L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan touts the importance of foreign trade almost every time he discusses the city’s economy calling it “central to our region’s economic vitality” in one recent speech.
So how does he explain Tina Choi?
Members of L.A.’s foreign trade community say they were stunned when Riordan named Choi, then 25, as director of international trade for the City of Los Angeles in July 1994.
Far from being a trade industry veteran, Choi was a recent college graduate who had spent a year in marketing for a Korean company before a stint with the city Harbor Department.
That experience, critics say, hardly qualified her to lead L.A.’s efforts in foreign trade which is worth $107.5 billion annually to the local economy.
“I kept an open mind, but after listening to her a couple of times it wasn’t clear to me she had a whole lot of knowledge,” Charles Woo, president of toy importer Megatoys, said of Choi’s appointment.
Choi was phased out as director of international trade a year after her appointment. She is currently a member of L.A.’s Business Team, the business-promoting branch of Riordan’s office.
But industry officials say Choi’s appointment is emblematic of a serious problem in Riordan’s administration that when it comes to promoting foreign trade, the mayor’s actions too often fall short of his rhetoric.
Industry officials criticize the mayor for:
– Taking $130 million from L.A.’s seaport and airport over the last two years for general fund expenditures such as police and City Hall overhead. Riordan claims the ports owe the city another $250 million for services provided in the past.
– Giving short shrift to his role as a trade ambassador. Unlike former Mayor Tom Bradley, critics say Riordan does not spend enough time meeting with and hosting the many foreign trade officials and delegations that pass through L.A.
– Allowing Long Beach to take the lead in promoting foreign trade. Long Beach, for example, sponsors an export development office for local businesses and promotes public-private partnerships to enhance the city’s position as a foreign trade center.
In an interview with the Business Journal, Riordan defended his record on trade, saying that diversions of funds from the harbor and airport are needed to make L.A. a safe and business-friendly city which will in turn improve its position as a trade leader.
“The mayor’s role is to create a city people want to deal with,” Riordan said. “International trade has grown dramatically. Part of it is being business-friendly to businesses that are important to international trade.”
The mayor acknowledged that he does not always meet with visiting dignitaries and business people, saying it’s simply a matter of time.
“I’ve had numerous meetings with people from foreign countries, but I’ve got to run the city,” he said. “Essentially, when you deal with foreign countries, the only one they want to deal with directly is the mayor and I have to run the city.”
Many agree that Riordan is personally committed to improving L.A.’s trading position. But too often, industry leaders say, the mayor has not taken concrete actions in that regard.
“They need to have top management responsible for the programs someone at the deputy mayor level and they need to have a specific budget (for their trade promotion efforts),” said Carlos Valderrama, director of Latin American operations for the law firm of Carlsmith Ball Wichman Case & Ichiki.
“I don’t think Riordan has much of a global clue,” added Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego and a specialist on international issues in Southern California. “He’s got a more inward-looking orientation, whereas Mayor Bradley saw L.A. as the Pacific Rim gateway.”
Even these critics concede that Riordan, in certain ways, has addressed foreign trade through his support of the Alameda Corridor and the harbor and airport expansions.
Still, they note that his outreach efforts to L.A.’s international trade community have been lacking and, in many cases, non-existent.
Valderrama pointed out that L.A. already has plenty of state, federal and local organizations promoting international trade, such as the U.S. Export Assistance Center, the California Office of Export Finance and a host of small business development centers.
What the city lacks is a central person or organization to advise export-minded firms especially small- to mid-sized businesses on what’s available and how to tap the appropriate resources.
Riordan apparently tried to address that problem when he appointed Choi as the city’s director of international trade.
But Choi’s lack of experience and the magnitude of her job effectively doomed the effort from the start, Valderrama said.
“Tina was a nice person, but whoever took that job was going to be overwhelmed by all those programs,” he said.
Choi, however, says that the title of international trade director was largely just that a title.
“I worked with a lot of consulates, and the title is very important with protocol,” said Choi.
She ceased being international trade director in July 1995 because “the point of creating the position was fulfilled,” Choi said.
Riordan said Choi “did a tremendous job.”
