Foreign-owned companies feel right at home in Howard


When executives of one of Denmark's largest corporations were looking for an East Coast location to set up a subsidiary office in the 1970s, they didn't pick New York, Boston or Washington. Instead they settled on Howard County.

The Niro Atomizer Ltd. executives were attracted to the county's proximity to the port of Baltimore, the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and three airports.

"Columbia seemed to offer a lot of what we were looking for," said Steven M. Kaplan, Niro's president. "It was important to find a location affordable to good housing, schools and social climate for our people."

The company, which manufactures drying equipment for chemical plants and the food industries and boasts $10 million in sales, opened an office here in 1974. It employs 140 workers.

Niro is among a growing number of foreign-owned businesses that have opened in the county. Howard is second in Maryland only to Montgomery County in number of those businesses, according to a Johns Hopkins University business survey released this month.

The study concluded that the businesses' owners, besides being attracted by the convenient location, liked Howard's quality of life and easy access to transportation.

The study listed 45 foreign-owned companies, surveying 26 of them. The businesses average between 15 and 30 employees, mostly Americans in lower-management positions. The firms range from food to warehousing to real estate. Though most are in Columbia, others are scattered across Howard.

The university launched the survey at the suggestion of the county Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Office and the Columbia Association, which wanted to assess the needs of the firms and learn how to keep and attract them.

Five students in Hopkins' Master of Science in Business degree program conducted the survey, under the direction of a consultant, William Kladky.

The survey followed a 1990 Peat Marwick Main & Co. study that first reported the county had the second-highest number of foreign-owned businesses.

Most of the company executives said they wanted a round-table meeting to discuss common problems, the survey said. The county plans to sponsor that forum later this year.

The executives also wanted assistance in marketing and dealing with local, state and federal governments.

"The things they wanted weren't out of the ordinary for any company," said Dyan Brasington, director of Howard's Economic Development Office. She added the companies were given a "help list" with resources to help meet their needs.

Was English a barrier? Most executives said no.

But foreign workers do have to adjust to America's cultural differences, Kaplan said.

Most of the time, the families of the workers have more difficulty, he said.

"They have to adjust to the school system, which is very different, obviously. And the wives cannot work on a limited visa."

Raymond Groves, president of Lovell/America Inc., a real estate and land development company headquartered in England, said after an initial "culture shock" his foreign workers fare well here.

Since 1982 Lovell has operated in Columbia, generating $6 million in sales and employing 22 workers, including four from England.

One conspicuous difference Groves found here in trying to acquire land: red tape.

Finland-based Larox oy picked Howard for the site of one of its subsidiaries. The company imports pressure filters used to separate solids from liquids in industrial settings. It employs 15 Finnish and American workers here.

Steven J. Walters, Larox's president said, "Basically, when we made that decision . . . we needed to have access to a port because we import things all the time.

"No. 2, we wanted to be close to Washington, D.C. We felt the Finnish Embassy could help us," Walters said.

The survey listed firms from 14 nations including 15 British-owned companies, 11 Japanese, five German, as well as French, Dutch, Israeli, Swiss and Taiwanese.

Brasington said because the county hasn't kept statistics on foreign-owned businesses, it was difficult to gauge their growth here. Some have been in Howard since 1971, and some opened here as recently as 1990, the survey said. Nearly 40 percent said they plan to expand here.

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