Even as Saddam Hussein ravaged Kuwait, Maryland businesses were planning to rebuild the nation. Here's how the Maryland/Kuwait Partnership was born.


May 27, 1991|By Ted Shelsby

It was early December -- six weeks before the allied bombin started and nearly three months before Kuwait would be liberated -- and William Parsons was planning for the future.

Nearly everyone else was caught up in the day-to-day aspects of diplomacy, politics and warfare of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But as Mr. Parsons sat in the tub one morning, it suddenly dawned upon him that there was money to be made rebuilding the war-torn Persian Gulf nation once the fighting ended.

His thought processes shifted into overdrive as he considered the business prospects associated with a multibillion-dollar rebuilding program and what it might mean for Maryland companies, the port of Baltimore, Baltimore-Washington International Airport. . . .

Mr. Parsons, the president of Parsons & Co., an architectural and engineering concern in Monkton, could hardly contain himself. He jumped out of the tub, wrapped a towel around his waist and ran through the house calling to his wife: "Pam, Pam, I've got an idea and we've got to get into this."

"That's when he called me," recalls William Touchard, a longtime friend and the retired president of Poole & Kent Co., a local mechanical contracting company.

" 'Bill,' he said, 'can you come see me?' I said, 'Yeah, I'll see you one day next week.' He said, 'No, I'd like to see you today, within the next hour, if you could.' This is the way Bill is. He's a dynamic guy and when he comes up with an idea, he wants to act on it fast."

Off on the other side of the world Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was still hanging tough. Despite the increasing size of themultinational force being assembled against him, Mr. Hussein continued to insist that he would never leave Kuwait.

But Mr. Parsons thought differently. As he and Mr. Touchard talked in the architect's home office, Mr. Parsons insisted that the Iraqi soldiers were going to leave Kuwait, "either vertically, meaning they walk out, or horizontally, meaning they would be carried out in pine boxes."

When that happened, the two men agreed, it would be good if they were prepared to act on the business opportunities. Mr. Parsons suggested assembling a group of companies, such as they had 15 years earlier when they worked together on the construction of a sports arena in Saudi Arabia for the University of Riyadh, to get their foot in the door and their names out among potential Kuwaiti customers.

Mr. Parsons' bathtub brainstorm led to the formation of the Kuwait/Maryland Partnership Inc., a business initiative that Kuwaiti Ambassador Saud Nasir al-Sabah says is unique in the United States. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, meanwhile, claims the group has put Maryland out in front of the race to land Kuwaiti reconstruction contracts.

The partnership coordinates businesses throughout the state to form a one-stop shopping center where the Kuwaiti government can come for a variety of goods and services.

At last count, about 900 Maryland businesses had registered with the group, says Mr. Touchard, the 67-year-old who was lured out of retirement and away from an amateur softball career to take over the day-to-day operations of the group.

"They range in size from a guy with two dump trucks and a couple of drivers that he wants to send over there to giant Westinghouse" Electronic Systems Group, a producer of radar systems and the state's largest manufacturing employer.

Mr. Touchard and Mr. Parsons had help as they moved from a concept to an up-and-running business. They took in five other partners to share the $200,000 start-up costs and benefited greatly from a bright idea offered by a Baltimore businessman. And they were helped along by the governor's ties to Arab leaders.

At first, there were plenty of skeptics -- including State Economic Development Secretary J. Randall Evans. Mr. Touchard recalls that when the group first approached the state official "his reaction was along the line of what's the hurry, the war to $H liberate Kuwait hadn't even started yet."

Mr. Touchard's response was loud and clear. "No way. We want to be out in front of the crowd and that's where we have the state of Maryland today," he exclaims, emphasizing the words by tapping his index finger on one of the few clear spots on the cluttered conference table he uses as a desk. Mr. Evans soon was won over.

Convincing the Department of Economic and Employment Development of the merits of the plan was easy, says Mr. Touchard, compared to trying to keep up with the workload at the partnership's office.

"This is embarrassing," he says, looking over the table covered with piles of letters -- some opened, some still in envelopes -- catalogs, brochures, sheets of notebook paper and business cards.

"I was president of Poole & Kent for 17 years and we did $200

million a year in work," he says. "I always had control of everything. I never had a desk so messed up as this is. But things are coming in here so fast it's hard to keep up with it.

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