hOW the Casa San Antonio Program bEGAN
A portrait of Mayor Lila Cockrell circa 1989
In 1989, the Mexican state of Jalisco was in the process of opening a tourism office in San Antonio and had invited San Antonio to do the same in Guadalajara, a sister city of San Antonio since 1974. Responsibility fell to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, whose international department was run by Frances Schultshik at the time. With the support of Assistant City Manager Rolando Bono and City Manager Alexander Briseño, Ms. Schultshik was granted permission by the San Antonio City Council to establish the office in Guadalajara. Other early champions of the program included Mayor Lila Cockrell and Councilwoman Yolanda Vera, both of whom offered critical enthusiasm and backing.
Meanwhile, Henry E. Sauvignet had just begun a new job as a business specialist in the Economic Development Office of San Antonio. When Mr. Sauvignet heard of the project, which had developed from a tourism office to an office that would promote trade as well, he volunteered to move to Guadalajara himself in order to oversee its inception. The first office of Casa San Antonio was located on the third floor of a public works building in Guadalajara, and it had a staff of only two: Mr. Sauvignet and a devoted and capable secretary named Maria Guadalupe de Lima, who would remain in the city’s employ for many years, moving to each new office of Casa San Antonio as it opened in order to help it get on its feet.
The genius of the Casa San Antonio program was the emphasis on two-way trade
Judge Nelson Wolff was an important leader during the Casa San Antonio program history as Mayor of San Antonio during the early 90’s
In October 1991, the new office opened with a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony at which not one but two San Antonio mayors were present: now-former Mayor Cockrell and newly-elected Mayor Nelson Wolff. Jointly funded by San Antonio’s general fund and the Hotel-Motel Tax, the office’s purpose was twofold: to promote tourism to San Antonio and to stimulate trade between San Antonio and Mexico. The genius of the program was the emphasis on two-way trade; encouraging imports as well as exports strengthened San Antonio-Mexico relations overall, increasing the number of Mexican businesses that chose to use services and products from San Antonio or to make San Antonio a springboard for their expansion into North America.
Although Casa San Antonio was designed to aid primarily small and medium-sized businesses, it also had the backing of several large businesses in San Antonio including HEB, USAA, and Frost Bank, who offered initial funding and donated furniture and other supplies to the first office in Guadalajara. Wittigs Furniture made a donation which furnished the Casa San Antonio office in Monterrey. Casa San Antonio owes its early success to these companies’ generous donations, just one example of the early support that the entire San Antonio community offered the project.
The Casa program was initiated prior to the signing of NAFTA, which took place in San Antonio on December 17, 1992
Initially, the mission of Casa San Antonio was to offer basic services to small businesses seeking to make a foray into international trade. The Casa office served as a mailing address and local phone number for companies that could not afford to run a physical office across the border, an invaluable service in an era when the internet had not yet made international communication so simple. In his role as director, Mr. Sauvignet also set out to network extensively: he joined several chambers of commerce in order to make contacts that he could pass on to San Antonio businesses seeking to enter the Mexican market.
Casa San Antonio worked in conjunction with the International Relations Office to organize trade missions which saw enormous success
Working in conjunction with the International Relations Office in San Antonio, led by Elizabeth Costello at the time and by Shahrzad Dowlatshahi at present, the Casa program organized trade missions, or short visits during which representatives from San Antonio businesses met with at least five companies interested in their product. For some trade missions, Casa San Antonio organized as many as 110 business meetings. The trade missions saw enormous success, with total bilateral trade increasing swiftly as the years progressed: from 1991 to 2000, Casa San Antonio served more than 5,200 clients, generating over $70 million in trade between San Antonio and Mexico. Starting in 2003, Casa San Antonio also organized trips for San Antonio’s Export Leaders Program, which required participants to visit Mexico at least twice.
A photo of a typical business seminar conducted by Casa San Antonio
Casa San Antonio also developed a seminar program called “How to Do Business in the US.” Many cities were running similar seminars, but they revolved around why their city was the best place to do business. Counter intuitively, Casa San Antonio’s program did not directly tout San Antonio. Rather, all the experts who spoke were based in San Antonio, and Mexican businessmen/women who participated in the seminars developed a rapport with them, so when they wanted to expand their businesses to the US market, the San Antonio experts were the first people to whom they turned. The seminar series not only thrived in Guadalajara but also expanded to the Monterrey and Mexico City offices of Casa San Antonio once they opened.
In a similar initiative, the Casa program collaborated with an organization called Medical Destination: San Antonio to run a medical teleconferencing program in which San Antonio doctors offered advice to doctors in Mexico. Through this program, the Mexican doctors both improved their skills and formed positive opinions of the abilities of the doctors in San Antonio. Thus when a patient needed a complex procedure, these Mexican doctors might recommend their San Antonio colleagues. At the same time, San Antonio doctors avoided offending the doctors by going over their heads to advertise to the Mexican public, staying true to Casa’s soft-sell philosophy.
