After 35 years representing the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA) on Capitol Hill, Washington lobbyist Jon Kent said he’s ready to retire, effective Sept. 30.
He said he will miss the passionate, hardworking members of the association, but he also realizes it is time to hand the ball to the next generation. At 74 years old, Kent believes that he has successfully rounded the bases of his career.
“You can’t assign your own importance to an organization,” he told American Shipper in an interview. “While I think that I have contributed to the growth of the NCBFAA in a significant way, there comes a time when you make the handoff. I have told the younger members of the association that ‘now it’s your turn.’”
The NCBFAA, which officially announced Kent’s retirement Sept. 3, praised him for his more than three decades of service to the association and said he will be greatly missed by the membership.
“Jon has been an outstanding advocate for the NCBFAA and his shoes will be big ones to fill,” said NCBFAA President Amy Magnus in a statement. “During his long tenure with the association, he has demonstrated his ability to properly counsel, cajole and guide officers and committee chairs of NCBFAA, all with different management and leadership styles.”
Geoff Powell, the NCBFAA’s chairman and immediate past president, said, “Working with Jon was one of the highlights of my time as NCBFAA president and I couldn’t be happier for him to get to spend more time pursuing his many and varied interests.”
After completing his college education at Yale University and earning a law degree from the University of Iowa during the 1960s, Kent worked most of the 1970s on Capitol Hill as a staffer for Iowa Democratic Congressmen Edward Mezvinsky and Neal Smith. This experience taught him what it takes to get proposed legislation heard and endorsed by the right lawmakers.
In 1979, Kent and a partner, Patrick O’Connor, decided to open their own lobbying firm, called Kent & O’Connor. The first several years were difficult as the two young men struggled to secure their first industry clients.
Kent became the NCBFAA’s Washington lobbyist in 1984, after sending a letter to the association’s then New York City headquarters. He was hired by John Hammon, the NCBFAA’s executive director, and William St. John Jr., president of New Orleans-based forwarder W.R. Zanes & Co., who was president of the association at the time.
“At that time, the association struggled to find the right person to handle government affairs,” Kent said. “I was the last one they talked to. They hired me not because I knew anything about Customs. It was because I knew the ropes in Washington.”
As an industry outsider, Kent recalled how difficult it was at first for him to comprehend operations and regulations that governed the customs brokerage and freight forwarding industries. “I would listen intently during the meetings and have no idea what they were talking about. But after two years of this, it started to make sense,” he said.
The only time that Kent was away from his lobbying duties was in September 1990, when as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve he was detailed to Saudi Arabia to help manage transportation logistics for the Gulf War effort. While there, he worked closely with Generals Ken Guest and Gus Pagonis.
Kent said his first major lobbying successes on behalf of the NCBFAA involved securing passage of the 1993 Customs Modernization Act, which contained fundamental changes in the way the U.S. Customs Service oversaw customs brokers. “Before the Mod Act, Customs set heavily on top of the brokerage industry. It was quite intrusive,” he said.
With Kent’s help, the NCBFAA has had input on every trade bill that’s come before Congress in the years since, including landmark legislation such as the 1998 Ocean Shipping Reform Act (OSRA) and most recently the 2015 Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA).
One of the key outcomes to emerge from TFTEA, which specifically benefited customs brokers, was the recently proposed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) regulation to secure accurate importer identifications. “Instead of the broker being responsible for the importer’s misdeeds and misstatements, the broker will simply have to verify the identification of the importer,” Kent said.
He warned, however, that the importer verification rule might encourage an increase in self-filing of import entries, since some unscrupulous importers will be reluctant to share their business information with a customs broker. “Self-filers are a different animal, which this rule does not address,” Kent said. “CBP will have to think about how to handle that.”
Over the years Kent, along with other NCBFAA members, has participated in the various working groups of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) to ensure that customs broker and freight forwarder voices are heard within the trade advisory which provides recommendations to the Treasury and Homeland Security department secretaries on how to improve commercial operations within CBP.
“I think COAC used to be inclined to rubber-stamp CBP initiatives. Now its work is more thought out, and they’re advancing substantive recommendations,” he said.
However, despite the customs brokerage and freight forwarding industry’s immense influence and involvement in U.S. trade, it must still work to get its voice heard on Capitol Hill. Kent’s job over the years has been to influence key lawmakers in Congress to agree to sponsor legislation that improves the industry’s position.
One piece of NCBFAA legislation that has eluded passage in Congress during the past two decades involves the customs broker’s position in the U.S. bankruptcy proceedings.
The current bankruptcy law gives specific priority to claims that are made by Customs for unpaid import duties within a specified time period before the date of filing the petition. The NCBFAA has argued since customs brokers facilitate the payment of duties to the government that they should be entitled to similar priority when the customer files for bankruptcy.
“It’s not an easy thing to present to, let’s say, an 18-year-old staff person on Capitol Hill. The topic doesn’t immediately appeal to them,” Kent said. “But we think it’s important enough for the industry to take another run at this.”
The NCBFAA isn’t the only client that Kent serves. He represents six other organizations and companies, some of which he will turn over to other staff within Kent & O’Connor.
Kent said lobbying is not an easy occupation. “I chased a lot of rabbits when I was younger. Since then, I know how to get the job done more efficiently,” he said.
O’Connor, five years Kent’s junior, will manage the transition period for the NCBFAA while the association considers Kent’s replacement.
Kent said Cindy Thomas, who joined Kent & O’Connor in 1979 while attending law school at Georgetown University, will be a strong candidate for a role in the NCBFAA after he leaves. Over the years, Thomas has worked behind the scenes for the NCBFAA on regulatory matters involving agencies other than CBP, such as the Food and Drug Administration.
“The key for the NCBFAA to continue to grow and thrive is to keep bubbling up new and younger talent,” Kent said. He pointed to Dave Corn, vice president of Comstock & Theakston; Laurie Arnold, regulatory compliance officer for JAS Forwarding USA; Merit Tremper, president of Merit Trade Consulting Services; and Leah Ellis, president of the Houston Customhouse Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association, as examples of young members who “bring energy to the NCBFAA and want to make a mark for themselves.”
“Guys like me disappear, but they are the legacy who step up and meet the next challenge,” he added.
He will attend the NCBFAA Government Affairs Conference in Washington on Sept. 22-24 and the annual conference April 19-22, 2020, in Las Vegas, but in a nonwork capacity.
Kent said he’s open to what retirement has to offer. He enjoys golf, reading, baseball, coin collecting and travel. In time, he may take on a teaching role. “I prize intellect and thinking about things and communicating those thoughts,” he said.