In 1984, Lou Smith went to the Soviet Union for three weeks to “find out at a personal level what the ’enemy’ is like.” It changed him forever, partly because he saw something in the Communist country that he hadn’t expected: an opportunity to make money. The former management consultant created a business based on aiding the smooth flow of information, people, and products between two countries that historically have had difficulty with even the most basic communication.
When he returned from that first trip to Russia, Smith formed Global Concepts with a mission to facilitate grassroots projects between Americans and Soviets, whether that meant acting as a travel agency to arrange “citizen diplomat” tours to Russia or matching Soviet and American businesses to become trading partners.
Smith says that because of perestroika’s relaxing of Soviet policy on private enterprise, Russia is in a prime stage of development for foreign investors. And Smith is not the only one to have noticed the opportunities. “It’s kind of a Soviet ’gold rush,’”’ he says. “There are many get-rich-quick schemes that have been taken to the Soviets by Americans.” But the Soviet bureaucracy has grown tired of the fly-by-night opportunists. And that is where Smith has stepped in with his Global Concepts. “We’re in a position to screen American partners for the Soviets, and vice versa.”
Smith discovered that it’s not cheap to do business in the Soviet Union. “It costs roughly $85,000 to $90,000 just to fill out the forms to get accreditation as a business over there- and even that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get in,” he says. And staying in the good graces of the Soviet bureaucracy is a full-time job. Smith spends about 25 percent of his time in the Soviet Union and says he couldn’t do what he does without his Soviet offices and trade specialists. That time commitment is something that small companies cannot make without help. “But why should only big businesses reap the benefits of international trade with the Soviet Union?” he asks. “No reason at all.”
But although his bottom line is profit, the next-to-the-bottom line for Smith is world peace and harmony. “There is a profit motive to create a more peaceful world. Prudent businessmen can’t help but see this.” Smith leans back in his chair in his small, spare office and says, “I’ve been accused of selling peace for profit, but I’d much rather be accused of that than selling guns for profit.”