Nizar Ghannam didn't mind flying to Los Angeles for the Laserfiche Institute Conference last week. It's his next business trip the Beirut-based IT manager is dreading: it's his turn to visit the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of his clients.

Ghannam sells Laserfiche electronic document management systems in the Middle East and North Africa, but came to L.A. for a brief visit to the mother ship, Laserfiche.

Based in Long Beach, the software company designs and develops programs that can organize and search large amounts of data electronically. The idea is to scan forms, official documents and correspondence into a database that can be accessed from computers all over the world. Even in Baghdad.

"Iraq right now is very similar to a start-up company," said Brian LaPointe, director of strategic solutions for Laserfiche. "And the nice thing about being a start-up is they get to invest in the latest technology."

The Iraqi Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Health, and Labor are installing Laserfiche software as they develop the infrastructure to run a new government.

"When you don't have any infrastructure, the most important thing is to have a first layer a link from the government to its offices," said Ghannam, regional manager for Beirut-based systems integrator BmB Group. "It could house all the documents for the ministry."

Most of the Iraqi government offices emerged from the war without IT infrastructure, he explained, and many documents and records were destroyed. The ministry wants to scan all of its existing documents, and BmB is basically building a network from scratch.

As the Iraqi government re-opens embassies, it will need electronic access to visa records and forms for diplomats, students studying abroad, business travelers and citizens returning to Iraq.

"FedEx isn't exactly flying back and forth from Paris to Baghdad, getting the paperwork there next-day air," said LaPointe.

Hardly glamorous
In tech terms, Laserfiche has staked out an unglamorous niche in document retrieval and records management. Its bread-and-butter clients are city clerks' offices, police department records, and healthcare company archives.

Laserfiche's system allows companies to search and retrieve documents within their own organization. "Google built a super-repository for the universe, but I don't think that's always going to help you," explained founder and Chief Executive Nien-Ling Wacker. A former software engineer, Wacker took a narrower approach that just focused on a company's internal documents. And it seems to be paying off.

Among its clients are the Bank of China, the California Attorney General's office, USC, Commerce Credit Union and the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

The closely-held company took in about $24 million in revenues last year and ranked No. 33 in the Business Journal's list of 50 largest women-owned companies in L.A. County.

"Think small, not huge," Wacker said. "That's how we found the city clerk's marketplace."

Since the financial scandals of the Enron era, the company has also gained a foothold in financial services.

Laserfiche sells its software through partnerships with more than 500 resellers worldwide. The partners sell and service the software, while Laserfiche picks up the tab for advertising and some tech support. About 80 percent of its business is in the United States.

The company's 160 employees in Long Beach are mostly engineers, customer service reps and administration. Its call center also is in Long Beach. The company recruits engineers locally, from Harvey Mudd College and CalTech. Wacker still owns 70 percent of the company.

Software suites can run $10,000 for a small accounting firm, to upwards of six figures for a municipality like the City of Riverside, one of its customers, LaPointe said.

Resellers like Ghannam typically work for IT consulting firms who set up computer networks for their customers. BmB has installed Laserfiche in 15 banks in Lebanon, in government projects in Saudi Arabia, and for oil companies in Algeria.

The Iraqi government is hardly Laserfiche's biggest client it's worth about $500,000 so far but it does take up a lot of Ghannam's attention.

Due to violence in Baghdad, the servers, scanners and computers had to be assembled in Beirut. Thirty ministry employees had to be trained on the software and the systems, so they traveled to Beirut for weeks of training. Then the whole system was shipped to Iraq.

Ghannam has stalled as long as possible the Iraqi Foreign Minister and the Labor Minister have already traveled to Lebanon to meet with him, so next time it's his turn to travel to Iraq. Though BmB has an office in Baghdad, when a technical team travels from Beirut, "Everything has to be secret," he said. They stay in rented apartments rather than hotels. "The residents of the buildings don't even know who is staying there."

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