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Small Details Pay Off for Cultural Consultant

A Newport Beach firm acts as a trade go-between for U.S. companies doing business in Latin America. Many a faux pas is averted.

When Fred Fourcher went to northern Mexico to hammer out a business deal, he gave a last look to the business proposals he printed, checked the supply of business cards in his attache case, and flew to Sonora with his chief negotiator, Lucia de Garcia.

Fourcher, president of Miralite Communications Inc., a Newport Beach supplier of satellite telephone systems, was eager to close the deal. But on the plane, De Garcia cautioned him: Always arrive late for a dinner party. Never discuss business during a meal. Don’t hand out your business card to Mexican executives--let a subordinate do it. And finally, have your business cards on paper the size of index cards.

Odd advice? On the contrary, such is the norm for conducting business in that part of Mexico, said De Garcia, president of Elan International, a Newport Beach trade consulting firm that acts as a go-between for U.S. companies doing business in Latin America.

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It appears that her advice worked. Since the start of the year, Fourcher’s company has sold about $3 million in satellite equipment in Mexico.

De Garcia later told the rationale behind her suggestions for the Miralite visit to Sonora. “When an invitation to a party says dinner starts at 8, it’s not in good taste to show up on time,” she said. “It shows you’re too anxious, and that’s not polite. However, business meetings are always held promptly.”

Latin American executives are sensitive to social and business ranking, she added, so it’s the job of a subordinate to give the business cards of a company’s president. And it is perceived that the larger the card, the more prominent the company. Ignoring these customs could eventually sidetrack a business negotiation, the Colombian native said.

Elan International provides market research studies for U.S. firms that want to target Latin American markets. It pinpoints potential trading partners, arranges meetings and negotiates on behalf of U.S. clients.

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Those clients include companies in the aerospace industry, such as Tracor Flight Systems Inc., which recently moved from Santa Ana to Austin, Tex., and telecommunication companies, such as Miralite and Westcom Inc., a telecommunications engineering consultancy in Los Angeles.

De Garcia said trade consulting is more time-consuming but also more interesting and profitable than just offering cultural communications assistance, which was the initial goal of Elan International when it started in 1984. She timed its opening with the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles because there was a greater demand for experts in foreign cultures to advise companies and city agencies to capitalize on the flood of international visitors attending the games.

Business was slow at first. De Garcia’s sales, a mere $10,000 the first year, grew modestly until two years ago, when she switched to trade consulting. Revenue for the first six months of 1991 tripled last year’s overall sales of $500,000. De Garcia predicted that sales will reach $3.5 million by year’s end.

“My business is growing so fast I feel like I’m in a dream,” she said. “Just two years ago, I worked alone.”

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Now De Garcia has nine employees, and her company is affiliated with 20 trade representatives working for government agencies and private consultants worldwide.

Elan International is a family affair. Her oldest daughter, Alexandra, 23, has a master’s degree in international management and is vice president of marketing and finance. Her daughter, Claudia, 20, studies international business at Cal State Fullerton and is a part-time employee.

Her husband, Alvaro Garcia, is an engineer with Parsons Corp. in Pasadena and is overseeing the building of an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia. Even while in the Middle East, he pitches in with long-distance advice to De Garcia.

Success has changed De Garcia’s lifestyle. She travels to Mexico and other Latin American countries to accompany and often negotiate for clients almost every other week. Her business calendar is impressive: meetings with President Bush, Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher, Trade Representative Carla Hills and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) in Washington and in Newport Beach.

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In February, De Garcia was among a group of national Latino leaders called in by Bush to help him lobby Congress for fast-track authority to negotiate a U.S.-Mexico Free Trade Agreement. He received the authority in the spring.

De Garcia was an architect in Colombia before she and her family moved to Orange County in 1965. Her first job in the United States was as a quality control inspector at a Catalina Swimwear Inc. factory in Fullerton.

She landed an architectural position in 1974 with an international engineering firm, VTN Corp., which was then based in Newport Beach. She later learned the protocol of international trade through meetings with the firm’s prominent foreign clients, including the ministers of public works from Kuwait and Venezuela.

Even though De Garcia no longer works on a drawing board, she said she remains an architect at heart.

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“I’m still building bridges,” she said, “building bridges between cultures, designing the infrastructure to open roads for American exports to Mexico and other Latin American countries.”


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