NEW YORK — AS Secretary of Commerce, one of Ron Brown's most noteworthy acts was to attempt to boost US exports. Moving to simplify his labyrinthine department, he opened a large room, which became a one-stop shopping center for all hoping to sell their widgets overseas. Mr. Brown called it the Center for Advocacy.
It is also an appropriate name for Brown, who leaves behind a legacy of business advocacy - especially for exports - at the Commerce Department. With Brown and 32 others killed in an air crash on Wednesday in Croatia on a trade mission, many believe that legacy will continue. The center, as well as the conferences and seminars that have helped small businessmen and $1-billion companies ship their products overseas, are not likely to end anytime soon.
Yet his loss leaves the agency with an undeniable leadership vacuum at a time when its existence is being questioned by some in Congress.
"His legacy is that business people here feel the Commerce Department is a real positive force for international trade," says Jack Shaw, chairman of Hughes Network in Germantown, Md., which won $700 million in contracts on a Brown trip to India in 1995.
Under Brown, the Commerce Department also opened up to small business. In his trips to South Africa, Latin America, and Asia, Brown would mix the chiefs of large companies, such as Mr. Shaw, with those of small and minority businesses. "He engaged a lot broader range of business," says Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, International, and a member of the Nixon White House.
In fact, the trips, such as the one to Bosnia, were sometimes criticized as expensive and politically motivated. Brown was also a lightning rod for criticism. Attorney General Janet Reno had appointed a special counsel to investigate charges that Brown had illegally accepted $500,000 from a former business partner. That investigation was ongoing when Brown was killed.
In an earlier investigation, Brown was cleared of charges that he had taken a $700,000 bribe to get the administration to open up trading with the Republic of Vietnam. The Vietnam effort, controversial when first announced, is now viewed positively by business.
"That is now beginning to pay dividends; Vietnam is the fastest-growing market in Southeast Asia," remarks Willard Workman, vice president for International Trade at the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "I just got through opening up Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh branches, and who would have thought I'd be doing that two years ago," he says.
The push in Southeast Asia was part of Brown's "big emerging markets" initiative. The agency has identified as BEMs countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, India, Poland, South Africa, Turkey, and the Chinese economic area.
According to Commerce Department analysis, whatever growth the world would see in imports through the year 2010, the BEMs would soak up 40 percent of the flow. Brown went into high gear to try to ensure American business got its share.
As part of this effort, Commerce teamed with the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor seminars and conferences on exporting. "The meetings weren't just in the US, but also in Chile, Colombia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Prague," says Mr. Workman. A large conference on Chinese infrastructure landed billions of dollars in contracts.
Brown was particularly proud of a Brazilian trip where Massachusetts-based Raytheon won a $1.4-billion contract over a French company. The deal to build a high-tech monitoring service for the Amazon rain forest has since run into political trouble and its outcome won't be known for another four to six weeks, company officials say.
As an African-American, Brown also took special interest in trade with South Africa. While there, he set up a Technical Assistance Center to help identify future business opportunities.
"Brown making trips down there, being visible and supportive, has encouraged a lot of companies to return to South Africa," says Tim Lukens, associate director of the Washington-based US-South Africa Business Council, an association of US companies doing business in South Africa.
Brown made the Commerce Department far more visible than under prior administrations, which often used the post to reward big donors. Even some Republicans praise Brown's efforts. "Ron has done the best job as any secretary of commerce in my memory," says Clayton Yeutter, former US Trade Representative and former head of the Republican National Committee.