It's been nearly two decades since Steven Weathers took part in one of his most important business trips abroad: joining a team of local civic leaders who flew to Denmark in the mid-1990s to hammer out the deal that brought Legoland to Carlsbad.
And now -- after heading economic development efforts in Arizona, Ohio and Georgia -- Weathers is back in San Diego again, this time as the new chief executive of the local World Trade Center.
His goal: to help more local companies make a "global footprint" overseas.
"If we help companies expand abroad, that can create more jobs here and create greater economic prosperity throughout the region," he said.
The WTC's agenda for this year includes trade missions to China, Japan, North Africa and the Middle East, as well as helping local companies display their wares in a wide variety of trade shows.
Weathers says one of his goals is to develop specialized desks within the WTC to handle research and matchmaking services for local companies seeking to do business in Latin America and Europe, similar to the Asia desk that was launched in the last decade.
"These teams will have the in-depth knowledge and experience to make them the go-to people on business issues," he said. "The goal is to do what we can to help companies make the transition into the global economy as cost-effectively and risk-free as possible."
The WTC hired Weathers last November to replace Bella Heule, who was promoted to become the vice president of the international World Trade Centers Association in New York.
"We interviewed a number of very well-qualified candidates, but he was unique," said WTC Chairman Bruce Hueners, who heads Palomar Technologies in Carlsbad -- a company that does 70 percent of its business overseas, partly because of the ties developed through the WTC.
Hueners cited Weathers' two-decade experience with international trade and development, as well as his "enthusiasm, energy and drive" as reasons for the pick.
Weathers comes to the job at a time when trade is emerging as one of the brighter parts of the state and local economy.
"Prospects for growing export trade in the (current) quarter are looking more positive," said a report earlier this month by Beacon Economics, a financial research organization in Los Angeles.
"Europe, while still mired in recession, appears to have finally averted what threatened to become an economic free-fall. And … evidence continues to mount that China's economy is once again on a robust growth track."
Mayor Bob Filner, who has identified trade with China, Mexico and other destinations as a key area for San Diego growth, has already been discussing ways of working together with the WTC to achieve that goal, Weathers said.
Weathers has a long track record in trade issues. After getting his Bachelor of Arts in economics at California State University in Chico, Weathers began a career in securities and banking before joining the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. in 1990.
At the time, there was no World Trade Center in San Diego, so one of Weathers' main tasks was to help develop the county more business and trade ties.
Besides joining business missions to such places as Tokyo and Beijing, Weathers also traveled Billund, Denmark, to work on the Legoland deal.
Although Billund is a tiny town of just 6,000 people, it can also be intimidating. Its original Legoland theme park draws 1.6 million visitors a year, while its toy factories churn out 90 percent of the world's Lego products. With roots that date back to the 1200s, Billund is proud of its ancient history as well.
"You Americans think something's old if it's been around for 200 years," a local official told Weathers on his first visit. "But our city hall is three times as old as your entire country."
The negotiations involved such issues as whether the Carlsbad theme park -- the first in a string of Legolands built outside Denmark -- would match the company's vision, as well as addressing local concerns over whether it would become a Disney-style theme park that would dominate the local landscape.
Weathers said Lego quickly allayed such concerns by stressing that "park" was the most important part of "theme park."
Weathers said the talks were successful because they involved a wide variety of partners, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson's office, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the Carlsbad City Council and the regional chambers of commerce.
"It was a classic multi-jurisdictional partnership," Weathers said, adding that he looks forward to building similar partnerships while at the WTC.
Weathers left the EDC for Arizona in 2001, taking a job as head of the Greater Tucson Economic Council, where his primary involvement in foreign trade was helping Canadian firms launch operations in the Southwest.
In his most recent position as president and chief executive of the Savannah Economic Development Authority, Weathers also founded and headed the World Trade Center Savannah, modeled on San Diego's WTC.
Weathers said the value of a trade center is that it can help companies evaluate foreign markets before they make the costly decision to expand there.
"If you're a company that wants to go to China, it's more cost-effective to have somebody who can discuss your expectations and all the costs and capital risk involved instead of flying over to China 10 times yourself to find all that out," Weathers said.
"Maybe [a WTC trade representative] will be able to help you find distributors or partners there. Or maybe you'll find out that China may not be your best fit, but that another country is instead."