Talk of supply chains, imports, exports and the global economy has rushed to the forefront of business news cycles and board videoconference discussions since COVID-19 began sweeping the globe and turned into a pandemic. When Chris Leggett, program manager of the Central Florida International Trade Office, first imagined his career, he couldn’t have guessed he would be facing this kind of crisis. As a child spending summers traveling with his parents, experiencing vibrant cultures and seeing new places, Leggett decided he would become a diplomat. And he didn’t end up too far off. After his first job making Burgunderbraten (sausage) at the Fleischwarenfabrik Waltner (meat processing plant), thanks to a government exchange program in Germany, he decided his love of traveling would stay. But the job would have to change: “It was hard, physical work, and they had no showers on-site, so I had to travel back home on the streetcar stinking of sweat and ham.” So he continued attending university, going on to work in embassies and government with a focus on food, agriculture and trade. His career path eventually led him to Central Florida. Here, he tells us about Central Florida’s unique role in the global economy, what it looks like now, and what the new normal means for him.
What brought you to Central Florida?
My family loved it! I had achieved my childhood dream of becoming a diplomat when I worked for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the USDA. I had the honor of serving abroad as counsellor for agriculture for more than 10 years, first at the Embassy in Washington, D.C., and then at the Mission of Canada to the European Union. I wanted to do something new, but something that would provide stability for my sons as they entered high school and provide my wife the opportunity to pursue her career in a less transitory environment. We loved Central Florida so much, with its warm weather and fun activities, that we had bought a vacation rental in Kissimmee in 2007, and we helped my mother-in-law move here from California in 2012. It’s so much more than just sunshine and Disney to us. The people are warm and friendly. Central Florida has a dynamic, innovative economy, and Orlando International Airport puts us at the crossroads of the world.
What are some of the most important imports/exports of Central Florida?
First, when I refer to Central Florida trade data, I’m talking about the Orlando metropolitan statistical area (MSA), which includes Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. Also, I am only referring to trade in goods. No data is available on trade in services because that is not tracked in the same way. And the information on Central Florida is brand new because data on imports here had never been available before.
Central Florida is an export powerhouse, with merchandise exports valued at nearly $3.6 billion in 2018. That year, we exported to 224 countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Our primary markets, though, are our neighbors to the north and south, with approximately two-thirds of our exports destined to North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
The products Central Florida exported that year are similarly varied. From industrial machinery ($833 million) and electronics ($681 million) to animal hair for wool ($2,473) and cereal flours ($1,052), all helped businesses create wealth and well-paying jobs here in Orlando. Automotive (vehicles and parts, $270 million), optical equipment ($264 million) and dairy and eggs ($103 million) round out the top five.
A lot of Central Florida jobs also depend on imports, whether it be consumer-ready products sold to tourists down on I-Drive or as components used to help products manufactured here keep costs down and remain competitive. In 2018, we imported products valued at $13.6 billion from 233 countries, with the largest share coming from China ($3.6 billion), Mexico ($2 billion) and Canada ($1.3 billion). Key imports include electronics ($2.3 billion), automotive ($2.2 billion), industrial machinery ($1.9 billion), pharmaceutical products ($680 million) and optical equipment ($560 million).
What has changed with trade with the outbreak of COVID-19? How will we adapt to these changes? What kinds of supply chain interruptions have we experienced?
One of the biggest changes is that people are paying a lot more attention now to international trade. On January 1, very few people knew anything much about supply chains, but now everyone is talking about how COVID-19 has interrupted international supply chains, and everyone has an opinion on what needs to be done. And this is a good thing. It’s healthy for people to want to know not only where their food comes from, but also their products and how they are made. A well-informed consumer will always make better decisions.
There is no doubt that international trade has been impacted by these supply chain interruptions. The biggest impact has been because of a spike in demand for certain products such as PPEs and toilet paper at the same time that production has been restricted, both at home and abroad. That’s actually probably the biggest impact: So many production facilities, primarily in Asia, had to shut down earlier this year and are just now back to producing at more normal levels that we will see shortages of many products. My younger son finally saved up for a Nintendo Switch but learned they are currently unavailable in stores until supply catches up with demand.
The other major impact has been on how people and products move. People have not been able to travel internationally to the same degree as they have in the past — and it is unlikely we will see international travel returning to pre-COVID-19 levels for several years. So, companies have had to adapt to how they conduct international business. The reduction in air travel has also made shipping by air more challenging. Normally, 60% of air shipments move in the belly of passenger planes. With those flights grounded, shipping times and prices have both increased.
The impact on shipping by sea was similarly impacted, with shipments being held up at their origins for a variety of reasons. With fewer shipments being made, it took longer to fill cargo vessels, so shipping times increased. Things seem to be getting back to normal, but one of the key things to look at going forward will be the impact on the financial health of shipping lines, and whether any lines are forced to cease operations. I would like to highlight the contributions of some unsung heroes of COVID-19: the merchant vessel crews stranded for months at sea because they could not be rotated due to health concerns at port.
What are some policies CFITO has implemented?
The biggest change for CFITO is not being able to offer in-person services and events. Like many others, we have made Zoom our best friend! Instead of doing counseling one-on-one, I meet with people by phone and by web meeting. We held our first webinar on May 28 on Making Your Supply Chain More Resilient. We are located at the National Entrepreneur Center in Fashion Square Mall, and even as our offices reopen to the public, we’ll continue to offer events virtually for some time. That’s for two reasons: because it’s what people seem to be more comfortable with and because of restrictions on the number of guests we can accommodate in our meeting rooms in order to comply with social distancing guidelines. In addition to learning something new, one of the benefits of these new practices is that we are able to record our events and post them on the new CFITO YouTube channel.
How have you found yourself adapting to the new normal?
I’ve had to work from home, like many people, and being “stuck” in the house for a period was taxing. However, even at the deepest point of this crisis, CFITO was able to stay open and I have kept busy delivering services to the community. Just instead of meeting in person, I became a big user of Zoom. I wish I had bought some of the company’s stock last year! While I really enjoy my current “commute,” I am looking forward to getting back in the office and being able to interact on a more regular basis with Central Florida businesses and entrepreneurs.