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Kachajian's Rebellion

The story of how one small manufacturere spent six years fighting to save his business from the deadening hand of government export controls -- and won. Sort of.


You will know you have arrived when you see the marquee, there above the front door of his corporate headquarters at the end of Spruce Street in Oakland, N.J. No, it wasn't planned that way, but it does capture the spirit and essence of the whole long, involved, and contentious drama that's been six years in the making and not finished yet.

Once, those large blue letters announced the company he started 16 years ago as Silicon Technology Corp. (STC). But some months ago, this sign broke in the middle, as if unable to stand the weight of the company's aching frustration any longer: the letters spelling "TECH" fell and shattered on the parking lot below. Now each morning when Kachajian sees this symbol of his plight, he cannot help but mentally review the script as he's lived it thus far. In a rising spiral of incredulity, he will recall how an abrupt shift in American foreign policy suddenly denied him access to foreign markets, and how a foreign competitor used the opportunity both to fill the vacuum overseas and to raid his market in the United States. And he will remember with bitterness the layoffs of workers in Oakland, and the mounting financial losses, and his long hegira through the federal bureaucracy in search of relief.

So it is that George Kachajian comes to work, his $10-million company still dangerously close to collapse. Looking at the marquee, he asks himself, "Who took the 'tech' from my technology?" to which he answers, amazed at the improbability of his own response: "My own government, that's who."

But please come inside: the featured attraction has a lot more to offer -- senators, congressional subcommittees, the Western Alliance; also the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. You will see that the story of George Kachajian's quest for an export license is really only a small vignette played out against a vast backdrop of international trade deficits, East-West competition, and political feuding within the Reagan Administration. Still, it is a vignette that raises disturbing questions: Do the complex controls regulating U.S. exports sacrifice the international competitiveness of American companies, particularly high-tech companies? If our export-control system causes our companies to lose markets, and worse yet, industries, to foreign competitors, then, in the long run are they really protecting our national security? With a trade deficit of $170 billion, can the United States afford to forgo exports that surely run into the billions of dollars that are lost each year to export controls?

The controversy has by no means spent its force, although George Kachajian has now won a victory of sorts against the deadening hand of the Export Administration Act -- the first of its kind in history. And as the news of this victory spreads through the high-tech community, he is being praised as the underdog who beat city hall. But Kachajian never wanted to star in his own melodrama. He wanted to be a businessman.

For 18 years, George S. Kachajian had worked for Dow Corning Corp. in various sales and marketing jobs, first selling silicones for oils, greases, and paint resins, and then silicon, the pure crystalline element used exclusively in the manufacture of semiconductors. His contacts within this new, rapidly growing industry were broad, he was well paid, and his prospects were very promising. But in 1969, he decided to quit. That fall, at a company plant in Hemlock, Mich., Kachajian watched an employee at work on an internal diameter wafering saw, which cuts silicon ingot into thin wafers, one of the first steps in creating semiconductors. For a second, the operator looked away from his work and the saw's diamond blade sliced through the back of his hand and cut off his fingers. Horrified and splattered with blood, Kachajian pulled the man away from the machine and applied a tourniquet. Then and there he decided that "there had to be a better way."

With almost $20,000 in personal savings, Kachajian turned to a machine-tool company in Massachusetts and financed the development of a prototype for a new saw that changed the orientation of the cutting blade, added a protective shield, and rearranged the work flow. In the fall of 1970, funded by $220,000 from friends and relatives and the refinancing of his house, he began to manufacture and sell his new machine. And it was not long before Kachajian realized that he would have to comply with U.S. export regulations, the vagaries of which could hardly be factored into any rational business plan or production schedule.

These days, business on the international level is rarely "strictly business," especially when it involves high tech. During World War II, export controls were used to ensure an adequate supply of various goods and commodities needed to sustain the war effort. But contrary to the original expectations, those controls were left in place long after peace had been declared -- a weapon of the Cold War. The Export Control Act of 1949 finally made official what had been administrative practice, banning the export to communist countries of not only bona fide military equipment, but also dual-use commodities that might have military as well as commercial value. Beginning in 1969, Congresses and Presidents began relaxing those export restrictions, turning a more congenial and expansive face to trade with the Soviet Union and its allies. But this period of detente came to an abrupt halt with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. Caught up in the ebb and flow of the tensions between the superpowers was a small machine-tool company at the end of Spruce Street in Oakland, N.J.

