Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Florida's Trade MVP

(Bob Croslin)

For more than 40 years,Manny Mencia has enjoyed a singular perspective on Florida’s economic evolution, as both an insightful observer of the big economic forces that have shaped the state and as a key player in Florida’s emergence as a business powerhouse. Mencia, who retired in September after 25 years as senior vice president at Enterprise Florida for international trade and business development, has been one of the only constants at Enterprise Florida since its inception in 1996 — and the most effective executive in the economic development group’s 25-year history.

Mencia, born in Cuba, came to Miami with his family when he was 10. He graduated from St. Thomas University in Miami — he later got another degree from Florida International University — intending to go to law school. Needing to repay student loans, he took a job teaching at a high school but found it wasn’t his calling. He found a job with the Latin American unit of the Florida Department of Commerce, which handled the state’s economic development efforts in Latin America at the time. He became the department’s Latin America bureau chief before shifting to the private sector and going to work for the Beacon Council, Miami’s economic development agency.

Historically, Florida had been fairly ambivalent about economic development — happy when Disney decided to drop in but generally not very aspirational beyond exploiting its ability to attract tourists and retirees. “When I came on the scene, we were trying to build Miami as the gateway of the Americas,” he says. “It really was a very aspirational goal.” It’s worth remembering, he points out, that through the 1970s New Orleans was the nexus of business relations between the U.S. and Latin America.

Meanwhile, Florida’s growing population and the transition from Democratic political dominance to more business-savvy Republican leadership led to changes in the state’s approach to economic development. In 1996, the state replaced the Department of Commerce with Enterprise Florida, the public-private partnership funded in part by the state and partly by business. John Anderson, Mencia’s boss at the Beacon Council, became EF’s first CEO and brought Mencia with him to head international business development.

The years since haven’t always been kind to EF. Neither the business sector nor the Legislature has consistently provided a reliable stream of funding. Numerous CEOs have come and gone as EF, as with any agency receiving state money, takes regular turns as a political football.

Mencia kept the international program healthy, however. One of his early moves was restructuring the six offices the state maintained abroad to cultivate foreign investment. At the time, the offices were staffed by Florida state employees — meaning they had to try to get by in places like London and Tokyo on a Florida state employee’s salary. Good luck. Mencia brought them home and began hiring local economic development groups in the countries to work for Florida, using performance-based contracts that he regularly rebid.

With that strategy, he grew the state’s presence abroad from six offices to 19. And on Mencia’s watch, growth in foreign direct investment in Florida surpassed $90 billion in property, plant and equipment, ranking Florida first in the Southeast U.S. Florida also ranks first in the Southeast and fifth in the U.S. in the number of jobs supported by foreign-owned firms, which has grown by nearly 60% between 2009 and 2018.

More important, Mencia reoriented the entire manufacturing sector in Florida toward exporting. Big players like Harris (now L3Harris) and some small firms in South Florida were exporting when Enterprise Florida came into being, but Mencia worked to bring export-consciousness to small and medium-sized firms all over the state. “Part of my philosophy,” he says, “is that however small your community, if you have a competitive product, you can sell it overseas.”

Today, Enterprise Florida can offer support services to companies in every county in the state and organizes 30 to 40 international events each year to connect Florida firms with overseas customers. About 60% of Florida’s exports — twice the national average — are produced by small and medium-sized firms. In total, around 58,000 firms from all over Florida now export about $100 billion in goods and services abroad each year, compared to just $2 billion in the 1970s. “Exporting has become a statewide game,” Mencia says.

The impact of foreign trade on Florida is hard to overstate. Foreign direct investment and exports of goods and services currently account for about a quarter of all jobs in the state. Around 40% of what Florida produces is sold overseas, placing Florida in the top three in the country in what’s called “manufacturing export intensity” — the percentage of goods made in a state that are sold abroad. Mencia’s program has been honored with national-level awards and was the model when California reworked its own international business development efforts.

Mencia’s advice to Florida and EF going forward is to focus on export diversification and new markets in Europe, Asia and Africa while maintaining Florida’s dominance in Latin America and the Caribbean. Things can change fast, he says, pointing out how quickly Miami surpassed New Orleans as Latin America’s gateway to the U.S. — and how Venezuela, a $5-billion market for Florida as recently as 2012, shrank to a $500-million market under that country’s inept political leadership.

Throughout his career, Mencia says, he never forgot a comment by a professor in college: “Geography is destiny,” the professor said. Mencia says he “believed to his soul” that Florida’s location and multicultural demographics created a destiny for it as a great trade center. “Florida always had tremendous advantages, and that’s what I tried to leverage as I developed programs.”

— Mark Howard, Executive Editor


Read more in Florida Trend's November issue.
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