James Hill was appointed as Consul General in Seattle in November 2014, representing Canada and promoting Canadian interests in four northwestern U.S. states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. Prior to his assignment in Seattle, he served abroad as Chargé d’affaires at the Canadian Embassy in Kuwait; Deputy Head of Mission at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan; High Commissioner of Canada in Maputo, Mozambique; Consul General of Canada in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Head of the Canadian Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission in Prishtina, Kosova (Yugoslavia); Consul and Trade Commissioner at the Consulate of Canada in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and as Second Secretary & Vice Consul at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
At Global Affairs Canada (formerly the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development) in Ottawa, Mr. Hill has held positions as Director for Middle East & Africa Commercial/Economic relations, Director for Europe & Central Asia Commercial/Relations, Deputy Director of the Latin America Division, Deputy Director of the Western Hemisphere Summits Office and as Senior Desk Officer in the Trade Commissioner Service Strategic Planning Division.
ExportWise recently spoke with Mr. Hill and Michael Wooff, Senior Trade Commissioner in Seattle, about the opportunities for Canadian exporters in the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the United States.
ExportWise: Is trade the dominant part of the work at the consulate in Seattle?
James Hill: It probably occupies at least half of our efforts, either on a direct business development investment file, or the commercial advocacy element that comes with it.
ExportWise: Is there a typical exporter who comes seeking assistance from the consulate?
Michael Wooff: The ones that come to us probably fall into two groups: those that are new to the market and new to exporting, and those that are fairly sophisticated and are coming to us because they have a specific issue, challenge or problem.
James Hill: I would think typical in terms of the sectors that we tend to see here. They can vary in size and sophistication, but we see the commonality more in the clustering in certain sectors that have resonance in this region – aerospace and defence, the ICT (information and communications technology) sector, clean tech and green build.
ExportWise: Do you find that there’s any advantage to an exporter being Canadian?
James Hill: It’s familiarity that gives them a certain edge. People are comfortable dealing with Canadians. They don’t see it as a big stretch – sometimes they don’t even see it as a foreign market, they see it as their neighbour, a next-door market.
Michael Wooff: This part of the American market is very knowledgeable about Canada and has a lot of cross-border business and contacts, and they are very happy dealing with Canadian exporters of goods and services because they know that they get good quality, sound business partners, they’ve had really good experience with that, and so they’re seeking more. They recognize they have to seek out Canadian partners to help them improve their technology and their efficiency to help meet the competition that’s come from Asia or Latin America or elsewhere. There’s an increasing realization among the business leaders in the Pacific Northwest that Canada is an excellent partner in that regard.
ExportWise: Is there something that Canadian exporters assume that they shouldn’t assume when it comes to exporting?
James Hill: By the time they come to us, they’ve either done their homework or passed through some in-Canada help, like through the regional trade centres. They generally have some traction when they come to us. And if they don’t, if they’re not ready and we perceive that after some discussion, we turn them back to Canada and say, “Start here and here first, and then build from there.”
Michael Wooff: While the United States is close, and it looks the same and it feels the same, and they speak the same business language and it’s not the culture shock you get going to a lot of other places, there are still differences in the way business is done. Some exporters just assume it’s going to be like Canada and then they’re surprised that there are differences.
ExportWise: What are the kinds of services that you can provide to exporters?
James Hill: They’re generally looking for the networks within the territory: who they should be talking to, either business associations or individual companies who are active in that area. If they’re trying to sell into a larger entity like Boeing, for example, what are the points of entry? That’s where we’ve been quite successful.
Michael Wooff: It really helps if there’s that in-Canada partner organization that takes responsibility for a group of companies that are going to come down on a mission or a delegation. We’ve had very good success with that, and a lot of recognition that delegations we’ve brought in on a range of different sectors are very well accepted. We continually get feedback from our local interlocutors as to the quality, capability and professionalism of the people we’re putting in front of them.
ExportWise: How much of your time or efforts are spent on foreign investment?
Michael Wooff: For this part of the U.S. market, it’s absolutely critical, because there is so much investment capital floating around here. We get a lot of resonance when we bring down technology start-ups and investment partners and put them in front of the angel investment community and the venture capital community, and the major corporations that are thinking about investing and opening or expanding their operations in Canada. We’ve got increasing investment going on across a number of sectors, big players as well as a lot of tech start-up investments. There’s a huge untapped pool of investment capital here in a number of areas that is looking to do things, and they are positively predisposed to doing it with Canadians.
James Hill: It’s a longer development cycle, but in this particular environment, there’s a lot of money and a lot of interest in expanding networks outwards.
ExportWise: Has the exchange had an impact on the volume of people coming to the consulate looking to sell into the States now that we have a price advantage?
James Hill: There’s always been a strong or steady demand, because the U.S. is an attractive market that’s large and very nearby. If it’s a small exporter, sometimes just across the border is fine, but it doesn’t take them long to expand into the broader Lower 48 states. For example, we have people from Montreal who do business here, and we’ve had people from the Maritimes who’ve done business here.
Michael Wooff: If they’re only getting in because there’s a competitive advantage strictly based on the exchange rate, well the rate will move again sometime, so that’s not a long-term strategy. We try to get them to think about how they will be in the market whatever the exchange rate is. The dramatic drop in the value of the dollar has advantaged the American side, which means tourism is up dramatically. Americans are not travelling to exotic places in Europe and Asia because of security concerns, so they’re going to Canada. Tourism is booming, and the value of what you can get in Canada with the American dollar is part of that. That bodes well for all of our Canada 150 celebrations next year.
ExportWise: If you had one key piece of advice to give to an exporter, what would that be?
James Hill: Really do your homework. The amount of time you invest at the front end just pays that much more dividend once you’re on the ground.
Michael Wooff: What we’re consistently saying, especially to those who are new to the market or new to exporting, is that you have to think about the global marketplace and what is it that you do that is the most competitive and the most desirable, either in your product or service, that would be competitive internationally. Look at the U.S. market as a way to quickly get into the international exporting regime, and train your people on how to fill out customs forms and shipping documents and currency exchanges. Trial run that with the U.S. because it’s easier to do that than in virtually any place else, and use your success in the U.S. market as a springboard to other parts of the U.S. and to go to Latin America or elsewhere in the world.
ExportWise: Is there anything in the time you’ve been in Seattle that you’re particularly proud of in terms of helping exporters?
James Hill: A sort of first that we’ve piloted here is merging trade development with a social enterprise – companies who have as part of their business mandate to make a positive social impact either domestically or internationally and still be in for a profit. It’s a new area, where companies have become more socially minded and socially responsible, and they’re looking to partner with Canadian companies who also have a product or an interest in doing that.
Michael Wooff: In the Pacific Northwest, there’s probably somewhere in the nature of a hundred billion dollars of investment capital looking for things to do, and probably about half of that is looking to do things in a sort of development or philanthropic manner. A lot of those funds are being invested with Canadians in either new technologies or in research efforts. Seattle’s an ideal market for that, because I can’t think of another area in the world where there’s so much of that philanthropic development investment capital that’s looking for those kinds of opportunities.
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