- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

The official Washington of foreign policy and power politics looms large in the minds of presidents, ministers and generals worldwide. But another side of Washington, that of venture capital, fast-growing technology companies and stock options, is garnering some laurels of its own.

Visiting delegations of foreign officials, a staple of the nation's capital, are increasingly including both diplomats looking to smooth relations and business people looking to do deals. Visits to the White House like the one last week by Joseph Estrada, president of the Philippines run alongside meet-and-greet events in Reston, Tysons Corner and Dulles.

Local and regional business people relish the opportunity to plug into the global economy independent of Washington power mavens.

"With all due respect to the politicians, we want to do business," said James LeBlanc, an Alexandria-based consultant who specializes in international technology issues. "We encourage them to bring business delegations."

With a grudging nod to Silicon Valley, Mr. LeBlanc notes that foreign business groups "used to get to California and stop."

The Greater Washington Initiative, a part of the Board of Trade that promotes the region as a whole, has hosted visiting business groups from Turkey, Canada, Hong Kong, Egypt, Japan and France so far this year, and many of them plan to return for follow-up visits. The Northern Virginia Technology Council has also shepherded its share of foreign business delegations around the area.

Foreign business trips to the Washington area come about for various reasons, but most center on a realization that there is more to the technology business than California, Massachusetts and New York.

The January announcement that Sterling, Va.-based America Online would merge with entertainment giant Time Warner put this region on the map for many Europeans, according to Claus Gramckow, who heads the Arlington-based business-to-government consulting firm The Hanseatic Institute.

"A year ago, no one would have thought of [a trip to this area]," said Mr. Gramckow, adding that some Europeans previously had no idea that AOL was based in Virginia.

Manuel Roxas, the Philippines' secretary of trade and industry, was making his second trip to this area in three months. But he said that Northern Virginia is still "not well known" as a home to a major cluster of technology companies.

Evidence that these junkets to the Washington area are more than simply occasions to swap business cards is hard to come by, people involved in these sorts of trips concede. Some people arrive with specific potential partners in mind, while others look for a general overview.

Filipino politicians and business leaders arrived in Washington last week, many for their second trip this year, looking for deals in the technology sector. The Philippines, with its 77 million people, is a relative newcomer to the information technology trade among Asian nations, rather like Northern Virginia has boomed on the heels of Silicon Valley.

"Quietly, like Virginia, the Philippines is coming up in the [information technology] industry and environment," said Ramon Garcia, president of Diversified Financial Network Inc., a Philippine company that provides on-line trading technology to brokers.

At the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner on Wednesday, Mr. Estrada's speech was the official highlight of the day, but the real business was done at an earlier panel discussion. Mr. Roxas, 42, a polished former investment banker who worked in the United States, gave a presentation complete with PowerPoint slides outlining the macroeconomic situation in the Philippines.

Complementing the big picture were presentations from people like Mr. Garcia, who offered more detailed information about specific business sectors and where the opportunities for American companies might lie.

There are already some links between the Washington regional economy and the Philippines, but the nation's economic officials are courting ever more international investment. AOL has a call center in the Asian country with 600 English-speaking employees who serve customers from around the world.

James Martin and Co., a Fairfax-based multinational consulting firm that helps companies integrate information technology into their business model, has had operations in Manila for more than 10 years and now has 300 employees there. Patrick Litre, the company's chief executive officer, said the country's low labor costs, combined with high productivity, make it an ideal base for James Martin's Asian operations.

Much international economic activity also surrounds two former U.S. military installations in the Philippines, Mr. Estrada pointed out in his speech. Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station anchored the American military presence in Asia until their operations were wound down in the early 1990s. In their place have come foreign investors, including American companies that have poured $2 billion into the area formerly occupied by Clark Air Base since 1993.

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