Border Crossing? No Problema

This trucker is riding high on free trade

Roy Strickland first finessed the Mexican border in 1978, when he was operations manager for a trucking company. His mission: to bring a load of U.S.-bound tequila through Laredo, Tex. Border traffic was scant back then, but it was a stressful trip, full of bureaucratic roadblocks, and constant threat of theft or damage.

Today, trucks line up for miles on both sides of the border. Strick-land is busier too, running his own transportation brokerage, Woodlands (Tex.)-based Canusamex. The company's logo--a melding of the flags of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico--says it all. "Anything south of the Arctic Circle and north of the Panama Canal--we're ready for it," he says.

Strickland could soon be covering an even larger area. Free-trade boosters, including President Bush, are pushing hard for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would transform the hemisphere into a seamless $11 trillion marketplace.

That's the dream, anyway. Strickland deals in reality: He works with air-freight, ocean-shipping, and trucking companies to find the most reliable and cost-effective way to move clients' goods from point A to point B--whether it's exotic hardwoods from Honduras to Houston or cactus fertilizer from Mississippi to tequila producers in Guadalajara. Among hundreds of rivals, he stands out for his expertise in hazardous chemicals, which make up 40% of his business. Such deals can easily become logistical and regulatory nightmares--such as a recent eight-week ordeal that ensued when a Mexican buyer rejected a load of chemicals for not having the right paperwork.

But Strickland, 58, loves a challenge. He's founded three successful trucking companies, launching Canusamex in 1994, in the wake of NAFTA. Since then, trade between the U.S. and Mexico has jumped more than 200%, propelling revenues at the five-person company to $4.7 million. In the first four months of this year alone, Canusamex' sales to Mexico were four times what they were in all of 2000, Strickland says.

A hemispheric free-trade zone would be even better, and while the prospect is uncertain, Strickland already is expanding his reach as far south as Chile. The world may be getting smaller, but Canusamex is only getting bigger.

By Jill Hamburg Coplan

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