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The Russians Aren't Coming. They're Here


Science & Technology

THE RUSSIANS AREN'T COMING. THEY'RE HERE

The neat rows of business awards hanging on the wall behind Naum Staroselsky's desk make him a bit uncomfortable. There is the 1986 Small Business Innovation Award from the U. S. Small Business Assn., the 1986 Inventor of the Year from the State of Iowa, and the Midwest's Entrepreneur of the Year for 1990. "I do have my pride," the scrappy 58-year-old Russian immigrant says in heavily accented English, "but not these things on the wall."

His pride is 15-year-old Compressor Controls Corp., a thriving high-tech enterprise set smack in the middle of an old corn-field just outside Des Moines. Staroselsky, a mechanical engineer with a PhD from Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, took an idea he brought with him from the Soviet Union and turned it into a $13 million business. The electronic device he invented to keep gas and oil compressors running efficiently is used by many big U. S. oil companies, such as Exxon Corp.

From the start, Staroselsky tapped talent flowing out of the Soviet Union. Already, 13 of his 100 employees are Russian. After the failed coup, Staroselsky is bullish about breaking into the Soviet market, with its vast oil and gas reserves. He has just concluded three deals with the Russians--and three more are in the works. He's recruiting more Soviets. "We've got the brain drain right here," says R&D Director Robert Sibthorp.

Staroselsky prefers Russian engineers, who he says think big: theirprofessional education favors breadth of knowledge over specialization. What's more, hardships endured back home helped them cultivate special skills. "In Russia, the components are very, very poor," he says. "So Russian engineers have to be very innovative and assume the worst. They make a system work in spite of its components."

Grabbing his lapels, Staroselsky struts down the corridorsof his headquarters, pointing out former Soviets. Most prominent is Leonid Sharansky, brother offamous human-rights activist Natan Sharansky. Leonid Sharansky put his career on hold for nine years to lobby on behalfof his imprisoned brother. Affectionately called "Lenny Saranwrapsky" by his colleagues, he's now the head field engineer, and his wife, Raya, also an engineer, does computations for new control systems.

While an American engineer with 10 to15 years' experience would demand much more, for $30,000 Staroselsky can hire a seasoned Russian emigre with an advanced degree to shuttle around the world at a moment's notice. "These people are starting from scratch in the second half of their lives," says project

manager Victor Borodkin, who emigrated in 1976.

The hard-driving Staroselsky sets the pace. When the Soviets eased limits on Jewish emigration in 1973, he bolted. By then, he had 14 patents on control devices for turbomachinery. When he arrived with his wife and son in Rome, a transit point, he learned that the Jewish community in Des Moines was eager to sponsor two families. Staroselsky and a friend volunteered.

He spoke not a word of English. At first, he and his friend worked as draftsmen, but soon a group of local businessmen, some of them Russian immigrants from an earlier wave, decided to back them in a startup enterprise. In 1978, Staroselsky began production of a computerized controller the size of a VCR. Since then, the company has grown at least 20% to 25% a year--and 40% in the first half of 1991.

SOUNDING OFF. Staroselsky admits there are problems with hiring Soviets. They don't like five-year plans, team-building exercises, or slogans, which sound like propaganda. They resist committing anything to writing. Under communism, workers feared taking responsibility for their actions. Sick of hearing the party line, Russians tend not to be good listeners. Nor are they good salespeople, at least at the start. "Russians, being a product of a society where the individual was not much valued, don't know how to present themselves," he says.

Although he's a demanding boss, Staroselsky likes to invite employees to his sprawling house, modeled on a St. Petersburg mansion, with ceiling-to-floor windows and parquet floors, for drinks and food a la russe. He can sound off about poor performance. "My boss got mad once and yelled: 'Go and visit the hell,' " kids Paul Negley, 29, a software engineer from Iowa.

The Russians keep coming. Vladimir Yarigin just hired on as a sales engineer to drum up new business in Russia. Stan Pshonik, a former Soviet journalist, is already rapping out Russian-language manuals on a makeshift Cyrillic keyboard. At this rate, Staroselsky may soon have more awards to hang on his walls.Joyce Barnathan in Des Moines


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