During the 1970s, STC had prospered, controlling 80% of the domestic market in wafering saws. At the same time, Kachajian, encouraged by the prevailing attitude toward open East-West trade, had turned his attention to the demand coming from foreign markets, particularly from the Eastern Bloc, to which he traveled more than 20 times from 1974 to 1980. Because his saw is an integral part of the semiconductor manufacturing line whose end products are, in turn, essential to sophisticated weapons systems, the saws were classified as dual-use commodities requiring a validated export license. In those days, however, the only problems Kachajian encountered in the licensing procedure were delays -- after a wait of up to nine months, his applications were all approved. As a result, he sold 53 wafering saws to the Soviet Union and 4 to Poland, machines that today go for $100,000 apiece.

Then suddenly, in August 1980, the U.S. Department of Commerce, for the first time, denied an export license application from STC. "One minute I was selling," Kajachian recalls, "and the next minute I was screwed. And there you are. You don't want to break the law, so you have to live with it." During the next year and a half, he made one futile call after another to the Commerce Department, only to be told cryptically that his licenses were being denied for national security reasons. Kachajian allowed himself brief interludes of optimism in which he fantasized making up his lost sales with redoubled efforts in the U.S. market. But these, it turned out, were tranquil delusions, only possible because he had not yet heard all the bad news.

By mid-1981, Kachajian discovered that STC was losing not just overseas business, but domestic customers as well. His major competitor, Meyer & Burger A.G., in Switzerland, had suddenly appeared in the United States offering comparable wafering saws for less than STC's cost of production. At first, Kachajian could not understand how the Swiss firm could sustain such suicidal dumping, but he soon learned: lacking any competitive restraint, the Swiss company was selling saws in the Eastern Bloc for prices as much as triple those that had prevailed before the export controls went into effect. "They were using those excess profits to buy market share here and drive me out of business -- and I couldn't fight back," Kachajian says. "It was absurd. It was outrageous. My hands were being tied by my own government."

What's more, Kachajian could not see how the country's national-security interests were served by denying him export licenses on a product that the Soviets could get in comparable quality and quantity from the Swiss. Instead, he felt he was the victim of capricious regulations, which, in effect, doomed him to extinction. Determined to correct the obvious illogic of his situation, Kachajian screwed up his courage and marched directly into the maw of the netherworld of export licensing.

What he found was a forbidding tangle of categories and classifications, of processes and procedures, of laws, regultions and inscrutable interpretations. At its center was the Commodity Control List (CCL), which presents those commodities, goods, and technologies requiring export licenses for any of five criteria: national security, foreign policy, short supply, human rights, and nuclear nonproliferation. In many instances, the CCL is constructed not of products, per se, but of entries calculated according to general technical or performance standards. As a result, no one really knows how many specific products are, in fact, controlled, although estimates range to the hundreds of thousands. While nobody would argue that critical high technology should be sold to the Soviet Bloc, critics from industry, academia, and Congress have charged that the list is far too broad and that it includes items long since rendered technologically obsolete.

The complexity and ungainly sprawl of the CCL is replicated in the bureaucracy that has grown up around it. Today, an application to export a product that might be covered by the CCL is scrutinized not only by several divisions within the Department of Commerce, but frequently by several intelligence agencies and the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy. Nor is that the end of it. Even after applications for certain items have been reviewed by the appropriate roster of U.S. authorities, licenses still cannot be granted unless they are also approved by the 15 allies of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), a regulatory body headquartered in Paris. The intent of COCOM is to coordinate export controls with our allies, which is certainly understandable. But exporters complain that it adds yet another layer of uncertainty to the licensing system, causing delays that drive customers to the arms of competitors, either in non-COCOM countries or, even worse, in COCOM countries that interpret its restrictions more liberally than the United States. In fact, some American businesspeople charge that our allies have, on occasion, used the licensing apparatus to give a competitive advantage to their own manufacturers.

