CEO: trade mission to India a win-win

NLight's Scott Keeney says trip enhanced business and cultural relationships

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Editor's note

Scott Keeney, president and CEO of nLight, was among executives from 24 U.S. technology companies who participated in the U.S. Commerce Department’s weeklong business development trade mission to India that ended Friday. Also representing Vancouver-based nLight on the trade mission were Anmol Nijjar, whose new title is director of India, and Jason Farmer, the company’s chief technical officer.

NLight hopes to expand the market in India for its high-power semiconductor lasers and specialty optic fibers, which are used in industrial, medical, and defense products. Keeney’s first two dispatches from India were published on The Columbian’s Innovate Clark County website (http://innovatecl...) This is his third and final commentary about the trade mission.

It is hot and humid in Mumbai as we finish our last day on the trade mission. It has been a very good trip for us as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and his team have helped us open doors. We have worked hard in our follow-up meetings to present our new high power laser for material processing applications. We have started new opportunities and closed important deals that will help us continue to grow.

Participating in this delegation is not something I had originally planned for this year. My preconception of a trade mission involved billion-dollar sales of aircraft or nuclear power plants, supported by high level government interactions. We are a medium-sized company that is very busy managing rapid growth, and I was unclear how a trade mission could help us in selling new lasers.

But when we learned the trip would also include small and medium sized companies, and that it coincided with the need to visit customers in our fastest-growing market of India, we decided to apply. We were further encouraged based on previous experience with Gary Locke. As Washington governor, Locke had provided a great deal of support for Southwest Washington high-tech companies through a wide range of initiatives, including the electrical engineering program at WSU Vancouver. He later provided strong leadership in relations with China, where he is widely known and extraordinarily popular.

Today, Secretary Locke clearly understands the growing strategic importance of the U.S.-India relationship. Between 2002 and 2009, U.S. goods exports to India quadrupled, growing from $4.1 billion to more than $16.4 billion. Through the first eleven months of 2010, U.S. merchandise exports to India totaled $17.6 billion, up 17 percent from the same period in 2009. With economic growth estimates at about 9.7 percent in 2010, India is a key market for the National Export Initiative, which aims to double U.S. exports in five years. Secretary Locke has clearly worked hard to follow up, as he has met his counterpart in India four times in the past year and led this delegation only three months after a trip to India by President Obama.

The strategic relationship between the U.S. and India is important, but we came to India to grow our business.

Tactical support from the staff the Commerce Department is critical for us. After a hectic week of customer meetings organized by that staff, the trip has indeed exceeded our expectations. We had a limited understanding of the potential customers in India and have been surprised by the breadth of potential new customers. We have met with companies that were previously unfamiliar to us. Furthermore, we have been able to meet with more senior managers than we otherwise would have met through our own business development efforts.

These higher-level contacts have clearly helped. As we left, the purchasing manager of one very large customer thanked us for being able to schedule a higher-level meeting. “It will be very easy to get a purchase order signed off now that the senior managers know about nLight,” he said.

Our business will clearly benefit from these meetings and the business relationships that will develop. But it is the personal relationships we have started this week that will be more important over time. It is hard not to think back to the attacks of 2008, when terrorists killed over 160 people at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where our delegation stayed in Mumbai at the conclusion of our mission. This tragedy is still evident. We walked past a nearby café where one can still see bullet holes, and security at the hotel is similar to that of an airport.

While the best way to prevent future attacks is certainly not clear to me, I strongly believe that increasing trade is a critical element. It not only clearly increases prosperity of both nations, but it also builds the relationships that are vital to a greater understanding and peace.