When economist Antonia Romeo, who completed Columbia Business School’s Advanced Management Program in 2015, was named consul general in New York (the first woman to hold the position since the job was created 231 years ago) as well as the UK government’s director general of economic and commercial affairs in the US, she could not have imagined the new significance these roles would take on.
But on June 23, 2016, two weeks before she was to begin her new positions, the British people voted for the UK to leave the EU. The Brexit vote created some uncertainty, which left companies around the world wondering about the future of doing business with the UK, and Romeo immediately focused on reassuring US businesses that the UK is, and will remain, a highly attractive trading partner. Below, Romeo answers questions about her dual roles and how they were shaped by the Brexit vote.
Can you begin by talking about each role’s different responsibilities?
Antonia Romeo: As consul general I have diplomatic responsibility, which means that I promote the UK political, national-security, and foreign-policy agendas in the Tri-State Area, but I also have wider responsibility for international trade across the whole of North America. The diplomatic part of the role, the consul general part, includes quite a lot of representational work — for example representing the UK at a New York ceremony on Remembrance Sunday (similar to Veterans’ Day, in November) and making a speech to commemorate those who have fallen in the world wars. It also involves working with city and state executives. As director general of economic and commercial affairs, I’m responsible for increasing inward investment from the US and Canada into the UK and promoting exports from the UK into the US and Canada, and working on increasing market access between the UK and North America.
How has Brexit impacted the focus of your role as the UK’s director general of economic and commercial affairs in the US?
AR: When I was appointed as consul general, I also took on a new role [of director general of economic and commercial affairs] because the government wanted to align and promote the UK trade and prosperity agenda more broadly in our biggest single market, the US. The role was created before the EU referendum, but the result of the referendum made the combination of the two roles even more logical and vital. And the outcome of that vote has really shaped much of the job’s focus so far. Indeed, at the start of my first official week – July 11 — I had the then-chancellor of the exchequer visiting New York and we spent the morning on Wall Street talking to the chief executives of financial firms about investing in the UK. And that’s been a primary focus from then on: a large part of my job is to talk to the big US companies and understand what they need from the UK in terms of our ongoing negotiation with the EU, then communicating that to the people back in the UK leading the negotiations. It’s about ensuring the UK remains a top destination for global investment — which we are confident we will.
Have you been successful in helping to reassure US businesses that the UK is still a viable place to do business?
AR: The Prime Minister’s been really clear that we’re not giving a running commentary on negotiations, and as the Chancellor has said, we’re in a period of uncertainty following the referendum. But certainly, we’ve seen a large number of US businesses publicly commit to maintaining and increasing investment in the UK. The fact is, the government is completely commited to maintaining the UK as a very attractive place in which to invest. We still have the top talent. We’ve got the financial services capital of Europe. We’ve got favorable and appropriate tax and labor laws. We’ve got a very competitive corporation tax, and we have ongoing development in innovation and in infrastructure — both in communication and transport. From the conversations I’m having, US businesses know this and will continue to consider the UK to be a major place to invest and a very attractive place to invest going forward.
A large part of my job is to talk to the big US companies and understand what they need from the UK in terms of our ongoing negotiation with the EU. … It’s about ensuring the UK remains a top destination for global investment — which we are confident we will.
In what sectors are you focusing your efforts in terms of encouraging investment?
AR: The tech sector is a great example of a space where really all the big companies have already made a commitment to new investment in the UK since the EU referendum. If you look at Google, Apple’s new headquarters, Amazon, IBM data centers, and Microsoft, they have recently made commitments that will bring multiple thousands of jobs over the next few years into the UK. Tech companies want to take advantage of the great talent we have. We’ve got the world’s number-one university — Oxford, where I received my undergraduate degree — combined with a huge amount of talent and vibrancy particularly in the tech and innovation spaces. I think large American companies want to take advantage of our unique and innovative business ecosystem. It’s been a big success story, really.
What projects—in your consul general position and in your role as director general of economic and commercial affairs — are you most proud of?
AR: On the trade side: right after the EU referendum vote, a number of cabinet ministers visited New York in rapid succession, including the current and former chancellors of the exchequer, the prime minister, the foreign secretary, the health secretary, the attorney general, and a number of trade ministers. (The trade secretary visited Chicago and LA as well, and I traveled with him.) My job, and that of my fantastic team, when ministers visit, is to support them in communicating to businesses here that the UK will maintain itself as a really attractive place for investment and to promote UK companies who want to export to the United States. These visits were very successful and substantive for all of those involved. I’m proud of the great team I lead in New York and across North America who helped ensure that.
On the diplomatic side, I’m interested in the arts and think it’s a very powerful way to promote British values and soft power. As consul general, I’ve done a large number of arts-related activities.The Consulate has begun a collaboration with the Donmar Warehouse, which is a UK-based theater company, and we’ve also collaborated on events with the British Tate Gallery, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Foundation, the Royal Academy, and many others. These endeavors have been about promoting great British art and great British artists and exposing the US and New York to the UK’s fantastic artistic talent. Again, I couldn’t have done it without my wonderful team.
What has it meant to be the first woman to hold the title Her Majesty’s Consul General in New York?
AR: I think it’s a terrific honor and a huge step in the right direction, but it’s important to remember that government appointments are merit-based. In today’s world there are really no jobs that can’t be done by a woman that can be done by a man. It’s also important to take the responsibility quite seriously when you’re a woman in a high-pressure and high-profile job, because we’re trying to increase diversity at the top — this is something the UK government is really committed to. I learned so much from role models in my career; I’d be delighted if I could show even one person that you can combine having a family with having successful career. I’m also really proud that my team is almost 75 percent women. Of my three deputies, two are women. I didn’t plan it that way, but you pick the best people and many of them happen to be women, unsurprisingly. I had a great moment a week or so ago on International Women’s Day when I did a session on leadership with my female staff. Just having the conversation made me so proud to work for the British government, which is so committed to diversity and supporting women in the workplace.
What is your next step?
AR: My next job, which I start in a couple of weeks, is as permanent secretary of the Department for International Trade, which is a new department created last summer under Prime Minister Theresa May, to oversee negotiation of market access and trade deals with other countries as well as to promote trade and inward investment globally. I can’t think of a bigger privilege than to lead the department that is going to be responsible for promoting the UK as a free-trading nation post-EU membership. It’s a hugely significant time for the UK, and it’s a hugely significant time to be doing this particular job: supporting the Secretary of State for International Trade by building the capability to enable Britain to promote itself as a free-trading global nation. It’s a big responsibility that I take very seriously.
You’ll be going back to London for that job. What will you miss most about New York?
AR: I will miss some of the adventurous walks that you can do in New York without even realizing you’re walking. When you’ve got children that’s quite important, because you like to take them to do things that are so fun and interesting that they don’t even notice they’re walking a great distance. One of the walks I’ll miss the most is probably the High Line. I’ll miss the Met Museum of Art and the spectacular views from restaurants. I’ll especially miss Central Park — I’ve spent a lot of time in Central Park in the past two years. And the food! I have never eaten better than during this time in New York — and I’ve lived in London and Paris!