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Colón Import & Export: A history of prosperity

Colón Import & Export’s origins lie in barter between Europe and the indigenous communities of Kuna Yala in the archipelago of San Blas. What began as the simple trade of European appliances and local coastal resources grew with the opening of the Panama, and has continued to grow since. Now a full-scale operation trading out of the Colón Free Zone, Colón Import and & Export have responded with ambition and initiative to every development they’ve faced along the way. We took a closer look at their history and the shape of operations today.

Colón Import & Export (CIE) was founded in 1912 on the Caribbean coast of Panama. In these early days, the main activity for the company was the trade of European goods such as fabrics, threads, lamps, stoves and utensils, in exchange for Kuna Yala goods such as tortoiseshell, balata, Ipecac and coconuts. CIE were already ahead of their times, as the Panama Canal was not yet open to trade traffic – this developed two years later, in 1914. The new route allowed Colón Import & Export to trade in greater amounts and with eased logistics, but beyond this, it made no great change to the way they did business. In fact, they continued in their steady pace until the event of the Second World War, which no trade business could weather unimpacted. With war-torn waters and the demand for luxury items drying up, the previously content company had to think fast: they responded by opening up a hardware store in Columbus, which succeeded in being prosperous during the war years – a success that was, in part, due to their work servicing the ships that passed through the Panama Canal. It was the largest store of its kind in the region, meaning it was capable of providing for large military vessels, proving the assertion that for savvy minds, there is always money to be made in wartime.

When the global conflict finally drew to an end, Columbus’ businesses began to look to the future. A group of businessmen from the Columbus Chamber of Commerce approached the president of Panama with a proposal; a “Free Zone” to allow more fruitful trade by sanctioning an area in which goods may land, be handled, manufactured, reconfigured and re-exported without the intervention of customs authorities. Amongst those who approached president Enrique Jimenez was Mr. Herbert Toledano, then the director of CIE. The president agreed, and in 1948 the Colón Free Zone started operations.

The Free Zone was a huge success. It was and is the largest free zone in the Americas and the second largest in the world. Linking the railways, airports, sea ports and the Panama Canal, it was an ideal location that allowed for quicker and more profitable business. CIE wwere one of the first companies to operate in the area; as well as continuing their hardware business, they also diversified and expanded into paints, chemicals and liquor.

The company’s next transformation came in 1959, when they became contracted as a dedicated storage and logistics service for the company Geigy. In 1979, the company then moved to its new location in the Free Zone France Field – as with the Colón Free Zone, they were quick off the mark, only the second company to settle in this new area. As they continued to grow and global markets became increasingly affluent, they expanded further, first to Miami in 1985 and then to Uruguay in 1995, covering the Caribbean and South American markets respectively.

Most recently, the booming company has set up its latest facilities at the MIT Logistics Park, built to the highest American standards to serve the growing customer base who wish to utilize the Colón Free Zone afresh. Its strategic position in the American hemisphere gives it a competitive edge over other Trade Free Zones – one that is as relevant now as it was when it was founded decades earlier. Another benefit of working out of this Zone is that it allows CIE to offer customers the service of importing and holding their products before export, without this changing their ever-important “place of origin” certificate.

Colón Import & Export’s new MIT facilities cover 50,000 square meters of office and storage areas, doubling CIE’s previous capacity. It is a vast operation, serving primarily as a warehouse for pharmaceuticals, electronics, chemicals, agrochemicals, liquor and other valuable goods. The facility’s services are designed to provide storage options to customers, mainly electronics and pharmaceutical companies or companies dealing in fast-moving consumer goods, which use the fiscal and logistics benefits of the Republic of Panama for the distribution and redistribution of products to the Caribbean and South America. The platform allows the concentration of customers’ orders in one central location, facilitating and reducing the cost of order handling.

The facility itself is state of the art, boasting the latest in refrigeration and cooling technology, printing, packaging and assemblage technology, and even fire protection systems that are designed to meet the highest international standards of quality and safety. This has become expected for CIE – as their history had shown, they push ever to adapt and thrive in shifting markets and a changing world, and they are as invested to staying ahead today as ever. To that end, the company responds to the increasing speed and competitiveness in the logistics sector by constantly innovating their processes, infrastructure, information systems and communication, technology and their trained personnel.

As just one of their many facilities, this latest addition to Colón’s empire shows just how far they have come from their simple beginnings. With over 500 employees, it is one of the largest employers in the Colón province, which itself only has 250,000 residents. The company is also able to boast one of the highest staff retention rates in Panamas, with staff training and wellbeing a high priority.

Overall, CIE’s history shows that they have risen from success to success by seizing opportunities early, be they getting involved as soon as a Free Zone opens, having the innovation to trade in San Blas before the Panama even took traffic, or the impressive feat of turning their hands to supporting the WW2 effort and somehow making a profit in the process. Speed and initiative are key in the logistics sector, and as their story has shown, CIE have a legacy of owning these qualities in crateloads.