Norma AS, Estonia's most significant car component manufacturer, is poised to increase its business rapidly outside Russia for the first time.
The breakthrough comes five years after the last Russian troops left Estonia and nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Estonia is a small Baltic country south of Finland.
Norma, a seat belt manufacturer, wants to raise the share of its sales made outside Russia from the current level of 15 percent to about 50 percent in two or three years.
Managing Director Peep Siimon said his company has been trying to broaden its customer base for the past five years.
The Russian market is a tough one, said Siimon, although not in the way many people think.
Business is not carried out while drinking vodka or relaxing in the sauna, Siimon said. But market conditions make it difficult to develop cars to international standards.
Norma has built up its development capability to win Western contracts, and it has enjoyed some success.
Norma supplies seat belts for school buses in the United States, bus producers in the European Union, Renault heavy trucks in France and niche applications such as forklift trucks.
Norma also assembles some small plastic parts for Saab doors. This year it will begin supplying seat belts to GM's Astra assembly plant in Gliwice, Poland.
The key to Norma's improved prospects has been Autoliv Inc.'s acquisition of a 49.5 percent stake in the company in October 1999. It has an option to take its share to 51 percent within three years. Autoliv is a Swedish safety systems supplier.
Siimon said Autoliv and Norma are looking to shift more work to Estonia. Estonian labor costs are about a fifth of those in Sweden.
In turn, Norma wants to buy more raw materials and components in Russia. It is aiming to take advantage of even lower costs farther east and meet expected demand for higher local content in Russia.