great speakers to help us learn what makes cities successful. These trips were again inspired by George Duff and are one of the most valuable leadership tools for our region.

Challenges remain for the next generation of leaders. A successful economy should be the hub of local public policy and not just an afterthought. We cannot make current decisions based on past experience. Decisions are being made on the allocation of resources to deal with the result of the economic condition, not to invest in changing our condition. Many jobs and industries will not return. We must be more strategic. For example, damaging the University of Washington and Washington State University is not in our interest and reflects poor leadership.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Finland lost a major trading partner and 40 percent of its national budget. The prime minister who rebuilt Finland’s economy after this near collapse spoke during the Helsinki Study Mission. He cut all programs more than 40 percent to increase funding for education and research. He took a strategic approach.

Finally, none of our successes would have been possible without great support and collaborators. Sam Kaplan has been the rock for over 15 years. Sara Robertson, Ellen Wohl and Joyce Noonan helped craft the organization followed by many young talented people who were all hired away when they were noticed. Lise Fitzpatrick, Jenny Steen, Kristi Beattie, Lilli Hein, and Neepaporn "A" Boungjaktha are only few of those who contributed to the growth of the organization. Samantha Paxton, Allison Peterson and Thaihang Vu are the current talented team.

There are also many mentors and board members who contributed over long periods who need to be thanked. In the early years these included Gary Severson, Paige Miller, Joe Masterson, Shan Mullin, David Tang, Stan Savage, and Paul Barden. Jan Drago, Bob Watt, Nancy Anderson, Laura Peterson, Ken Kirkpatrick, and Scott Jackson have all made major commitments of time and advice. Bill Glassford was there from the beginning.

This Seattle region is a special place. It has been exciting to be involved, from attending the organizing meeting of CHECC (Choose and Effective City Council) in the mid-1960s to working for three great mayors and having a hand in everything from redeveloping our zoo to working with our Congressional delegation.

I strongly believe our efforts have been part of creating our region’s international reputation. I have spent much of my recent career implementing George Duff’s ideas from intercity trips to leadership conferences to Trade Alliances. He still sits in the next office ensuring that I don’t spoil his legacy.


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