Jacksonville: A Business-Friendly Climate Attracting International And U.S. Companies - An Economic Impact Over $1 Billion

Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 01:00
George D. Gabel, Jr.

Editor: Please tell our readers about your practice and how you interface with other attorneys throughout the firm.

Gabel: There are two areas on which I focus: transportation and media. In my transportation practice, which is primarily maritime, I represent ship owners and underwriters. In my media practice, I represent the daily newspaper in Jacksonville, The Florida Times-Union ; the Jacksonville Business Journal ; all the television stations with network affiliations in our area and other media clients, including other major Florida newspapers. We have a national media practice and our firm has one of the finest maritime practices in the country that originated in our New York office (formerly known as Haight, Gardner, Poor & Havens). Our clients are served by lawyers from across the firm who have the experience best suited to their needs - it makes no difference where the matter originates.

Editor: What are the practice areas that are particularly strong in the Jacksonville office besides media and maritime?

Gabel: Our litigation group is probably the finest collection of trial lawyers in Jacksonville. Three of us are Fellows in the American College of Trial Lawyers. Holland & Knight has more lawyers listed in the Best Lawyers in America than any other firm, many being litigators. Within the litigation section we have very strong groups, particularly transportation and logistics (including our maritime practice group), we have labor and employment, environmental law, creditors' rights, construction, intellectual property, commercial litigation, banking, and almost any other area of the law that a business or organization might need. We also have strong groups practicing real estate, especially lending, leasing and condominium law, land use and government policy matters, and business law and corporate securities law. The firm was named number one by directors of corporations surveyed by Corporate Magazine as to which firm in Jacksonville they would choose to represent them.

Editor: I understand you were named International Person of the Year by the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. What occasioned your receiving this honor?

Gabel: I am told that this recognition was because of my establishing an early link between Jacksonville and shipping companies in the Far East, particularly China. I attended a conference in Sydney, Australia, in 1995 where I met some of the people who worked at China Ocean Shipping (COSCO), one of the largest shipping companies in the world. They invited me and my wife, Judy, to visit China in 1996. At this time Jacksonville's maritime industry was not looking to the Far East, but was almost entirely interested in trade with South America and Puerto Rico. While in China, I told the people of COSCO about Jacksonville's strategic location - how we have interstate highways going to the Northeast and the Midwest and are at the end of the shortest transcontinental highway, that we have more railroad movements in and out of Jacksonville than any other port along the eastern seaboard. We discussed how many Asian shipping companies have changed their routes from the Panama Canal to the Suez Canal, which COSCO had been doing as well. I told them, "When your ship passes the Rock of Gibraltar and they look straight ahead, that's Jacksonville." Our host asked my wife if she had anything to add. Her response was: "Mr. Liu, what is it you want in a port?" Naturally, that was the best question of the day. His response was that they have many goods they could ship to Florida but they needed cargo they can ship out in order not to have empty ships returning to China. Although the city leaders had to be won over, the current director of the Port Authority has said several times that he and I were among the earliest ones who saw the link between the Far East and Jacksonville. Our current mayor is a strong advocate of trade with the Far East.

I also serve as the Norwegian consul here and was president of the Jacksonville Consular Corps. This may have also played a role in my being named International Person of the Year in 2002. Since that time, I have served as international chair for the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, my third year in that position.

Editor: I gather that Jacksonville is becoming well known as a city for international commerce?

Gabel: There have been a number of companies each year who are interested in coming to Jacksonville. One of the factors that helped expose Jacksonville to millions of people was the hosting of the Super Bowl in 2005. Over the last three years the number of international companies seeking to locate here has increased from 10 percent to 25 percent. Two shipping companies have selected Jacksonville as their East Coast terminals: Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, a Japanese company, and Hanjin Shipping Company, the largest Korean carrier. Mitsui, along with other shipping companies, had difficulties on the West Coast of the United States due to overcrowded ports, union demands and the need to transship from the West to East Coast by train or truck. As an East Coast location, Jacksonville has a number of advantages over other East Coast ports, principally because we have land. In addition, when goods come into Jacksonville they can go in any direction they need to go. Mitsui's presence will double the number of containers and ships coming into our port and Hanjin will increase the number by the same amount. By 2011, Jacksonville will be the third largest port on the East Coast of the United States.

Editor: Is the longshoremen's union situation with ship owners more favorable than on other ports on the East Coast or the West Coast?

