Diplomatic relations: New German consulate office opens at Clark Hill

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By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Although Frederick W. Hoffman is modestly proud of his accomplishments as Honorary Consul for the Republic of Germany, he credits former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm with a lesson in ''shuttle diplomacy.''

In his government affairs role when he worked for DaimlerChrysler, Hoffman had arranged for the governor to fly to Germany on the company's corporate aircraft as part of an economic exchange. Granholm, who was sitting next to Hoffman, was puzzled why people on the plane weren't being more friendly.

''I told her that people were nervous and shy and didn't want to bother her,'' Hoffman said.

The flight attendant was just beginning to distribute chocolates to the passengers.

''The governor grabbed the tray,'' Hoffman said, ''and went from seat to seat saying, 'Would you like some chocolates?' and completely breaking the ice. Now that's diplomacy!''

Hoffman unveiled his new consulate office in Clark Hill PLC's office in Detroit during an official ribbon cutting ceremony on December 8.

Appointed Honorary Consul by the president of Germany in 2002, he joined Clark Hill in August 2011 and is part of the firm's Government and Public Affairs Group.

The Honorary Consul is the official representative of the German government in Michigan and assists German citizens, expatriates and businesses with a wide range of legal matters, including land transactions and other issues requiring German notarization.

''This is a great development for the Detroit region, as well as for diplomats and individuals with German ties,'' Hoffman said ''I hope this process adds to the creativity, open communication and presence of the German American community in the Metro Detroit area. The office will pave the way for even stronger economic growth among German businesses looking to conduct commerce in Southeast Michigan. Our doors are open.''

Hoffman's roots in both Germany and Michigan run deep. His ancestors came from Germany more than 150 years ago and settled in the Frankenmuth area.

Before attending Michigan State Law School, from which he graduated in 1985, Hoffman worked as an editor and columnist at Detroit area newspapers.

Detroit has had a German consulate since the early 1950s. With a large German-American population in Michigan, many German companies doing business here and many sister city programs, there's been both a cultural and economic need for a local office. The German government had a full-time office with 22 staff until 1999, but closed it when they were opening new consulates in the emerging former Soviet republics.

The timing was awkward with the DaimlerChrysler merger -- the biggest American/German business collaboration ever -- just completed. Coincidentally, Hoffman was director of state and local government affairs for DaimlerChrysler, handling relations with the German-American community. He and other members of the local business community told the German government that some sort of office needed to be maintained in the area.

The German government decided to create an honorary consul position. An ''honorary consul'' has all the authority of a consul, but isn't a career professional and doesn't get paid.

It's not an easy process. The U.S. State Department has to approve all diplomatic posts and satisfy the bureaucracies in both Berlin and Washington. Detroit business figure Heinz Prechter was originally tapped for the post, but that plan ended with his untimely death.

In 2002, the Consul General called Hoffman and said, ''you're the man.''

''I said I have a full-time job at DaimlerChrysler, I'm not fluent in German and I've never been a diplomat ... other than that, I'm happy to help,'' said Hoffman. ''The Consul General told me, 'you've got all that it takes. You're well-connected in the business and political communities and everybody loves you.' ''

Hoffman wasn't sure he wanted the job.

''I asked Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche what he thought of the idea and he was thrilled,'' Hoffman said. ''Dieter said it was a great honor and that he was delighted to support me. After that, there was no turning back.''

Then the lengthy process began. Hoffman had to produce a stack of documents about his background, letters of support from the mayor of Detroit, the governor and both U.S. senators. Additional endorsements came from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and members of the German community. The whole process took almost a year.

In 2002, Hoffman was officially appointed by Germany and the process moved to the State Department, which completed the process and issued the credentials. The appointment is until his 65th birthday and can be extended.

Hoffman retired from Chrysler in 2008 and, after taking time off, started with Clark Hill last summer.

''When I asked the Clark Hill folks if they wanted the consulate here, they jumped at it,'' Hoffman said. The French consul already operates out of the office.

''We sincerely appreciate the confidence placed in our people, particularly Fred Hoffman, with this honor and we look forward to serving the German community throughout the state and beyond,'' said John Hern, Clark Hill CEO.

The primary function of the consul is to be essentially the ''go to'' person for the Federal Republic of Germany in Michigan. German citizens working or traveling in Michigan know to call if they have difficulties. Hoffman is even responsible to German prisoners in our correction systems.

The second piece of the job is the consular piece. That's the constant flow of people coming in for his stamp and signature on documents. Everything from power of attorney on land transfers to inheritance issues passes through his office.

''At this point, I don't handle passports and visas,'' he said. ''However, we're negotiating whether to add that service. It's basically a capacity issue at this point.''

The third function is to be the visible figure for the German government in the community. The honorary consul is expected to be in the Bavarian Parade, tap the keg at Oktoberfest and attend the annual dinner dance of the Schwabian Men's Club.

''In Michigan we have approximately 50 German American organizations and I try to be as supportive as possible,'' Hoffman says.

The fourth function is to interact with the diplomatic community in Michigan. There are 41 honorary consuls and eight full-time consuls here. There's constant activity and interaction and they meet once a month to discuss issues.

Hoffman also acts as host when German officials visit and he takes Michigan delegations to Germany.

Michigan's colleges have study programs that Hoffman occasionally assists. Kettering has a program and Wayne State University has the oldest study abroad program still in existence, the ''Junior Year in Munich'' program.

Hoffman seems to be enjoying his double life as attorney and consul. One of the ''duties'' he hasn't exercised yet is the power to marry German citizens.

''I've never done that,'' he says. But the twinkle in his eye suggests that it's on his ''to do'' list.