Opportunities in Eastern Europe

February 06, 1992

What on earth is Keith Anthony, a one-time builder of custom homes in Anne Arundel County, doing in Poland?

The answer is not only interesting but shows that America's deep recession provides great opportunities to those who are imaginative.

When the bottom fell out of the upscale new-homes market, Mr. Anthony closed his Stevensville business and decided that money could be made in post-communist Poland. He is now turning out factory-built homes from a warehouse on Maryland's Eastern Shore and shipping them to Poland. Business is booming.

Although Poland is struggling with great economic problems, enough people are becoming affluent that there is a growing demand for upscale homes. Yet very few such homes are available. For that reason, newly well-to-do Poles are grabbing kits of three-bedroom town houses. In Maryland, those kits would sell for just under $30,000. In Poland, they cost twice as much. But because they come with American refrigerators and stoves as well as carpeting, insulation, cabinets and closets, these homes are bargains for those who can afford them. "The next 20 years I think will be a booming business," says Mr. Anthony, who is currently on a business trip in Poland.

One of the legacies of communism is an unbelievable shortage of apartments. The pent-up demand for housing is so great that a military team from the new Commonwealth of Independent States arrived this week in Arizona. Its mission: try to negotiate a complicated deal to exchange lumber and scrap metal for up to 50,000 modular homes.

Fully equipped modular homes are one field where the United States -- because of its relatively low labor, material and appliance costs -- can beat Western Europe, which would be an alternative supplier for the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Shipping them is easy. The 12-by-40 foot modules of Arizona-made home kits coveted by the Russian military slip into standard-size shipping containers that can be stacked four-high inside the holds of freighters.

Smart foreign investors are soon likely to begin building modular home factories in Eastern Europe. But for many years to come, American-manufactured homes will continue to compete effectively because of their better quality and nicer furnishings. An American home also remains a powerful status symbol in these countries.

That's why Mr. Anthony recently added "USA" to the original title of his company, Liberty Homes. Poles, he says, "really love anything American."

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