BY FRANK NORTON | The Post and Courier
State well-positioned if trade ban ends, owner of Maybank Shipping says
In Charleston trade and shipping entrepreneur Jack Maybank’s mind, South Carolina is well positioned for something far greater than just swapping goods with existing Latin American trade partners.
Jack Maybank stands next to a Cuban flag hanging in his office at Maybank Shipping in downtown Charleston on Thursday.
Maybank sees an opportunity for the state to help foster business growth in the last major undeveloped market in the West.
Cuba, Maybank says, is the development opportunity of the century. He says the island-nation’s nearly 12 million people are both educated and hungry for U.S. goods and services, a combination that could make for a powerful business partnership.
“The potential for doing business with Cuba is hard to put into words, but I see it as being extremely important to the U.S. because the Cuban people have nothing,” said Maybank, owner and founder of Maybank Shipping Co., a trade and ocean transport company based in Charleston. “Everything in the country needs to be redone: the roads, the highways, the piping, the hotels and that could mean an incredible amount of business for the Southeast,” he said.
Restrictions on trade with Cuba as well as travel to the communist nation largely remain in effect, though signs abound that the trade ban may be lifting and to a point already has been eased.
Maybank has already put his money where his mouth is, having wrangled a series of special licenses from the U.S. Commerce and Treasury departments in 2001 to transport and sell goods in Cuba.
Maybank Shipping is one of just a handful of shipping companies in the United States licensed to do business with Cuba and, so far, is the only U.S.-flagged shipping company to put a U.S.-flagged vessel into Cuba.
It did so when one of its cargo barges entered Havana harbor in July; it was the first U.S.-flag commercial vessel with an all-American crew to enter the harbor since the United States broke relations with Cuba in 1961.
That distinction, in part, prompted the South Carolina World Trade Center Thursday to award Maybank for its contribution to international trade.” They are striking out on new ground in doing business with Cuba and I think they are way ahead of the curve because of that,” said Mark Condon, executive director of the South Carolina World Trade Center. “Engagement is a much better philosophy than isolation and we have used that all over the world except in Cuba. Maybank has recognized that and I think the time is near that a lot of others realize the potential of opening up trade with Cuba,” Condon said.
Maybank Shipping expects to do even more work with the Cubans over time. He said the only reason other shipping companies haven’t established toeholds in Cuba is for fear of negative perceptions. “The Cubans saw what we brought and liked it,” Maybank said. “They also noticed that we were the first company to come in so they took us by the hand and really helped us build the relationship further.” More recently, Maybank has been shipping lumber, newsprint and agriculture goods to Cuba.
For Maybank, the sky is the limit when it comes to doing business with Cuba, especially since he’s earned what he believes is a major advantage in getting to Cuba early on. He has been building relationships with key Cuban trade officials, who now trust and are familiar with his company, he said.
“They’re smart, shrewd and have an almost corporate kind of structure,” he said, referring to the Cuban government’s trade bureaucracy. He said Maybank Shipping is looking for ways to begin escorting South Carolina business and government officials to Cuba to forge business relationships. “I just want to be the one shipping their goods,” he said.