Back in 1989, L.A. furniture-maker Stephen T. Wise went on a sight-seeing trip to Asia. But his lingering impressions were less of the beaches of Thailand or the streets of downtown Tokyo than they were of the region's furniture stores and the buying habits of Asian consumers.

"I could see that they loved American products. But there was no American furniture," Wise recalls. "They were watching our television shows and movies and looking at our magazines. They were coming here and staying in our hotels.

"It seemed obvious to me that there had to be a market for American products," he says.

Wise's hunch appears to be paying off. Eight years later, he has given up on manufacturing, and instead is president and founder of California Furniture Exports which serves as a link between U.S. manufacturers and Asian distributors and retailers.

In addition to acting as the Asian sales staff for American furniture-makers, the Studio City-based company, known as CFX, operates the California Furniture Pavilion each year at the International Furniture Fair, a massive trade show in Tokyo. The company also provides a cargo consolidation service that allows overseas customers to import less-than-container-load orders from their U.S. suppliers.

CFX now represents 17 American producers of furniture, lighting and wall decor about half of which are based in California. Last year, the company logged more than $5 million in sales, and is poised to expand even more as Japan emerges from its economic downturn and the fast-growing Southeast Asian economies lower long-standing trade barriers.

It wasn't easy making the switch from manufacturer to sales agent and exporter. But by the early 1990s, Wise became convinced that he had to do something.

After making bedroom sets and home-entertainment centers at an East L.A. manufacturing plant for two decades, he says the cost of doing business was becoming increasingly high. The Air Quality Management District was getting tougher on the use of solvents and other chemicals, while the cost of worker's compensation insurance was soaring.

What's more, the region had entered a recession that was beginning to take a toll on all manner of manufacturers. "I could see the handwriting on the wall," Wise says.

So he began devoting more of his attention to Asia specifically to Japan, where he traveled on a regular basis, attending trade shows, building relationships with potential customers, and learning how to do business in Asia the hard way.

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