One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Louis Grasmick is president of the Louis Grasmick Lumber Co. Inc. and vice president of the Kuwait-Maryland Partnership, a coalition of Maryland businesses formed to export goods and services to war-torn Kuwait.
Q.Who came up with the idea for a business coalition to export goods to Kuwait and how did the Kuwait-Maryland Partnership get off the ground?
A.The initiative began when a friend, Bill Parsons, visited me and asked me if I thought this had any merit. He believed strongly that a partnership could be formed whereby at the cessation of the hostilities there would be a substantial amount of business available for various firms from the United States because of the strong participation of the U.S. in the war in the Gulf. He also was astute enough to recognize the fact that our port had a lot of available space that might be offered to the Kuwaitis for a staging area, and quite frankly as he talked about it, I became quite interested and I too felt that it had some real merit.
Q. When was this?
A. Approximately seven weeks ago now . . . So we called Secretary (Randy) Evans, (Department of Economic and Employment Development) and he set up a meeting with his international department, and when we went to their offices in the World Trade Center, this idea was presented, and I must say that everyone in the room really pounced on it . . . Before long, a meeting was set up in Washington, both with the ambassador of Kuwait and with the minister for the reconstruction of Kuwait.
Q. Can you tell me about the steps that had to be taken to form the partnership?
A. We said at that point that we would invite several other participants and ultimately we have seven partners involved. Those seven partners have agreed to totally fund the effort to attract this business.
Q. What kinds of businesses are these seven?
A. We have Shelter Systems, which is one of the nation's leading manufacturers of modular housing, temporary housing, etc., out of Westminster. They are currently supplying housing in Germany and Israel. Harkins Builders is one of the area's leading general contractors. Bill Touchard is from Poole & Kent (general mechanical contractors) and he was one of the original visitors here along with Bill Parsons.
Q. Who is Bill Parsons?
A. Parsons Company. He's an architect, and make no mistake about it, it was his idea. It was his brain child. Then Blase Cooke (president of Harkins Bulders) suggested that we probably couldn't do any better than to try to attract Westinghouse. He was able to encourage Milt Borkowski to join us, and Milt Borkowski is the general manager of Westinghouse. Westinghouse came on board. And then Charles Thomas Jr., from McNamara Steel Fabricators. That's a Baltimore firm and they have done extensive business in the Middle East. So the seven of us decided that we would form a partnership called Kuwait-Maryland Partnership.
Q. How is the project funded?
A. We budgeted $100,000 for our pie in the sky.
Q. What is the purpose of money?
A. We spent in excess of $15,000 on our brochure . . . We have now opened an office in the World Trade Center; we're on the second floor of the World Trade Center. Our phones are in place and the fax is in place, and we are ready to make these trips to the Middle East.
Q. Have you scheduled any trips yet?
A. Not yet. We're awaiting a green light.
Q. From whom?
A. From the ambassador or any one of his designees.
Q. What are some of the obstacles that must be overcome before this partnership can be successful?
A. Well, I think the most important thing is when you're given the entree, and we're awaiting that entree.
Q. How did your meeting go with the ambassador? Was he receptive?
A. The governor [Gov. William Donald Schaefer] met with the ambassador and it was a very, very fruitful meeting. The governor and Randy Evans met with the ambassador and then we met down the street immediately thereafter in Washington with the minister for the reconstruction. And I can tell you that the minister was extremely pleased, not only that the governor had taken this initiative, but that we had also offered a humanitarian plan as well as a for-profit plan.
Q. What is the humanitarian plan?
A. ....We put forth a humanitarian plan, which we called the Maryland Plan. The Maryland Plan, under the leadership of Dr. James D'Orta, is a medical task force that as of this moment is standing by, ready to leave on 24-hour notice. Dr. D'Orta has impeccable credentials that have been recognized even by [former] President Reagan after he headed a task force that went to visit the earthquake victims in Soviet Armenia, and that is a very diverse task force that has participants from the University Hospital as well as Johns Hopkins.
Q. Dr. D'Orta is associated with which hospital?
A. He's at Franklin Square Hospital.
Q. So they would be providing medical aid to the people at no cost?
A. Absolutely. We're all there and all they (the Kuwaitis) will be required to do is to offer the transportation.
Q. How will the Kuwait initiative benefit Maryland's economy?
A. First of all, we would like to see that these purchases are made in Maryland, but if a product isn't manufactured in Maryland, we're going to encourage that shipment be made through the Port of Baltimore.
Q. What are some of the products and services that Maryland businesses hope to provide to Kuwait?
A. Well, from the private sector there's engineering, construction, manufacturing and numerous services that are available to work with the government of Kuwait. It's a massive and complex task, the reconstruction.
Q. Are there immediate business benefits to be gained from such a partnership or will this be a long-term investment?
A. I think it's immediate and long-range, depending on what their immediate needs are. Just last week we signed an exclusivity arrangement with the Westinghouse Trading Corp. . . . They can select the products, locate the interested sources, obtain the quotations.
Q. What are the long-term benefits of such a partnership?
A. Well, the long-term benefits are relationships with the Kuwait government that will be ongoing. We also think, and both Gov. nTC Schaefer and Congresswoman [Helen] Bentley are hopeful that business will be developed for the Port of Baltimore that will be ongoing.
Q. When did they have their meeting?
A. Wednesday, February 13.
Q. And you said now you're waiting?
A. We are awaiting now for a designee: where do we go and with whom do we meet in the Middle East?
Q. Obviously other businesses and other regions are trying to rush to serve Kuwait from all over the world. What do you think Maryland has to offer that will put it at a competitive advantage to these other places?
A. Well, it was our understanding when we went there that we were the first state to come with a consolidated plan . . . We talked about one-stop shopping and we told them that all of your material needs, if they weren't available in the state, they certainly could be shipped through the state. We said whether it be food stuff such as poultry, beef or grain, heavy duty trucks, medical supplies, temporary housing or just tender love and care.
Q. Is Maryland unique in being able to offer this service?
A. Well, I think at this time, unfortunately, we're blessed with an abundance of space available in the Port of Baltimore. . . . That's not something that we are thrilled about, but that's the reality of life at this time. Other ports are just loaded with outbound cargo, and we now have the capability to offer them acreage and warehousing far beyond what the other ports could offer. And when you talk about location, you know, could anyone be better off than we are?
Q. Is there is any estimate at all on how long this will take to rebuild Kuwait?
A. When we were in Washington, there were people that talked to us who were with the Kuwaiti government, and they said this could possibly reach $100 billion . . . It's surely not going to be done in a year or so. This really gives this partnership -- and it's not our partnership, it's the people of the United States -- it gives them an opportunity, I think to really develop some long-term, meaningful relationships.