Organization supports companies in global marketplace
New England businesses looking for information and assistance in the global trade market have a support system located close to home.
Headquartered in Southborough, the Coalition Of New England Companies for Trade (CONECT) Inc. serves the interests of companies in this region that depend on international trade by providing educational and networking opportunities as well as a voice to enhance their trade status.
More specifically, CONECT's mission is to educate local, state and federal government representatives and the entire New England business community regarding the benefits and importance of free and fair trade to the region.
CONECT's 700 members consist of manufacturers, traders, importers, exporters, customs brokers, freight forwarders, transportation providers, financial institutions, law firms, accounting firms, consultants and other firms active in international trade.
MetroWest members in the import/export field include 3Com Corp., BJ's Wholesale Club Inc., EMC Corp., Genzyme Corp., Oscient Pharmaceuticals Corp., Staples Inc., The TJX Cos. Inc. and Worth Imports Inc.
Incorporated in 1991, CONECT was founded by 10 Bay State businesspeople in the trade field, including its chairman Joan Padduck. Serving as the catalyst for its creation was the filing of an apparel and footwear quota bill in Congress in 1989.
Peter Friedmann, Reebok's attorney at the time, told senior management that if the bill passes, Reebok's ability to import footwear would be compromised. He suggested that the company contact Bay State congressmen and inform them that employees at Reebok and other footwear companies in Massachusetts would be negatively affected by the bill.
Senior management supported the idea, sending Friedmann and Padduck, who was working with Reebok at the time, to Washington, D.C.
``As we went through the different congressmen's offices they all were kind of puzzled and said, `You mean you're in favor of imports? You think quotas are bad?' '' Padduck recalls. ``And we said, `Yes.' They said, `We never hear from you. We always hear from the labor unions who come knocking on our doors saying, `You have to keep these imports out. Quotas are good.''
These conversations made Padduck and Friedmann realize that companies such as Reebok and the employees who work there had no voice, and a steering committee was formed to address this shortcoming.
The committee's original focus was on footwear and apparel importers and the service companies involved in the footwear and apparel industry, but that soon changed.
``As we had our first meetings, it became evident it was more than must just a footwear and apparel quota issue,'' says Padduck. ``It was really more of a trade policy issue with respect to the congressional delegation from New England.
``Most of them still believed there were shoes being made in Brockton and lots of apparel being manufactured in Fall River, when in fact that had really changed significantly in the 20 to 30 years prior to the late 1980s.
``So we broadened our scope and said we really need to get companies involved that import lots of other commodities.''
Padduck knew other people in trade associations outside of the footwear and apparel industries and asked them if they would come to Reebok's Canton headquarters to talk about this issue.
``Many were at one time manufacturers, but were now in large part importers, and in some cases exporters,'' says Padduck. ``We had around a dozen people around the table and we talked about how the base of the economy in the region had really shifted from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-, import and to a lesser degree export-based economy, and that we really needed to pull together to form a unified voice for this community.''
The result was CONECT. Before the other industries became on board, the committee toyed with other names for the organization. One whimsical suggestion was the Massachusetts Apparel and Footwear Importers Association. The only problem with that moniker is that its acronym had already been taken. ``We wanted an acronym that was catchy,'' says Padduck. ``We thought MAFIA was catchy but probably not a good idea.''
Eventually, the current and more inclusive acronym was adopted.
By the way, the footwear and apparel quota bill didn't pass. ``I can't say we could take all the credit for that,'' says Padduck. Friedmann is also now CONECT's counsel.
The organization continued its political winning streak by serving as a strong advocate for approving permanent normal trade relations with China and Vietnam.
``We received some affirmative votes from the New England delegation and they attributed their votes to the message CONECT brought to them,'' says Padduck. ``They really understood the importance of permanent normal trade relations to the companies here in New England and to the country as a whole.
``If (companies) didn't know there were permanent normal trade relations, which equates to the duty rate they pay, they couldn't predict year to year what those duty rates would be. They could find themselves buying products six or eight months in advance and by the time it comes to market, if the normal trade relations status is lost because of some congressional action, they would be selling products at a loss.''
While the weak dollar has hampered importers, ``it certainly has created a lot more opportunities for the exporters,'' says Padduck, who notes that CONECT has been focusing on attract more exporters to the organization. The largest percentage of its members - 37 percent - are in the import/export field with most of those involved with importing.
CONECT has three different types of memberships: individual, corporate and large corporate. A large corporate member has 10 representatives from the company while a corporate member has four representatives. Yearly dues for individual membership is $225, $395 for corporate and $595 for large corporate. The organization has a 20-member board of directors and an office in Washington, D.C.
The largest percentage of CONECT's members are from Massachusetts - 59 - while the next largest - 10 - is from Rhode Island. The organization also has members from New York, New Jersey and Canada with most of these companies having offices in New England.
CONECT presents the 12th annual Northeast Trade and Transportation Conference March 26-28 at the Hotel Viking in Newport, R.I. Issues include free trade agreements, consumer product safety, import safety regulations and supply chain trend. On insuring product safety, Padduck says the responsibility lies with the importer, not the manufacturer.
Padduck says CONECT is the only organization of its kind in the United States.
Member benefits include issue updates as well as insights into how these issues may be resolved; breakfast roundtable gatherings throughout New England featuring U.S. senators and congressmen from New England; special events with members of Congress, key executive branch officials, state and local representatives and prominent New England businesspeople; e-mail memoranda providing late-breaking news on critical trade issues; and a full day of meetings with members of Congress, U.S. trade representative staff and a luncheon with New England's delegation trade staff in Washington, D.C.
``CONECT offers a great platform for networking with colleagues in the compliance community,'' says Misty Rutter, director of worldwide trade compliance for 3Com in Marlborough. ``The regulatory updates from Washington provided by Peter Friedmann are particularly valuable in keeping up with changes and trends on (Capitol Hill). It's great to have a local resource for the latest trade-related information, as well as an organization that gives us a voice. I have been a longtime member and try to participate in as many forums that CONECT offers as possible. They are always worthwhile.''
Robert Worth of Worth Imports Inc. in Framingham also lauds CONECT. "International trade is pretty complex, with a lot of moving parts,'' he says. ``CONECT brings together people from the various businesses related to trade, and is very helpful in keeping me abreast of changes and better ways of conducting international business.
``In addition, government, both state and federal, can impact trade. Government has a lot to do with our transportation infrastructure. CONECT has hosted many forums where our elected representatives have come to meet and hear us. Having a strong infrastructure here in Boston, which means an active port, is important to my business. I have many competitors in the New York-Philly corridor who are served by the large port in New Jersey. There are many benefits (speed, fewer delays and complications, cost) if I can have my containers go through the port of Boston rather than to go through New Jersey.
``Not too long ago there was no direct container service between Boston and China. Now there is some, which is an improvement, but we need more. CONECT gives us the opportunity to make sure our representatives know how important issues like this are.''
Padduck says CONECT has indeed made political inroads. ``A lot of New England congressmen call CONECT when a trade bill comes to their desk,'' she says.``They call us and ask us what our position is and how a bill impacts our membership. The fact that they're interested in our opinion has been a major step forward.'
COALITION OF NEW ENGLAND COMPANIES FOR TRADE INC.
Chairman: Joan Padduck
Employees: Five in Southborough, three in Washington, D.C.
Industry: International trade
Company background: Headquartered in Southborough, the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade serves the interests of New England businesses that depend on international trade. Its Web site is www.conect.org.
Contact Bob Tremblay at email@example.com or 508-626-4409.
The MetroWest Daily News