“You don’t judge a person by their age…if I eliminated from my staff everyone under 30, I’d be in desperate shape,” the mayor said.
Gary Mendoza, deputy mayor for economic development, said Choi was picked as director of international trade because of her background.
“But as we augmented our resources through (outside groups), it made sense to have Tina do more with the business team,” he said.
Industry officials, however, say the mayor has yet to establish a professional protocol operation.
“There are a lot of dignitaries that come to town that they don’t even know about,” said Richard King, president of King International Group, an international trade consulting firm in downtown L.A.
The mayor’s office furnished the Business Journal with a list of some international groups and companies that Riordan staff members met with in 1996. However, King said he seldom, if ever, sees the mayor’s representatives with the many foreign businessmen and government ministers he sees passing through L.A.
“There are people at the ministerial level that come into town periodically. We’ll see them and they’re usually being escorted by their host agencies here, but I don’t see any evidence that City Hall is plugged into that,” King said.
“I can remember earlier on there was an organized program (under former Mayor Bradley) that was more active and more involved in hosting and dialoging with these people from out of town,” King added.
Riordan critics also pointed out that the mayor has made only two foreign trade missions one to Asia and one to Israel compared with a much larger number of business-seeking trips abroad by former Mayor Bradley.
The Asia visit ended on a sour note when Riordan cut his trip short to come back to L.A. for the the O.J. Simpson trial verdict cancelling a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, said Jay Winter, executive secretary of the Foreign Trade Association of Southern California.
“You just don’t do things like that,” Winter said.
In a similar vein, the mayor’s office seldom informs local businesses when foreign trade delegations come to town, according to Candace Chen, president of Power Clean 2000, an exporter of automotive service equipment.
“Whenever delegations come over, the U.S. Department of Commerce and California Trade and Commerce Association always notify me. But I haven’t gotten any letters like that (from the mayor’s office),” Chen said.
A Riordan spokeswoman said that the city works with federal and state agencies to sponsor some events when foreign businessmen come to town, and the mayor’s office also helps supplement mailing lists of those agencies.
“But it’s more effective for us to supplement mailing lists than duplicate existing names,” she said, explaining why people like Chen may not receive direct notification from the mayor’s office when dignitaries come to town.
By comparison, the City of Long Beach tackled the issue of receiving and hosting foreign business dignitaries by co-founding the International Trade Council two years ago with the Port of Long Beach.
Members of the Trade Council include international trade leaders from both the public and private sectors, said Randal Hernandez, chief of staff for Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill.
“The group puts together meaningful agendas for many foreign trade groups and dignitaries coming to Long Beach,” Hernandez said.
Riordan’s office has mentioned setting up a similar group for L.A., though nothing has ever come of the proposals, according to several business leaders who were approached about joining such a group.
“They talked about an advisory group when the mayor first got in to office. Then last year I was told they were trying to put together the same group again,” Woo of Megatoys said.
Woo noted that the mayor’s office contacted him a third time just two weeks ago about forming a group once more.
Mendoza defended the mayor’s lack of action on the advisory group by saying that Riordan doesn’t want to waste people’s time without creating a concrete plan of action for them to follow.
“That kind of input would be helpful. But I don’t want high-powered people coming together without an agenda of what we want to pursue,” he said.
Mendoza also pointed out that Riordan has either invested or plans to invest $640 million in the seaport, $1.8 billion in the Alameda Corridor and $9 billion on the expansion of LAX.
The city has also established two duty-free foreign trade zones, one near the port and one near LAX, under Riordan’s watch.
But even after those commitments, Riordan has sent out a mixed message on his support for international trade by taking funds from LAX and the harbor for general fund programs, according to Winter of the Foreign Trade Association.
“I think he could have shown some more awareness and attention (to promoting international trade), and his lack of awareness is reflected in his mixed message,” Winter said.
To address some of the industry’s concerns, Riordan’s office will announce on Feb. 1 the formation of an export development office, Mendoza said.
The new office will be run by the World Trade Center Association and is being co-funded by the City of L.A. and Southern California Edison with an annual budget of $100,000.
The city of Long Beach, by comparison, established an export development center over three years ago.