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Russians study W.Va. businesses

September 03, 1998

Russians visit WV businessBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




BARDANE, W.Va. - A group of 26 business representatives from the former Soviet Union toured local manufacturing companies in the Eastern Panhandle Wednesday, trying not to worry about the chaos in their home country.

"They're very nervous about it, very anxious," said Aimee Santimore, a U.S. Department of Commerce representative who was leading the group.

The group's trip to the Panhandle capped off a six-week visit to the United States to learn advanced concepts in warehousing, distribution and manufacturing, and hopefully build trade ties here.

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Meanwhile, financial markets and the currency have collapsed in Russia and the government has defaulted on its debts. The crash has threatened to bring down the country's banking systems and has sent reverberations through world markets.

Elena Korobkova, who helps run a Russian cosmetic manufacturer, describes it as a situation that has gone from "bad to worse."

Korobkova talked about the situation in Russia following a tour of Norm Thompson Outfitters, a mail-order company in the Burr Industrial Park that specializes in clothing and outdoor apparel. The group then visited nearby Royal Vendors, a soft drink vending machine plant in the industrial park.

The breakdown of communism created a wealth of new opportunities for Russian manufacturers that had been tightly controlled by their government. But the new beginning also posed obstacles.

Korobkova, chief cosmetologist for the Grim cosmetic factory in St. Petersburg, Russia, said there were problems getting raw materials and finding help to maintain equipment after the fall of communism. The government had helped handle those issues, but after the revolution, it was up to the companies, she said.

"We do everything with our own means. We get no subsidies," said Korobkova, speaking through an interpreter.

Troubles widened with the recent economic crisis in Russia.

Members of the group could not understand U.S. news reports about the crisis because they speak little English. Paul Raphael Friedman, an interpreter who traveled with the group on a large tour bus, updated them every morning on the bus by relaying news reports over a microphone.

"It's very hard for us to learn what is happening," said Korobkova.

The group traveled throughout the East, visiting large manufacturers like Bristol Myers-Squibb in Stanford, Conn., and Kimberly Clark in Neenah, Wis., said Santimore, who works for the U.S. Department of Commerce's Special American Business Internship Training Program.

Santimore said the group appeared to enjoy seeing businesses in the rolling farmland of the Eastern Panhandle after trips through major cities.

Korobkova said it was nice to see people "having fun" while they work, and she was impressed by the high level of technology at local manufacturing companies.

"It's real teamwork," she said.

The tour to the Panhandle was coordinated by the West Virginia International Trade Development Council, which was created by development authorities in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties to spur international business here.

Earlier in the day, the group toured Seely Pine Furniture in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., and Corning Glass Works in Berkeley County, W.Va.

Many Russian business groups have visited the Panhandle in recent years to study business and tax systems here.

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