Sperry Corp. was near to signing a U.S. government-backed deal to supply high-technology defense equipment to the Philippines a few months ago, but it wanted some questions answered.
Foremost on the mind of Spencer Ross, a Sperry vice president in New York, was, "Can this technology be of use in other, non-defense sectors of the country?"
Among the things he had in mind were non-defense uses that the company could tap with a commercial marketing effort, and whether there might be any uses Sperry would not want its product associated with.
Ross turned to Benjamin Weiner and his company, Probe International Inc.
Weiner went to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, to Marcos' opponents and to "squatters in the slums" to find the answer.
For 15 years, Probe's operation has been as inconspicuous as its tiny, two-room office above a grocery store on the north side of Stamford.
But from there, it has advised some of the nation's largest and most powerful corporations on how, when, where--and almost as frequently, how not, when not and where not--to do business in foreign countries.
Its clients have included Sperry, Dow Chemical Co. and dozens of other big companies whose names Weiner said he could not mention because of Probe's confidentiality agreements.
Probe's primary staff at present is three people. It consists of Weiner, a U.S. State Department veteran who worked as a diplomat in Malaysia, Switzerland and Washington; L. Dean Brown, a former undersecretary of state for administration, and Phillips Talbot, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
Probe is hired by clients who want to know whether it is safe or wise to do a certain kind of business in a country, to learn ways to go about doing that business or, in some case, whether to get out of a country entirely. Weiner says the aim is "to steer our clients and keep them from being taken in by headlines."
A little research can prevent companies from making poor business decisions, he said.
As an example, he told a story that motivated him to start Probe in 1970: Mack Trucks Inc. expanded its market to Pakistan in the late 1960s only to have the venture fail because its chief competitor was a company run by the son of the country's president.
"To go into a country and not know that your principal competitor is the president's son is incredible," Weiner said.
Probe works strictly on a contract basis--Weiner will not say what the service costs, only that it is "very expensive, but not in terms of how much you're spending on an overseas project." It publishes no newsletters for public sale or distribution.
It spends three or four months researching a topic and presents its findings and recommendations to clients.