DESPITE a domestic recession especially severe in this region, many small and medium-size New England companies appear willing to risk the pitfalls of doing business in Eastern European countries.And, by happy coincidence, companies ready to take the plunge into the political and legal uncertainties, the currency convertibility vagaries, and the lack of free-market traditions in these nations do not have to make their first business contacts on foreign soil. Rather, many have attended international trade shows and foreign symposiums held in record numbers throughout New England. Business people can select from a variety of trade groups, colleges, and municipalities "importing" senior officials and decisionmakers from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in search of joint ventures and United States capital.
Bringing people together "Everyone knows the opportunities are there," says John Drew, president of World Trade Center in Boston, the region's leading business port of call. Trade shows and symposiums are "one way of getting people who have control of projects to mix with US businessmen and have enough time together to see mutual possibilities," he adds. The sessions take place in small conference rooms, college classrooms, or the cavernous floor space at the World Trade Center located in one of Boston Harbor's renovated warehouses. Whether a company wishes to develop business in Budapest, Moscow, Prague, Warsaw, or elsewhere in the former communist bloc, there is "a match between the interests and skills" of firms and governments that can lead to taking "the steps to make things happen," Mr. Drew says. Small and medium-size companies come with two questions, says Drew: "How soon can my company start to make a profit on its investment? And can we convert those profits into Western currency?" The answers to both are reassuringly positive depending on the type of business the company is engaged in, he says. This and the recession are the catalysts for so many foreign trade symposiums being held. For the rest of this decade the key business opportunities in Hungary for US companies are in construction, environmental and pollution control projects, telecommunications, and rapid transit, Gabor Demszky, the Lord Mayor of Budapest told a symposium sponsored by Boston's World Trade Center. When Mr. Demszky noted that Hungary has a population of 10 million and that last year the city of Budapest alone had 20 million tourists visit, representatives from the hotel, restaurant, and travel industries took note. "The time for developing hotels in the East bloc is now," Mayor Demszky said. Citing his city's history of building preservation, "there really is very limited space for desirable city-center locations," he said. There is a "pent up and unmet demand in the Eastern bloc," says David Hughes, former commercial attache to the US Embassy in Budapest, who also spoke at the symposium. Hungarian officials talk of their goal to build extensive bicycle paths along the Danube. Almost as an afterthought, one Budapest official added that there are no parking garages in the city center. Construction company and architectural firm representatives took note.
Learning from others Besides hearing from foreign trade officials, symposium attendees can talk with their US peers already getting business from abroad. Arnold Watkin of Watkin Dental Associates relates how he started the American Central European Dental Institute in Boston. The idea began at a conference attended by Czechoslovakian dentists. "I realized they had no idea how to run a private practice, how to even set prices or bill patients," Dr. Watkin says. "For 50 years dentists were told not to think, they were told to do." What began as a case study approach using his office as a model blossomed into a full-fledged institute. Since little if any modern dental equipment is available in Eastern Europe, it just made sense for now to start the classes over here, Watkin says. Eventually the venue will shift to countries overseas, he says. A spin-off is that US office and dental equipment manufacturers now routinely provide samples of their wares.