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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 3, 2015 6 years ago

Custom made

The head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection got his start at St. Petersburg College.
by: Michael Hinman Tampa Bay Reporter

He runs a federal division with more than 62,000 employees, and a budget the size of Iceland's gross domestic product.

But the path to U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, in addition to being President Barack Obama's appointee to the White House Office of National Drug Control, began in Tampa for Gil Kerlikowske.

It officially started with an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College — then St. Petersburg Junior College -- while Kerlikowske was an officer with the St. Petersburg Police Department. He later earned a bachelor's and master's degree from the University of South Florida.

Kerlikowske was named commissioner of CBP last year. The agency, a $13 billion a year enterprise, regulates international trade and is the largest law enforcement office in the country.

Kerlikowske returned to the Tampa area in May to visit the Port of Tampa and the Port of Manatee. He also spoke at an event at St. Petersburg College, where he sat down with the Business Observer to chat about his career and leadership. Here are excerpts of the conversation:

Stay honest: Kerlikowske only has a year at the job at CBP, but he has been a leader, whether it's been locally or in Seattle as the police chief, or in Washington, D.C.
“You have to be honest about what you are, and you have to be willing to work hard and do the same things that everybody else has been asked to do,” he says. “Working with people is critical. You can't spend all your time in the office. You have to spend time with people, too.”

No stigma: Many leaders in Washington hail from major schools like Yale or Harvard. Kerlikowske, however, shows pride in his roots, and says it's just further proof that community colleges provide a high-level education. “I could have never afforded going to the University of Florida or the University of South Florida back then,” he says. “I certainly could afford junior college.”

Frequent flyer: With more than 62,000 employees spread throughout the country, it's easy for people in Florida -- or even Alaska and Hawaii -- to feel far away from their bosses in Washington, D.C. “I have to travel a lot. I'm on a plane almost every week,” Kerlikowske says. “I visit our ports of entry, and have town halls with our employees. I ask them how things are going, and how we can be more helpful to them so that they can get the job done. We stay in contact with those face-to-face meetings.”

Busy work: Ports have been under a lot more scrutiny since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And while increased imports is great news for hubs like the Port of Manatee and Port of Tampa, it also means CBP agents are even busier. “You have a huge increase in travel through Tampa International Airport, I think they're up like 18%,” Kerlikowske says. “Then you have the cargo issues at both ports in this area, and that is really impressive. We have well over 100 people in the Tampa office.”

Flowering expertise: Finding a balance between security and ensuring products make it to their destinations on time also is important. The days around Valentine's Day and Mother's Day are good examples.

“You have all these flowers coming in by plane, but how do you inspect those flowers but still make sure they don't perish before they get home to all the moms?” Kerlikowske asks. “Those are situations people don't really think about all the time, but something we have to be aware of all the time.”

Follow Michael Hinman on Twitter @BizTampaBay

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