Henry Sauvignet realized the need for a Casa in the political center of Mexico and opened an office in Mexico City in September of 1995
Casa San Antonio also helped bolster tourism to San Antonio; Frances Schultshik deserves credit for several initiatives. For example, she organized a promotional tour in which representatives from San Antonio’s travel and hospitality industries traveled through Mexico. By day, the tour was a traveling trade show. By night, it became a fashion show, sponsored by retailers at North Star Mall to encourage people in Mexico to come to San Antonio to shop. Through this initiative and others, Casa San Antonio showed itself to be a creative and effective proponent of San Antonio-Mexico tourism. Indeed, encouraged by the great success of the Guadalajara office, the City of San Antonio approved plans to open a second office in Monterrey in 1992. Mr. Sauvignet moved to Monterrey to become the office’s first director, and Maria Guadalupe de Lima moved as well to help set up the office based on her experience as secretary in Guadalajara. This time the first physical office was a state-of-the-art facility in Monterrey’s new conference center, Cintermex. The Casa program was definitely on its way up, and only one year later, city officials began to lay the groundwork for a third office, this time in Mexico City.
Back in San Antonio, the city was undergoing an economic crisis as the US reorganized its air force bases, resulting in the closure of Kelly Air Force Base in southwest San Antonio. In such uncertain economic times, the city was wary of spending more on the Casa program, so the expansion to Mexico City had to be postponed. By 1995, the economy had recovered sufficiently, and Mr. Sauvignet moved to Mexico City, leaving the Monterrey office in the capable hands of new director Maria Elena Villarreal. The City of San Antonio organized a grand opening at the new office, hosted by then Mayor William Thornton, which more than fifty San Antonio delegates attended: owners of San Antonio businesses, people from the tourism industry, and representatives of chambers of commerce.
In 1994, many foreign investors pulled out of Mexico in response to its peso crisis, but San Antonio continued to support Mexican enterprise
Meanwhile, Mexico was weathering the peso crisis of 1994. Many foreign investors pulled out of Mexico in response, but San Antonio continued to support Mexican enterprise, and the City of San Antonio even ran an ad in local newspapers reading, “Mexico, through thick and thin, San Antonio stands with you.”
Such support fortified the San Antonio-Mexico relationship in the long run, ensuring that Mexican businessmen would remember their friends in San Antonio when they wanted to do business in the United States. To further strengthen the ties between San Antonio and Mexico, mayors of San Antonio have made official visits to Mexico that included stops at the Casa offices in Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Mexico City about every three years. Notable visits include one led by Mayor Ed Garza in 2001, with 56 delegates, and more recently one led by Mayor Castro in 2008 with 63 delegates.
Casa San Antonio promises to continue improve the already thriving relationship between San Antonio and Mexico for many years come.
In March 1999, this picture depicts an exchange carried out by the Casa Mexico City Offices with a delegation from San Antonio and President Ernesto Zedillo.
In 2002, the Asociacion Empresarios Mexicanos gifted the Torch of Friendship structure to the City of San Antonio on behalf of the President of Mexico
Past directors of the Casa offices include Jake Flores, Reynaldo Cano, Maria Elena Villarreal, Uvaldo Martinez, Raul Rodriguez, and Daniel Rodriguez. In 2010, as a response to the changing economic situation, the City closed their physical offices in Monterrey and Guadalajara in favor of a consultant model in both cities. Casa San Antonio today is under the direction of Jill Metcalfe in Mexico City and supported by a representative in Monterrey.
In 2015 Mexico City Economic Development and City of San Antonio Economic Development signed an agreement within framework of Brookings Institution Global Cities Initiative for economic cooperation. The role of Casa San Antonio in partnership with many San Antonio stake holders for the implementation of the tenants of this agreement is of utmost importance. Additionally, Casa San Antonio Mexico City celebrated its twentieth Anniversary by moving to a new location in the former Mexican Stock Exchange Building where it continues to promote San Antonio's presence in Mexico with a revamped image.
Through advertisements, trade missions, and seminars, and in every other way, Casa San Antonio has fostered a prosperous economic and touristic relationship with Mexico and it has earned recognition for its achievements from many organizations over the years, including Sister Cities International and the National Council for Urban Economic Development. Moreover, the program’s ongoing success eventually inspired the US Commercial Service to create a similar program, was tested in San Diego.
Casa San Antonio promises to continue to improve the already thriving relationship between San Antonio and Mexico for many years to come.