Admittedly, it is unclear how any government bureaucracy can effectively administer such a convoluted system. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the Congress, once described the export controls as a "licensing system characterized more as a paper exercise than as an instrument of control." But should you get caught shipping items on the CCL without a valid license, the penalties for violating the export regulations are very real indeed: up to five years in jail, a minimum fine of $50,000, and the loss of all export privileges.

It was this phantasmagoria of licensing that nearly overwhelmed Kachajian's sensibilities. But the more he learned about it, the more he knew he was fighting for a cause that was not only empirically just, but one that was defensible under the law as well. Previsions of the Export Administration Act of 1979 had instructed the Commerce Department to establish a division of foreign availability. If this division were to determine that a product manufactured by a U.S. company was also available to proscribed countries in comparable quality and quantity, it could decontrol that product, and the exporter could ship without a license. If there ever were a case of foreign availability, Kachajian figures, his was it. What he did not figure was that it would take him nearly four more years to get the government to admit it.

Looking back, George Kachajian's plan of attack now seems fairly obvious: compiling the information needed to prove the matter of foreign availability; seeking the testimony of industry colleagues who found themselves in similar straits; enlisting the political support of the New Jersey congressional delegation. But at the time, the process was confusing, unpredictable, and enormously frustrating. When he has the need, Kachajian will arrange on the top of his office conference table, in eight indexed stacks, seemingly every piece of correspondence he has ever sent or received to or from anybody regarding some aspect of his case. If this collection were put under one cover, its more than 1,000 pages would tell a story roughly comparable, in its own way, to the voyage of Ulysses. In Kachajian's Bureaucrats' Baedeker, there are letters addressed to the chief of the policy division of the munitions control directorate, the deputy assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, the deputy to the deputy assistant secretary for export administration, the licensing officer of the electronic instrumentation branch of the office for export administration, the special assistant to the President for public liaison, the U.S. special trade representative, the special assistant to the President for intergovernmental affairs, the director of the office of International Economic Affairs, the director of the office of Investigations of the U.S. International Trade Commission, and the undersecretary of state for political affairs -- to name just a few. Then, of course, there were all those phone calls beyond counting and some 30 trips to Washington, which cost him nearly $20,000 in hotel and travel expenses. And throw in maybe $60,000 in legal fees.

But Kachajian's odyssey was much more than inconvenient and expensive. It was also desperate. While the whole involved process -- the dead-end leads, the false promises, he interminable discussions -- dragged on and on, Kachajian's company was slowly bleeding to death, the victim of Meyer & Burger's persistent dumping. After a decade of growth in sales and profits, STC began to lose money -- nearly a million dollars to date. In 1983, Kachajian was forced to lay off almost half his employees, and even as late as July 1986, he had to sell an acre and a quarter of land the company owned across the street just to bolster cash flow. "For six years," he says, "the upside of my business has been survival and the downside was bankruptcy. I never even thought about growth."

What he was thinking about most often was the Pentagon, which had persistently raised the national-security issue in connection with the export of his wafering saws. Between 1982 and 1984, Kachajian had half a dozen meetings with various Defense Department officials, including Stephen D. Bryen, the deputy undersecretary for trade security policy. At each meeting, Kachajian would lay out his case, a Swiss competitor driving him out of business with the help of Eastern Bloc profits and counterproductive U.S. government restrictions. And at each meeting, Defense officials would tell him that an export license would jeopardize "national security." Kachajian was prepared to meet their argument head-on. He would first point out that his saws were really "glorified salami slicers" whose technology was so well known that they could hardly be considered a threat to national security. And furthermore that the Eastern Bloc could already get as many saws as it wanted from the Swiss. Then he would go on to say that the United States was in danger of losing its semiconductor manufacturing capability to foreign companies -- where there were once five companies manufacturing saws in the States, now only two remained. That, he concluded, was the real threat to national security.

The Pentagon was not impressed, however, and Kachajian finally gave up in disgust. Says Wesley E. Charles, STC's president, who attended one such meeting: "They don't care about anything else, just don't give the Soviet Union anything. They wouldn't sell them a handful of sand. And if they could control that, they would."

