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SMALL BUSINESS | HEARD ON THE BEAT:

Firm Finds Success Sounds Sweet in Any Language

March 29, 2000|MARLA DICKERSON and DENISE GELLENE and LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Janet Wells joined Insta Graphic Systems in the 1970s, the firm was literally throwing away international business.

"A lot of letters ended up in the trash because no one could speak the languages," said Wells, then a fresh-faced college graduate who could speak fluent French and passable Spanish and German. "So I started answering the foreign correspondence."

Today, foreign buyers account for 60% of the company's sales of heat transfer equipment, which is used by apparel manufacturers to affix logos to clothing. And 46-year-old Wells, now president of the Cerritos-based firm, will be in Washington on Friday to accept a presidential award for the company's export achievements.

In all, Southland firms claimed three of the six 1999 President's E Awards handed out by the Commerce Department. Established by President Kennedy, the E Awards annually recognize a few American firms that have made notable contributions to increasing U.S. export sales.

Los Angeles-based Imperial Bank, which provides international trade financing to mid-size businesses, was a winner. So was CBOL Corp., a Woodland Hills maker of aerospace products.

The 2000 awards cycle has just begun, and the Southland has scored again. Huntington Beach-based Cambro Manufacturing Co., which makes plastic food-service products, just snagged an E Award for boosting sales of its shelving units, trays and tableware worldwide.

Although these companies are engaged in very different lines of business, all say successful exporting requires perseverance, not a get-rich-quick mentality.

"It's a real commitment," said Wells, who is a big advocate of foreign trade shows as a way to meet potential customers. "The first few years you may just be making contacts. You have to show that you're committed and build their confidence in you."

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