Entrepreneurs in Iraq: Some were called to serve, others came to build a fortune.
Iraq is hot and dangerous and, as Chris Exline has learned, open for business. The founder of Home Essentials, a furniture-leasing company based in Dallas, was among the first entrepreneurs to set up shop in Iraq after American troops swept through the country in 2003. Exline, who doesn't speak Arabic and had no experience working in the Middle East, readily affirms that what he's doing is risky. But he also contends the country is "perfectly suited" not just for the Halliburtons of the world but for American entrepreneurs.
When did you decide to try doing business in Iraq?
Right as the war was starting. I read a story in the Asian Wall Street Journal on the administration's plans for reconstruction and I was awestruck. It was clear that there was no way the indigenous population could do all of this work -- that it would require thousands of expats to come in. So I decided to go on a scouting trip to the Middle East to see where we could establish a toehold. Flying there in April 2003, I practically had the whole plane to myself. I knocked on a lot of doors in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and Jordan. And then I went to Dubai, which is 800 miles from Iraq, about the distance from Dallas to Chicago. There's a tariff-free zone, so I decided to set up a distribution facility there. A few months later, I went to Iraq and set up a warehouse in central Baghdad.
How do you cope with the threat to your safety when you are in Iraq?
I was in Baghdad the week Nick Berg was murdered. That same week, a mortar landed 50 feet in front of my house in the Green Zone. The next night, another mortar hit and shattered my bedroom window. But when you are inside Iraq doing your job, it's not as frightening as it is before you go. In the Green Zone, you have your own cordoned-off world. Yes, you are in a city of five million people who have a lot of guns. But it's not as if people wear bulletproof vests all day.
So what do you wear?
Jeans and khakis and button-down shirts. I did let my beard grow out a bit because it makes me look more Arabic.
How did you secure your first contract?
During my second trip, I stopped by the offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The person there said, "It's funny you are here. We need furniture." That order was for about $96,000.
Did you send someone from Texas to run your Iraq office?
No. While I feel safe in Iraq, I didn't want to send one of my employees there. I hired a local furniture guy who handles all of the hiring and personnel issues in Baghdad, where I have about 15 local employees.
What are your Iraqi workers like?
They are industrious, and they want to get on with their lives, to re-build their country for their children and grandchildren.
Do you worry that U.S. policy will change and that that will hurt your business?
I don't know any entrepreneur that waits for clarity from the government before embarking on a course of action. Besides which, I subscribe to the theory that in Iraq, any business plan you develop will be adjusted a number of times anyway. Only those who can respond well -- and respond quickly -- to a fluid situation will succeed.