Gerrit Steenblik: Strengthening Ties with Important Foreign Trade Partner

by RaeAnne Marsh

With fluency in the French language and experience in international law, Gerrit Steenblik was pleased to accept the office of French Honorary Consul when the French Foreign Ministry offered it to him 19 years ago.

France is an important source of foreign direct investment in Arizona and Metro Phoenix. Citing data from Anubhav Bagley at Maricopa Association of Governments, Steenblik says France has moved up to fourth place in Arizona, behind the UK, Canada and Japan, while being ranked third nationally. “And this does not take into account employment by local companies that are owned by French nationals living in the U.S.,” he adds. Steenblik calls MAG “one of the best-kept secrets regarding data and opportunity for trade and investment; MAG has someone constantly analyzing data to understand where the best opportunities are for investment.” Its maps show French-owned companies, ranging in size from fewer than 10 employees to more than 500 and one with at least 1,500, scattered throughout our state but with the greatest concentration by far in Metro Phoenix.

While furthering trade is not the express role of the Honorary Consul — his function is to serve the needs of the French people who are here in Arizona and to receive, host and connect French dignitaries — Steenblik explains that the availability of consular services and his efforts at the personal level make a difference to the French companies and their employees. During his tenure, Steenblik has seen growth in awareness of the business opportunities that the France-Arizona relationship offers.

Phoenix became a sister city with Grenoble in 1990, thanks to the efforts of Astrid Stanfield-Pinel, whom Steenblik, who was involved in those early meetings, describes as “a dynamo.” It was neither a new idea nor a unique arrangement; Phoenix, like many cities, has multiple sister cities, and Steenblik has been involved for several years, including chairing both the Grenoble Committee and the Phoenix Sister City Commission. But the Grenoble jumelage developed differently from the standard pattern. “In its early years, the primary focus of most sister-city relationships was to promote each city as a cultural destination, a great place to visit and create friendships,” Steenblik relates. “But, with Grenoble, there was a real effort by city leaders to also look at the sister city for trade and business opportunities.”

An early effort that Steenblik chaired was the business conference “Parlez-Vous High Tech?” presented at Thunderbird School of Global Management, which led to other sister city business-to-business events.

Steenblik emphasizes that sister cities are not necessarily a driver of investment, “but a relationship with a vibrant international city is another attribute for building a stronger and more diverse economy.”

An example he offers of using his Grenoble sister city experience and his Consular role as a platform for developing more business connections with France has to do with the Paris Air Show, the premier air show in the world. In the early 1990s, while still wearing his Grenoble beret, Steenblik collaborated with the Arizona Department of Commerce to encourage small and mid-level suppliers and manufacturers from Phoenix to attend so they could meet with aerospace and defense companies. According to the most current MAG data from 2018, the category of aircraft engines and parts leads the list of both exports and imports between France and Arizona. “This,” says Steenblik, “explains why Sandra Watson’s team at ACA will attend the upcoming Paris Air Show again this June, as it has for the past 30 years.” He notes that shortly after Governor Ducey was elected and had a meeting with the visiting French Consul General, the Governor made France the first country he visited outside the United States in order to attend the Air Show with ACA and promote Arizona’s aerospace industry.

Steenblik’s official last day as Honorary Consul of France was April 20. He is succeeded by Nathan Fidel, a native Arizonan whose background includes service in the Arizona Attorney General’s office and who has French heritage and French citizenship. As an attorney in the Phoenix office of national law firm Polsinelli, Steenblik shares that his objective now is to “leverage my contacts and experience as Honorary Consul to more actively promote trade and investment with France.” By encouraging collaboration with key players in various industries, arranging opportunities for guest speakers, and fostering collaboration with local chambers of commerce, he plans to “create more connections among businesspeople in Western Europe and get them together to promote French and Arizona business interests.”   

The Trade Interest

•Grenoble-Isère is a major scientific center of Europe.

•Seven of the area’s top 10 private-sector employers are foreign-owned, and four of those are U.S.-owned.

•Forty percent of its manufacturing jobs are foreign-owned, compared to 25 percent for France as a whole.

•France is responsible for 7 percent of all foreign direct investment in Arizona.

•The value of Arizona’s exports to France increased from $470 million in 2017 to $576 million in 2018, a growth of 20.6 percent.

•The value of Arizona imports from France was nearly $690 million in 2017.

•In 2017, France was the fourth-largest international employer in Arizona, with 9,850 employees, 7,250 of them in the Phoenix Metro Area, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments.

•In 2017, 81 French-owned companies operated 201 locations in the Phoenix Metro Area, in the finance, healthcare, information technology and manufacturing industries, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments.

[Did You Know: A common “faux pas” in French-American business relationships, says Gerrit Steenblik, is to forget that when building consensus French employees expect and enjoy a more open and robust discussion of pros and cons, noting, “French companies welcome a vigorous debate from all parties.”]

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