In 1985, Luiz F. Costa came to Los Angeles from his native Brazil in search of economic opportunities. What the former civil engineer ended up finding was a job as a delivery driver for a Manhattan Beach Pizza Hut.
One day in 1993, Costa decided he had delivered his last pizza.
Brazil’s long-closed economy had recently opened its doors to imports, and merchants there were hungry for goods from abroad. Why not become an exporter, he thought?
Four years later, Costa’s Hawthorne-based firm, Chase Enterprises, exports car stereos, medical devices, and much more to Brazilian businesses. In 1996, the company logged about $1.3 million in sales up from a loss of about $60,000 during its first year of operation.
Costa was one of four local trade-related firms honored May 1 by the organizers of World Trade Week, an annual event sponsored by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The title, World Trade Week, is somewhat misleading the event extends through almost the entire month of May.
“What we were looking for were L.A. firms that had expanded sales by going after export markets, people that kept their businesses healthy by seeking new markets,” said Mary Delmege, a U.S. Department of Commerce official who chaired the event’s award committee.
Aeronautical Technology Inc., a Long Beach firm that services and repairs aircraft navigation and communications systems, certainly fits that description.
The 11-year-old company was honored with an “export achievement award,” after having overcome considerable challenges. In the early 1990s, Aeronautical Technology saw its sales plummet 50 percent as a result of the recession. Desperate to locate new customers, the company turned for the first time to foreign markets, said P.J. Mayes, the firm’s chief financial officer.
Now, Aeronautical Technology has clients in China, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and other countries.
Several airlines send their computer parts and “black boxes” to the company’s Long Beach facility to be serviced; the parts are then shipped back overseas.
Foreign customers now account for 76 percent of total sales, which hit $7.5 million in 1996.
“There are always going to be new markets,” said Mayes. “We constantly are looking for new airlines that are emerging.”
Stephen T. Wise is another local entrepreneur who built a business based on foreign markets. A furniture manufacturer for 25 years, Wise was burned out and looking for a change when he saw a bright future for local furniture makers in the fast-growing markets in Asia.
In 1993, he established California Furniture Exports, which markets American-made furniture, lighting and wall decor to the Asian retail, hospitality and commercial markets. The firm received a “service to world traders award” last week.
“Based upon California’s geographical proximity (to Asia), the entrepreneurial abilities of the smaller furniture factories here, and the growing demand for Western-style products in Asia, I knew that eventually there would be a market,” said Wise.
Those instincts panned out. Sales have jumped from $57,000 in 1993 to $5.1 million in 1996. The company, meanwhile, has expanded its services to include trade show production and a consolidation service that allows foreign buyers to order products from multiple companies and have all the goods shipped in a single container.
Other firms given kudos during World Trade Week include Universal Aqua Technologies Inc., a Santa Fe Springs environmental firm; and New Horizons Computer Learning Center in Santa Ana, a large franchised computer training organization.
Delmege said the firms were chosen in part for the way they represent the emerging industries in the Southern California economy as well as for their entrepreneurial spirit.
Delivery-driver Costa exemplified that spirit by deciding to go into exporting when friends and family members in Brazil complained about the lack of consumer goods there following the country’s decision to open its markets to imports in 1990.
He contacted a merchant he knew and asked what was needed. “Light bulbs,” the merchant answered. “We need light bulbs.”
Costa located an L.A. manufacturer and ordered several cases of energy-efficient bulbs. He moved them through Brazil’s labyrinth of customs regulations and, finally, onto the shelves of Brazilian stores.
When the reorders began to trickle in, Costa knew he had found a new career.
“It’s a new market, and they need a lot of products,” said Costa. Now, he helps L.A. firms that sell security systems, automobile parts, lighting fixtures and car stereos to gain access to Brazilian consumers.
“A lot of recent immigrants to this country who retain ties back home become some of our best exporters,” said Delmege. “They’re not afraid of going into those foreign markets.”