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US Firms Prospering in Asia, Russia

  • James Brooke

The daily ups and downs of U.S. relations with Asia and Russia get a lot of attention. But American executives attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit said that receptivity for American products and companies is high in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton predicted Russia's entry last month into the World Trade Organization will be a boost for American companies. "It pays to join the rules-based trading system," she told APEC delegates. "Russia's trading partners stand to benefit as well. American exports to Russia could double or even triple."

After her speech, American executives shared her optimism about Russia and Asia.

Scott Price, president of Wal-Mart Asia, said Wal-Mart is the only major retailer opening new stores in Japan.

"For 79 percent of Chinese, 72 percent of Indians, 70 percent of Japanese these days - the most important to them is the price," he said. "So If you are bringing in quality products at the best price, you get your customer sentiment, they are not worried about whether your brand is American, French, Chinese or not, they want to be confident in the quality."

In Russia, James Turley, chairman of Ernst & Young, the American accounting and advisory firm, just announced he is opening an office in Vladivostok.

"Foreign investors in Russia - Americans, Western European countries - feel very positive once they are here and they have invested and they learn how to work in Russia," said Turley, a frequent visitor to Russia. "Those companies that have been here for a long time want to increase their investment not decrease it. Companies that have not yet invested in Russia are still a little bit skittish."

Another pioneer in the Russian Far East is Hyatt, which opens two hotels with a total of 450 rooms next year in Vladivostok. Hyatt will be the first international chain to manage hotels in the Russian Far East.

"Hyatt in general is looking into expanding throughout Russia and throughout the CIS region," said Aliya Turumbekova, Hyatt's marketing director, at a visit to one construction site. "So we think that this is a very good region with a very good potential. And especially being the first international chain in the Far-Eastern region, we are very proud to manage these two hotels."

Caterpillar machinery was crucial in building the Hyatts, the APEC conference center, and a massive new aquarium.

Joe Caldwell, who has been renting and selling Caterpillar equipment in the Russian Far East for 16 years, said, "There's Caterpillar equipment, earth-moving, bulldozers, road building compactors, generators at the Aquarium, and all over this island. We rented probably 100 machines, sold them 150 machines."

Saturday, while the summiteers were watching fireworks, Emil Veliev, construction director of the APEC site, was backstage, proudly demonstrating his sewage treatment system and his desalination plant, each built with American technology.

"For the future of Russia and [cooperation with] America, for the new products, it really depends on these people who are willing to invest, who actually see the benefits of all these products," Veliev said.

Standing nearby at the desalination plant was Michael Ruffner, who came from Florida to Vladivostok to install Aqua-Chem machines that convert salt water into drinking water for 50,000 people. "So what we are seeing is a really wonderful joint cooperation between the two nations, when we work side-by-side for a common goal," Ruffner said.

Back at APEC, Ed Verona, president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, believes shared economic interests will see Moscow and Washington through turbulence expected later this month when the U.S. Congress is to add a human-rights clause to legislation normalizing trade relations with Russia.

"We're able to operate on separate tracks," said Verona, who was previously a vice president of ExxonMobil Russia in Moscow. "That we are beginning to build up enough commercial and economic relationship that isn't wholly dependent on the state of our bilateral relationship on the political and geopolitical plane."

Despite the Kremlin-White House political roller coaster, economic interests shared by Russia and the United States may provide a long-term anchor for the two nations.
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