Fortunately, as one door closed, another one opened. In the fall of 1984, Kachajian got a call from an investigator in the division of foreign availability, which only then had finally been staffed and funded as Congress had ordered back in 1979. Kachajian, hearing for the first time that a study was being done on internal diameter saws, was ecstatic. "Man, that was exciting," he says. "I had someone who was interested. I mean the guy asked questions for two hours." During the six months that it took the investigator to complete the study, Kachajian peppered the Commerce Department with information and stumped around Washington. "Because of George's involvement," says Toli Welihozkiy of the Office of Foreign Availability (OFA), "everybody became aware that this was an agenda item that needed to be moved quickly." But "quickly" has a special meaning in Washington. It was the spring of 1985, more than five years after the rejection of his first license, that the OFA determined that there was, in fact, foreign availability of wafering saws and that the item should be decontrolled.

With the OFA determination, Kachajian had established a beachhead within the bureaucracy, but the battle had only just begun. Under the procedures of the Export Administration Act of 1985, OFA sent a draft of its report detailing its findings to the Department of Defense for review and comment, and, not surprisingly, Defense disagreed strongly with the specific findings, with their interpretation, and particularly with the impulse to decontrol the saws. The reaction touched off a fierce interagency squabble within an Administration equally committed to fighting back the Russians and fighting back government restrictions on business.

"Our view," explained deputy undersecretary Bryen, "is that we have very good intelligence, incontrovertible intelligence, that the items . . . will be put to use by the Soviets directly in military. You know, in the '70s we had this great experiment: we were going to trade with the Russians and try to improve relations. But the basic bottom line is that the bulk of this stuff went right to the Soviet military, and it was used by them to modernize their military forces."

Replied Paul Freedenberg, assistant secretary of Commerce for trade administration: "The Commerce Department sees to it that you have to make a balance in these types of cases. You have to decide to balance off immediate national security against the long-term loss of the defense-industrial base, which, in itself, has a national-security implication. If you lose, for example, your semiconductor manufacturing capability, ultimately you're undermined, because you no longer have that defense base to build semiconductors. Now we're just talking in this case about one specific company, but it's microcosm of a danger -- not something that's immediate, but certainly something that, long range, could be very deleterious."

Confronted with implacable opposition from Defense once again, Kachajian's spirits wilted, but only for a moment. In September 1985, his forces were joined by fresh troops. Stanley T. Myers, president and chief executive officer of California-based Siltec Corp. and a member of the Semiconductor Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), one of nine such committees advising the Commerce Department in various high-tech areas, wrote a letter about STC's predicament to his fellow members. Myers, whose company uses wafering saws, knew firsthand about Meyer & Burgers's tactics. And in his letter, he carefully outlined STC's plight and urged the committee to action on STC's and all U.S. manufacturers' behalf, ending with: "Unless we act quickly and decisively, we will face the ironic circumstance of having controlled an American technology into extinction."

The Advisory Committee did act quickly, using its powers under the Export Administration Act to force a decision on Kachajian's case, supposedly within 90 days. Kachajian responded by redoubling his lobbying efforts, enlisting New Jersey's two senators, Bill Bradley and Frank R. Lautenberg, and Representative Marge Roukema to put pressure on Commerce secretary Malcolm Baldrige and his aides. "I was in the wilderness for four years," Kachajian recalls, "and now I had big names."

Commerce was leaning toward a favorable decision, both because of the merits of Kachajian's case and because a positive decision was important to the credibility of the Office of Foreign Availability. Up to that point, the OFA had not produced one single case leading to the decontrol of any item or technology listed on the CCL. The business community was becoming openly critical. So was Congress, which had ordered the establishment of the office six years earlier. But there was still the problem of the Pentagon's unrelenting opposition. Finally, the standoff between an immovable object and an irresistible force had reached an impasse, and the case of George Kachajian and his little company at the end of Spruce Street in Oakland, N.J., was taken all the way to the White House.