Gabel: It certainly is more favorable than on the West Coast of the United States. I do not know how it compares with other East Coast ports. In Jacksonville, I know we have great cooperation among our unions here. While we have at least two major unions as well as nonunion workers working side-by-side, we enjoy "labor peace," which contributes to attracting business. Our business-friendly climate is the reason Jacksonville is being recognized as an important site. We are trying to develop an attitude of openness and receptiveness so that companies want to locate and do business here.

Editor: As the port business grows, how does that affect the rest of the economy and business climate in the city?

Gabel: The impact from Mitsui and Hanjin coming here is probably under the radar for most of the people who live in Jacksonville, but Mitsui alone is projected to provide $900 million in economic benefits, equivalent to three Super Bowls a year, and Hanjin is expected to contribute at least that much. The direct jobs from these two shipping companies, held by people working directly on the waterfront, from longshoremen to shipping executives, is expected to increase by at least 15,000. The multiplier effect for indirect jobs and the positive impact on other businesses and the local economy is difficult to measure or forecast. We have inquiries from other companies who are interested in coming to Jacksonville now that we have a direct link with Asia. Bridgestone Firestone has already selected Jacksonville because of that link and is building a distribution plant here.

Editor: Do you have the infrastructure and the roads to accommodate this new traffic?

Gabel: Our firm is currently engaged in working on plans for improving infrastructure. It is anticipated that once both of these shipping companies are fully operational truck movements from the Port of Jacksonville will increase from 1,000 truck movements to 8,000 truck movements a day. We are working with the mayor and different citizen groups, discussing a private/public partnership to raise funds to help pay for improvements and infrastructure.

Editor: Are there other inducements offered by Jacksonville to attract foreign businesses?

Gabel: As far as what is happening in Jacksonville internationally, the Regional Chamber of Commerce has played a significant role as has the mayor in working to produce an international business plan based on a consultant's study identifying the countries we should focus on for both trade and investment in Jacksonville. We have focused on what are described as the "super sectors" in our economy - transportation and logistics, finance, construction, life sciences and technology. Life sciences is a major resource because the Mayo Clinic has a major facility in Jacksonville with a large South American clientele. One of the recommendations of this study was that we form a Jacksonville International Business Coalition headed by the mayor with 12 or so political and business leaders such as the president of the City Council, the head of the Port Authority, the head of the Airport Authority and chair of the Chamber of Commerce. I was also asked to serve on the coalition.

We have already started communicating a welcoming atmosphere. For example, we have welcome signs at the airport in other languages and when a visitor of ambassadorial rank or other high-ranking person comes here, we fly the flag of that person's country. Overall, our goal is to create an atmosphere of openness and friendship.

Editor: How is globalization affecting the type of work in the Jacksonville office?

Gabel: Holland & Knight is a global firm. We have an office in Beijing which is the local office as well for Enterprise Florida, a private/public organization designed to create economic development activities for the state. We also have offices in other international cities. Work comes in from all our international offices to various attorneys across the firm with the experience to match the needs of our clients.

Editor: What are some of the other civic and pro bono activities that the Jacksonville office is committed to?

Gabel: Holland & Knight has traditionally been involved in the community and pro bono activities. We have the strongest pro bono program in the area and probably in the U.S. led by partners of the firm who work full time in providing legal services for the poor. Some of our finest trial lawyers are doing pro bono work for prisoners and disadvantaged people. The Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation has programs that include Opening Doors for Children, a mentoring and tutoring program for thousands of children across the country, as well as two essay contests, the Holocaust Remembrance Project and the Young Native Writers Essay Contest. In Jacksonville, we have adopted a school; we also support the mayor's literacy program focusing on four-year-olds whom our lawyers and staff read to. We support Volunteer Jacksonville's program in the schools and the Wolfson's Children's Hospital as well as other organizations focused on children. I have served as president of the Rotary Club and past president of the Boy Scouts of America North Florida Council. Our lawyers and staff all participate in the community in one way or another.

Editor: I understand that you were just honored with one of your firm's highest honors, the 2008 Tillie Kidd Fowler Leadership Award. Please tell us about this fine honor.

Gabel: Tillie Kidd Fowler joined the Washington, D.C. office of Holland & Knight as a partner in 2001 after a distinguished eight-year career in the House of Representatives. By the time she retired from Congress she was in the top level of the leadership structure. She chose Holland & Knight because of our tradition of volunteerism, knowing that she could continue with her volunteer efforts, particularly with national defense. She epitomized service to the community, and I felt very honored to be named the Tillie Fowler partner, not only because of what it represents, but also because she was a friend.

Copyright © 2008 Holland & Knight LLP All Rights Reserved .

Please email the interviewee at george.gabel@hklaw.com with questions about this interview.