Small Business

A Future So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades


By Lisa Bergson I keep my shades on as I pick up my exhibitor's badge for Semicon Europa, an annual trade show for semiconductor industry suppliers. It's a bright day in Munich, but that's not why they're still perched on my nose. I find trade shows so stressful, I try to prolong the time before I have to be "on."

"Everyone must be out sunning," says the clerk when asked about attendance. But the poor showing for Semicon Europa's 25th anniversary has more to do with market conditions than the weather. After an exceptional 2000, the semiconductor industry is down. Still hiding behind my dark glasses, I make my way to our obscure little booth. It's packed with products, but is sorely lacking in people.

Back at the plant, some suggested we blow this one off as an economy measure. The show requires a major investment: to book the space, ship our booth and equipment, and make all kinds of arrangements, from securing electrical outlets to reservations for business meals. Plus, there's the cost of sending me and two of my employees for the duration. "There's no business coming out of Europe anyway," went the rationale for skipping Munich.

LASER TARGET. I fought to hold onto our beachhead. Those of you following this column know I've targeted Europe, with its many multinational corporations and varied markets, for development. I've been working -- unsuccessfully, thus far -- with a big-name international headhunter, TMP Worldwide, to find a regional sales manager here. Also, we have a very promising new laser-based technology initially aimed at the semiconductor market. I'm eager to position us at the forefront.

Such technical innovation has been key to MEECO's survival all along. Yet I've never had an opportunity like Tiger Optics, our spinoff electro-optic equipment business. At the booth, Tiger's first laser-based instrument, the MTO-1000-H2O, looms large in the industry's preferred rack-mount configuration. I fret because its stunning new faceplate wasn't ready for this image-conscious venue. (MEECO is known for its bold, colorful designs, and Tiger Optics continues in that vein, but with cooler, hipper motifs.)

As I approach the booth, I reluctantly shed my sunglasses and greet Chris Cotellese, our new salesman, standing with Dr. Wen-Bin Yan, director of laser research. Yesterday, while Wen-Bin and I visited Britain's National Physical Laboratory to talk about the new technology, Chris set up the booth on his own. He got a little carried away with the small stuffed tigers to promote Tiger Optics. Our booth looks like the shooting gallery at a carnival.

"How's the show?" I ask. I already know the answer. I didn't come this far and spend this much to wallow in obscurity. Wen-Bin and I pair off to go prospecting, leaving Chris to do double duty at the booth, with sporadic support from our independent European sales reps. A one-two pattern emerges, wherein I approach the exhibitors to ask if there's anyone involved with semiconductor gas analysis. Wen-Bin fills them in on the technical details. Low attendance notwithstanding, we unearth some of our market's major buyers and decision-makers, here to scope out the scene.

~~THE AMERICAN WAY.~~ Since MEECO is known in the field, getting their interest is easy. After introducing our new company and the MTO's capabilities, I turn it over to Wen-Bin. "He makes the snowballs and you throw them," my husband later quips. Mind you, throwing snowballs is not the European way. Here people are far too reserved to rush some stranger. It's hard for me, too, but I make myself do it. Such behavior is more tolerated from Americans since it's assumed we don't know any better.

Indeed, Semicon Europa is marked by a gracious, relaxed atmosphere unlike our industry's American or Japanese shows. The big booths Wen-Bin and I visit feature small cafés, where we talk over complimentary, very strong coffee. We don't have time to stop for lunch, but it doesn't matter. Soft, tasty Bavarian pretzels, German butter cookies, fresh fruit, even large croissants are plentiful and free as we make our rounds.

In truth, the slow show works in our favor. Our potential customers are also bored fellow exhibitors eager to explore what's new in trace moisture analysis for corrosive gases. Soon wavelets of customers and competitors crowd our dinky booth and spill into the aisle. No one seems to care about the sketchy faceplate. "Do you have data? A spec sheet?" they ask. One key decision-maker spends over an hour with Wen-Bin, standing by our single tall café table, designing a sampling system to integrate the MTO into his gas cylinder filling operation. Heaven.

BETA AND BAITING. "How long have you been working on this?" asks an Italian competitor, surrounded by a small pack of colleagues. I sigh: "Since 1994." The competitor is among those staking out new laser-based technology that I expect to transform our market within three years. From the beginning, however, our approach to electro-optics -- cavity ring-down spectroscopy -- was viewed as potentially powerful, but unlikely to succeed. It was too new and unproven, with too many variables.

Yet, here we are, displaying specifications and talking Beta tests and a June release date. "Would you like to buy a unit?" Wen-Bin baits the Italian, much to my chagrin. That's fine for him to say. Just this week, the word on our first field test at a customer site was less than encouraging. "It's not ready for Beta," the customer carped. With that, our director of engineering pushed the delivery date out until August.

Wen-Bin assures me we can fix it. We better, with the market momentum now starting to build. Otherwise, I'll really need to show up incognito next year. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. She received a Masters in Journalism from New York University and received Columbia University's Walter Bagehot Fellowship for economics and business journalism. You can visit her company's web site at www.meeco.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com.


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