As bets go, this isn't a big one: $5,000 says Loudoun, the nation's fastest growing county, can lure more international business.
That's what Loudoun's Department of Economic Development is paying Ashburn-based business consultant Wolfgang Tolle, at least initially, to serve as the county's first international business ambassador.
The German-speaking Tolle has been hired to study how Loudoun can attract businesses from Western Europe. If the 50-hour, $100-an-hour study shows promise, his role could be expanded to selling Loudoun around the globe, said Larry Rosenstrauch, director of the Department of Economic Development.
But that's getting ahead of things.
"We're just putting the tip of our little toe in the water, compared to what other counties in the Washington region might be doing," Rosenstrauch said.
Dozens of foreign companies have operations in Loudoun, many around Dulles International Airport (think Lufthansa and British Airways). But Loudoun has done little to court international business, especially compared with other counties in the region.
Next-door neighbor Fairfax County, for example, has spent $1.2 million during the past seven years to operate three overseas offices and to retain a London public relations firm, according to Gerald L. Gordon, chief executive of the county's Economic Development Authority. That figure does not include travel expenses. A spokesman for Gordon said this week that the amount spent on travel was not immediately available. Fairfax opened offices in Tokyo in 1997, London in 1999, Frankfurt in 2000 and Tel Aviv this month. An office in India is being planned.
In 1989, Fairfax was home to 72 foreign-owned companies. Today, it has 292, according to county statistics.
In Maryland, more than 100 foreign-owned businesses operate in Montgomery County, which has a base in the Netherlands.
And back in Virginia, Henrico County, home to Richmond, opened an office in Shanghai last month. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) was on hand to do the ribbon-cutting.
In Loudoun, the idea is to find less costly ways to persuade a biotechnology firm in Berlin to establish a U.S. base in Sterling, for example.
The county will try to accomplish that, Tolle said, primarily through its membership in the World Cities Alliance, a consortium of regional economic development groups in Europe and the United States. The alliance helps familiarize businesses with opportunities on both continents.
"This is a pilot test to find out what Loudoun should do and can do," said Tolle, 43, who came to the United States from Germany in 1990. "I should stress that this is very low budget. There is really no travel involved. The traveling is done by Rolodex. But I have a huge Rolodex."
Tolle's firm, LaunchDreams LLC, assists entrepreneurs in starting businesses. He formerly worked for tech firms in Germany and Northern Virginia and served as managing director of Virginia's nonprofit Center for Innovative Technology.
"First, we need to find out: What are the needs of the existing international business already in Loudoun County?" Tolle said. "I'll find out if these existing companies have any special needs culturally or from a tax or legal perspective, even if it's just a matter of building their own building. They may need to learn the process of how to build or lease a building. If you went to Germany to start a business, would you know how to do any of that?"
In recent weeks, Tolle has visited the Ashburn offices of Zestron Corp., a German firm that produces and sells biodegradable cleaning agents.
Harald Wack, who heads Zestron's U.S. operation, said he chose Loudoun in 1997, in part, because "the setting was more cost effective than anything closer to D.C."
Now the firm is planning to move to a larger facility in Loudoun, north of Dulles Airport.
Tolle, in his role as international business ambassador, said he has assisted Zestron with county zoning issues related to the planned move.
After assessing the needs of Loudoun's foreign-owned companies, Tolle said he will study how to attract other businesses, using the World Cities Alliance as a networking tool.
"One of Loudoun's great assets is Dulles Airport, which has nonstop flights to many large cities all over the world," he said. "That saves time for many of these companies that travel internationally. Loudoun also has a fairly stable business environment, and there is a lot of land here. And Loudoun still has a big advantage over some jurisdictions in terms of being cheaper to locate and to live here."
Rosenstrauch said the county also will tout its quality of life, with its small towns, wineries and horse country.
"In the end, we're hoping we can capture our fair share of international business," he said. "Or more than our fair share."