On May 15 at 10:30 a.m., Kachajian was attending a meeting of the Semiconductor Technical Advisory Committee in the huge Commerce building on Pennsylvania Avenue. As Kachajian remembers it, the 20 members of TAC were in their places around a large conference table while assorted guests and observers chatted from their seats around the edges of the room. Suddenly, assistant secretary Freedenberg came in and everyone fell silent as he announced that, earlier that morning, he had recommended to the National Security Council at the White House that wafering saws be decontrolled for reasons of foreign availability. "Everybody turned to look at me," Kachajian says. "Then they got up and started to congratulate me. I just sat there like the cat who swallowed a canary, but I was afraid to smile. I still couldn't believe it. . . . This happened after six years of busting my chops. When I left that place, I thought I was walking on air."

For the next month, Kachajian kept up his pressure with telephone calls, visits, and a letter campaign that involved all 45 employees of his company. Then, in late June, he got a call from a staff person in Representative Roukema's office. The congresswoman had just received a letter, the caller said, from John M. Poindexter, the assistant to the President for national-security affairs, which stated that the council had agreed with the Commerce Department's position that the internal diameter saws should be immediately decontrolled.

Kachajian's first reaction was to shout for joy, but he knew better. Long experience with the government had taught him that seldom were problems that easily dispatched. And he was right. The saws, the letter continued, would, in fact, be decontrolled immediately for sale only to noncommunist countries such as Sweden and South Korea. The letter went on to say that, "Subsequently, we will begin working with our allies to arrive at a mutually agreed upon and orderly removal of COCOM controls on these saws to controlled countries."

In short, Kachajian, who views the reopening of Eastern Bloc markets as the key to the survival of his company, still could not sell his saws to the one market he wanted in the first place. And, at this moment, that is still where he is: one hand clutching the collar of his company to keep it from going under, the other with all its fingers crossed while he waits for COCOM to consider the issue sometime this year.

Yet as painful as it is for him, Kachajian's current limbo is entirely expressive of the lack of consensus that the current Administration brings to the issue of export controls. And it is particularly expressive of a regulatory environment in which the word "resolution" seems oddly to imply a more or less permanent state of contentiousness.

At the Commerce Department, for example, James K. Pont, the director of the OFA, speaks for many of his colleagues when he says that the Kachajian case establishes an important precedent. Claiming that the OFA has finally "found a path through the bureaucratic jungle," he predicts that over the next three to six months there may be several more positive findings.

But at the Defense Department, the feeling is that if there is any kind of precedent involved, it is only of the worst possible kind. Pointing out that the Kachajian case involves "the most sensitive technology that the Bloc can acquire," deputy undersecretary Bryen sees the handling of the issue as an example of "poor leadership" that ignored "the national interest." In his opinion, Commerce should have negotiated aggressively with the Swiss to get them to stop sales in the Eastern Bloc rather than decontrolling U.S. shipments. "There are plenty of things the Swiss want from us," he argues, "and it's outrageous that what we have is the Commerce Department laying back and saying, 'Well, we informally asked them and they said no.' I mean, that's nonsense. They [the Swiss] don't informally ask when they want something."

Bryen also makes it quite clear that George Kachajian's long ordeal is far from over, at least as far as the Pentagon is concerned. "Some of them [the saws] he will be allowed to sell," he says, "but there will be restrictions, at least if we have anything to say about it, on what types of saws he will be able to sell, and for what size ingot, and so on. It won't be any open door."

Thus, while George Kachajian's victory has drawn the attention of the export community, it has not engendered much hope for a significantly more balanced export-control policy. If anything, many of Kachajian's fellow exporters look at his six-year ordeal and wonder if it only confirms their worst fears about controls and the future competitiveness of American manufacturers abroad. Larry L. Hansen, executive vice-president of Varian Associates Inc., manufacturers of such items as ion implanters and chemical vapor deposition reactors, responds to the Kachajian case with a mixture of admiration and horror: "George put in an enormous amount of effort to get that, and that's a very mundane piece of equipment. I mean who in the hell can't make a crystal slicer? For him to have had to put in that much effort, and get that many people involved to get the relief that he got is an incredible thing, absolutely incredible."

"Sometimes there's a little voice inside me," says Kachajian, "that asks: 'What are you so happy about? All this means is that you can do what you should've been able to do all along." Maybe.

Last updated: Oct 1, 1986

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