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Going home to help engineer some clean air
October 2004. Neal St. Anthony, Star Tribune.


Paul Smallwood left Monday to help Vietnam 's industrial sector improve environmental practices.
A businessman named Paul Smallwood called several weeks ago in response to a column I'd written that focused on tawdry business practices.

Smallwood, an engineer who became an entrepreneur when he was laid off by an engineering company in 2001, was miffed that a contractor had stiffed him for $7,000.

The contractor went out of business after its assets were seized by its banker. There were layoffs and other jilted creditors, too.

The bottom line: Smallwood probably won't get paid, and that upset him.

But within a couple of weeks, Smallwood, a Vietnamese immigrant who took his stepfather's name in America, recalled something the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius had said: "Those who cannot forgive others break the bridge over which they themselves must pass."

In other words: Get over it.

And Smallwood, who hopes for $500,000 in sales from his Maple Grove-based business this year, plans to fry bigger fish.

This month, Smallwood's company, FlowSense, a distributor of customized fluid-handling technologies to the medical, electronics and other industries, was named 2004 supplier of the year by the Minnesota Minority Development Council.

On Monday, Smallwood, 44, left for Vietnam as part of a group of small, Minnesota-based engineering and environmental firms that for the next three weeks will be focused on helping that country's burgeoning industrial sector to improve environmental practices.

The U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City , the former Saigon, is paying $25,000 toward trip expenses in the expectation that the technology and expertise of the Minnesota companies will lead to less pollution in Vietnam and more U.S. commercial opportunities.

" Vietnam has health and environmental conditions resulting from inadequate attention to industrial pollution ... typical of developing countries," said Steve Riedel of the Minnesota Trade Office. "Paul's project management and engineering skills are strong suits. He's also a very smart organizer and problem-solver, and he's got the cultural sensitivity.

"He has an engaging personality, fearless when it comes to meeting new people and what he can do. He's an entrepreneur. He's going to be a leader of our group."

Smallwood was born in Hanoi and raised in what used to be called Saigon . Smallwood and his mother, who married a U.S. soldier, immigrated to the United States in 1974, before the fall of the U.S.-backed government in South Vietnam .

In the 1990s, U.S. Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, both combat veterans of the decade-long Vietnam war, helped the United States establish trade and cultural ties.

"It's a state-controlled economy with private-sector liberalization that they call 'Doi Moi,' " Riedel said."They permit private business, and they don't have price controls. You can compare it to China . They can't [afford to] continue to prop up state-run organizations."

Smallwood returned to Vietnam once before, when he was a Westinghouse power-generator sales engineer a decade ago. This time, he returns as a business owner, taking several days to tour and call on long-lost relatives as well as commercial prospects.

"From a business standpoint, there is an inherent advantage because ... I am more sensitive to the subtleties and nuances of different cultures," Smallwood said. "On the other hand, there is an internal struggle in terms of accommodating the philosophical differences."

After high school in Illinois and a couple of dead-end jobs, Smallwood joined the Air Force, working as an electronics technician in the early 1980s. He went on to an engineering degree from the University of Illinois .

Smallwood, married and the father of three, moved his family to Minnesota in 1996 to take a job with Honeywell. He was laid off as Minnesota-area sales manager of Burkert, a Swiss engineering firm, in 2001. He struck out on his own, tapping into old and new clients.

"Being laid off was one of the best things that happened to me because I no longer had an excuse to cling to the corporate security blanket," Smallwood said. "You become hungrier, work until midnight, and your drive to succeed is greater. You wear just about every hat that fits. From Web design to writing newsletters, from marketing to sales, from engineering to project management, from accounting ... to field installation. You name it, I've done it."

This is a special sales call for Smallwood.

" Vietnam has made great progress, curbing corruption and improving foreign investment laws," Smallwood said. "As with any developing country on its way to becoming an industrialized nation, one of the undesirable after-effects is environmental pollution. My goal on this trade mission is to help Vietnam be aware of the technologies available to solve [their] environmental challenges."

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