Leaving Your Company’s Comfort Zone

October 4, 2011

According to an executive of Combustion Associates Inc., current and potential exporters should leave their comfort zone if they want to succeed overseas or to enter a new market.

by Doug Barry, a senior international trade specialist in the Trade Information Center.

Kusum Kavia, chief operating officer of Combustion Associates Inc., reviews plans for an installation in Benin.

Kusum Kavia, chief operating officer of Combustion Associates Inc., reviews plans for an installation in Benin. The company’s modular power plants, says Kavia, “can power an entire village. The turbines not only provide power, but . . . help to grow an entire economy.” (photo courtesy Combustion Associates Inc.)

In May 2011, then Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke presented Combustion Associates Inc., with an E Award for Exports. The company, located in Corona, California, was one of 27 U.S. companies and organizations presented with the award, which is the highest U.S. government recognition any U.S. entity can receive for supporting export activity.

Combustion Associates is a minority-owned business that provides power solutions to clients in the energy, process, and environmental industries. To sell overseas, the company worked closely with the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS). Most recently, it successfully bid on a multimillion dollar project with the government of Benin to supply gas turbines to help fill that West African country’s growing energy needs.

Recently, Doug Barry of the Department of Commerce’s Trade Information Center spoke with Mukund Kavia and Kusum Kavia, the husband and wife team that founded the company in 1989.

Barry: What exactly does Combustion Associates do?

Ms. Kusum Kavia: Our company manufactures power generation systems using aeroderivative turbines. We provide modular power plants in the range of 1 to 10 megawatts. A 1-megawatt plant is the size of a 40-foot container and can power 1,000 U.S. homes. So when we install such a plant in an emerging country in Africa, Eastern Europe, or Central America, it can power an entire village. The turbines not only provide power, but they really help to grow an entire economy.

Barry: How big is your company?

Ms. Kavia: When we started our business in 1989, we were a two-person office in a 200 square foot facility. Today, we’ve grown to 60 employees with a 40,000 square foot facility, and most of our revenue comes from exporting.

Barry: Are you both engineers?

Mr. Mukund Kavia: I’m an engineer. My wife is in business management and is the chief operating officer of the company.

Barry: What was the biggest challenge your company faced in getting started in the international marketplace?

Ms. Kavia: The biggest challenge was that we were not a brand name and were not recognized in the industry. Being a small company, we had to make a name for ourselves out there. So we used partnerships with the USFCS and other government agencies to help spread our name around and to broadcast what we did. That effort successfully elevated the company to a higher level, and we were subsequently able to be in front of potential customers at the international level.

Barry: I understand you received help from various government agencies as you started selling overseas. Any agencies in particular?

Mr. Kavia: Fred Latuperissa of the U.S. Export Assistance Center (USEAC) in Ontario, California, was especially helpful. He did a lot of background research for us about where we wanted to export. He showed us the right way to do it. When we brought potential customers to the United States, he and his colleagues accommodated them in every sense possible. Fred literally opened up his office to us! For example, when we started, we didn’t even have a room to accommodate a foreign delegation that was coming to hopefully do business with us. I called Fred at the USEAC, and he said, “Please, use my conference room.” He even had the ability to bring together bankers and representatives of the Export–Import Bank of the United States under one roof. He has just been extremely supportive of us from the time we started.

Barry: This doesn’t sound like the stereotypical government agency.

Ms. Kavia: In my experience, government offices at every level—local, state, and federal—really go out of their way to help businesses blossom and grow. When we’ve gone to government offices and told people our story, they’ve opened up and asked, “How can we help you?”

Barry: The majority of U.S. exporters sell to only one international market. How many countries do you sell to?

Mr. Kavia: We are now active in about 10 countries. We are in Africa, which is a growing market right now. We are also in Asia, Central America, and Eastern Europe.

Barry: About how much of your company’s revenue do exports account for?

Mr. Kavia: About 90 percent.

RELATED: About the E Awards

Barry: You are both immigrants from Kenya and Bangladesh through London, where I understand your parents still live. They must have been very proud of your receiving the E Award.

Ms. Kavia: We wish they could have been here. They told their neighbors in London. We are very appreciative of the honor that the U.S. Department of Commerce gave our company. We feel that if the U.S. government is behind us, there really is no stopping us. We want to work hard. Out in the world, we want to make sure that we are there to represent our country and to really be the best that we can be. We’re a family-owned business, and we really have the typical American story. We came to this country with very little but lots of big dreams. And so to us, America still remains the land of opportunity.

Barry: What advice do you have for company decisionmakers who are considering exporting or whose companies already do a bit but not in a strategic way?

Ms. Kavia: I would say don’t limit yourself. You’re already doing something that you know is your passion. All you have to do is get out of your comfort zone. Yes, things are going to be there for you as you grow. You’re going to have different challenges—some new, some old. But I would encourage everyone who is looking to export to ask, “Why haven’t I thought of doing that?”

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