WASHINGTON — Rick Helfenbein will brandish his credentials as an industry insider and his 40 years of experience to advocate for critical issues ranging from trade and consumer product safety to anticounterfeiting efforts as he takes the helm of the American Apparel & Footwear Association next month.
Helfenbein, who was named president and chief executive officer of the AAFA on Monday, will take the reins of the trade and lobbying group on Feb. 15, replacing Juanita Duggan, who is leaving to become president and ceo of the National Federation of Independent Business.
For the past 16 years, Helfenbein has been president of Luen Thai USA, directing U.S. operations for Hong Kong-based apparel and footwear sourcing giant Luen Thai Holdings. During his tenure, he helped the company grow into what is considered the largest publicly traded apparel, accessories and footwear manufacturing company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Helfenbein, who had run Luen Thai USA from New York, is planning to be based in the nation’s capital to head the AAFA.
His years of experience has gained him knowledge sourcing in countries around the globe and he knows how nimble companies must be when social instability and rising costs force changes in strategies. Helfenbein also understands the implications of gridlock on Capitol Hill and of the adverse impact inaction can have when Congress, for example, lets crucial trade preference programs such as the African Growth & Opportunity Act expire then must go through a lengthy process to renew them.
He said he has been “walking the halls of Congress” for the past eight years, offering perspective to lawmakers and information about the industry.
Helfenbein has served on the AAFA board for six years and has held the post of chairman for the past two years. During that time, he has lobbied on behalf of the industry on issues ranging from TPP, renewal of AGOA, Made in USA and trade benefits for Haiti.
And he has had extensive experience in Haiti, ranging from manufacturing the Le Tigre brand and Izod Lacoste shirts there to lobbying for expansion of a U.S. trade preference program to deep involvement in its development efforts.
Helfenbein was also at the vortex of apparel sourcing, U.S. politics and foreign governments when he advised former President Clinton on efforts to get Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide back into power in 1994, three years after he was ousted by a coup. Afterward, Helfenbein got involved in the Clinton Global Initiative’s efforts to revitalize Haiti in the wake of a devastating earthquake there in 2010.
“Over the years, I’ve had extensive experience in the textile business, as well as the U.S. manufacturing side, sourcing in Latin America, Central America, Mexico and Asia. I’m very comfortable with all the nuances across the spectrum of our industry,” Helfenbein said in a phone interview. “So, I bring to the table significant industry context and global experience on how the industry works, and that will translate to what the important issues are on Capitol Hill.”
From issues, big and small, he has been active in promoting AAFA’s global footprint over those years as well as domestic events such as the annual executive summit in Washington and the American Image Awards, the industry’s fashion, policy and business gala in New York City.
“Now I get to combine the two experiences,” he said. “My plan is to take my deep industry experience and knowledge of Capitol Hill to make AAFA an even stronger organization and to grow our membership.”
Global sourcing is a major part of the AAFA’s focus, but it also promotes Made in America for its members that produce goods in the U.S. either for private sector consumption, exporting or through government procurement.
“The fact is our industry is global — our sourcing, our production and our consumers are everywhere — and that will continue to be the case,” Helfenbein said. “Even so, it’s important to recognize that 70 percent of the value of our products are derived from U.S. contribution and innovation.”
According to an industry coalition study, 70 percent of the retail value of U.S. products is comprised of design, research and development, marketing, transportation and logistics costs.
“We want to work with policymakers to figure out how best we can streamline the processes and regulations to be more effective and business friendly,” he added.
One of AAFA’s top lobbying priorities this year is to garner support for and help educate lawmakers on the benefits of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Trade ministers reached a deal in October on TPP, which includes the U.S., Australia, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand. It aims to tear down barriers to trade and would encompass 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product if enacted.
The U.S. fashion industry has a big stake in the agreement. The U.S. imports $22 billion in apparel, textiles and footwear from the TPP countries and exports around $14.25 billion. Vietnam is the second-largest apparel supplier to the U.S. after China and a big sourcing hub for companies.
Helfenbein said, “The number-one thing our members are interested in is TPP. It is a big issue for them and they want to know not only who is included in the deal, which generally means Vietnam, but also who is next in line in terms of countries joining [at some point in the future].
“Anyone today who does not plan sourcing strategies three, four or five years out is not going to make it. You really have to look beyond the horizon,” Helfenbein said. “Our goal as an association is to work with all of the members of Congress and put pressure in the right place to make sure this gets passed. This will be a remarkable trade deal.”
Helfenbein noted that the pact will have a bigger impact in certain areas and primarily reduce duties up front, not eliminate them, which is something the deal seeks to do in the long run. He expects a vote in Congress to come either in a lame duck session this year after the presidential and congressional elections or in the first half of 2017.
Another key priority for Helfenbein and AAFA is finding a resolution to a long-running dispute AAFA has had with the Alibaba Group, and its online e-commerce platform Taobao, over counterfeits.
The AAFA had turned up the pressure on Alibaba and pressed the U.S. government to relist Alibaba on a key counterfeit watch list. While the U.S. Trade Representative’s office declined to relist Alibaba and Taobao in its most recent report, it sent a strong warning to the Chinese Internet giant, putting it on notice to immediately address rights-holders’ concerns.
“We have an ongoing battle, which would be very nice to get resolved amicably with Alibaba, on intellectual property,” Helfenbein said. “Our members are adamant that their branding will not be compromised. Somewhere along the line we hope to get some closure on that with Alibaba.”
Helfenbein said now that Alibaba has hired a new executive and entire team to address counterfeiting on its platforms, he is optimistic there will be an opportunity for resolution.
AAFA will also work hard this year to help member companies through the process of seeking duty-free benefits for travel goods under the Generalized System of Preferences. The U.S. recently announced it accepted industry petitions as part of a review to add travel goods to the program for the first time.
The AAFA has 340-member companies representing more than 1,000 brands, including Hanesbrands, VF Corp., New Balance, PVH Corp. and Ann Inc.
“The perspective I bring is that I’ve been a member; I know the business decisions, pressures and drivers, and how policies like customs and trade rules or product safety regulations affect our decisions or our companies,” Helfenbein added. “My coming on doesn’t change the message and the issues the industry cares about — those issues remain the same. What I will have is first-hand experience and 40 years — an entire career of industry knowledge — I think that can be very powerful.”