Only days after celebrating its 11th anniversary, U.S. Customs and Border Protection welcomed more than 800 members of the trade community to the agency’s East Coast Trade Symposium on March 6-7 at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. “While it’s comforting to pat ourselves on the back for all we’ve accomplished in these 11 short years, now is the time to plan for the changes and challenges we will face in the future,” said CBP’s Acting Commissioner Thomas S. Winkowski.
The symposium, which focused on the theme of Increasing Economic Competitiveness through Global Partnerships and Innovation, emphasized CBP’s trade transformation efforts. “I believe we are on the cusp of changes that will make trade safer, faster, cheaper, and more transparent,” said Acting Commissioner Winkowski to the sold-out crowd. “We are at a critical time in history when we are already influencing conditions that lead to critical mass or a tipping point,” he said.
“Over the past two years, CBP has instituted forward looking programs that fundamentally change the way we do business within the U.S. and in the world—and also the way we work with our trade constituents. The CBP we are building is an agency more suited for the challenges of the 21st Century and one whose processes are more aligned with modern business practices,” he said.
The acting commissioner identified three concepts—partnership, predictability, and prosperity—that outlined the agency’s vision. “We want to make sure that our vision addresses your challenges as you continue to play a major role in the prosperity of this country,” he said.
While noting some of the innovative initiatives CBP has undertaken to make the supply chain more predictable and efficient, Acting Commissioner Winkowski highlighted the Centers of Excellence and Expertise. “These centers are moving us toward the future of trade processing by lowering the cost of doing business, providing tailored support to each unique trading environment, and improving our enforcement efforts,” he said.
Acting Commissioner Winkowski then announced that three of the 10 centers—the centers for electronics; pharmaceuticals, health and chemicals; and petroleum and natural gas—are ready to transition to their next phase. “These centers will be assuming trade processing for all transactions associated with their respective industries,” he said. “The next phase for these centers will allow CBP to fully examine concepts, procedures, and practices with the trade that we’ve not yet tested.”
Acting Commissioner Winkowski also underscored the importance of the executive order signed in February by President Obama to streamline the U.S. export/import process. The directive, which aims to reduce processing and approval times from days to minutes for small businesses that export American-made goods and services, calls for the completion of the International Trade Data System by December 2016. When the new information system is complete, businesses will be able to electronically transmit, through a single window, the data required by the U.S. government to import or export cargo. CBP’s cargo processing system, the Automated Commercial Environment, or ACE, is the technology backbone for the International Trade Data System.
“I’m proud to say we are on target to complete ACE, and achieve the International Trade Data System to meet the president’s deadline,” said Acting Commissioner Winkowski. “This will complete a modern, flexible, automated foundation for the efficient transmission of data to all U.S. government agencies with responsibilities at the border.”
The symposium’s agenda also featured notable speakers such as U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who gave the opening day keynote address that kicked off the event. “Our ability to grow our economy, to create more jobs here, to promote growth is critically dependent on our ability to increase exports,” said Froman. “We need to make sure that the message that trade is good for jobs, good for growth, good for the country is shared and understood across the country.”
Partnerships with governments, other government agencies, and the private sector were highlighted in the symposium’s general sessions. One session on North American Competitiveness marked the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA. “NAFTA was a game changer for Mexico,” said Alejandro Chacón Dominguez, the administrator general of customs for Mexico Customs. “For historical reasons, we were used to having trade relationships with investments with some European countries, specifically Spain. But after these 20 years, we are closer to the Americans and the Canadians,” he said. “Trilateral trade for Canada, and coincidentally Mexico, accounts for nearly 70 percent of our total trade. For the United States, it’s a smaller figure, around 30 percent,” said Chacón.
Another general session featured Sergio Mujica, the deputy secretary general of the World Customs Organization, WCO. Mujica had two main messages for those attending. “First, is the necessity of creating good partnerships between customs and the private sector,” he said. “CBP has been a great leader in this area.” His second message was regarding the key role that the WCO should play in the implementation of the World Trade Organization’s trade facilitation agreement that was signed in Bali on December 7, 2013, which is aimed at lowering trade barriers. “That agreement on trade facilitation is really a cornerstone on the topic, but we don’t want 150 countries implementing the agreement their own way,” said Mujica. “We want countries to use international standards to implement the agreement and those international standards are provided by the WCO.”
A number of breakout sessions were held on the second day of the Trade Symposium. One of the panel discussions focused on partnerships in trade enforcement. “The unpleasant realities that we’re facing today in the consumer goods industry are organized retail crime, commercial fraud, counterfeit products, illicit promotions, and piracy,” said DJ Smith, Procter & Gamble’s brand protection manager for North America and Latin America, who was one of the panelists. “It’s important for us that we partner with CBP and Homeland Security Investigations.”
Many of those who attended the symposium said they found it worthwhile. “We need to know what’s happening in the industry so that we can plan for the future,” said Sandra McCarthy, the director of international operations for Sears Holdings in Hoffman Estates, Ill, who has attended the event several times. “Even though there’s a lot of information that’s available in the press, when you’re here, you still get a greater understanding of what the priorities are going to be and what will be targeted during the next year,” she said.
For first time attendee, Diana Hohmann, an import specialist analyst at Freescale, a semiconductor chip manufacturer based in Austin, Texas, the symposium was extremely helpful. “I got a tremendous amount of information that I needed,” said Hohmann. “I was interested in the trusted trader program because Freescale is both C-TPAT and ISA certified, so we wanted to understand how the trusted trader program could help us,” she said. “I also wanted information about ACE, the single window, to get up to speed on that,” said Hohmann. “When you do your day to day work, you can’t dedicate yourself to really understanding the information that’s being pushed out,” she said. “When you get out of that setting and come here, you can concentrate on what the future holds.”