Norma AS, Estonia's biggest car component manufacturer, is poised to rapidly increase its business outside Russia.
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 directly south of Finland.
Norma, a seat belt manufacturer, wants to raise the share of its sales outside Russia from the current level of 15 percent to about 50 percent in two or three years' time.
Norma 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, said Siimon. Managers at the Russian carmakers work long hours and try hard to develop more competitive products, he said.
But market conditions make it difficult to develop cars to international standards.
For example, Norma developed a seat belt pretensioner for the Russian market but the product was deleted on cost grounds.
Safety is not a priority among Russian car buyers, said Siimon, and Russians dislike wearing seat belts.
In 1998, when AutoVAZ, the major Russian car producer, decided to launch a low cost version of its best-selling Lada, it persuaded the Russian ministry of internal affairs to allow it to produce cars without rear seat belts.
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 USA, bus producers in the European Union, RVI (Renault Vehicules Industriels) trucks in France, and niche applications such as forklift trucks.
Norma also assembles some small plastic parts for Saab doors.
These contracts have been good for Norma, said Siimon, and the company has learned a great deal. Starting in 2000 it will supply seat belts to GM's Astra assembly plant in Gliwice, Poland.
According to Siimon, Norma is too small to bid for global contracts. 'To offer seat belts in today's car industry, you need to be a global manufacturer,' he said.
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.
Autoliv vice president Jorgen Svensson has been elected chairman of the Norma council and Autoliv executives have joined the Norma executive board.
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 further east and meet expected demand for higher local content in Russia.
Norma is also looking to shift more of its work for Russian carmakers to its plant at Vjazniki, between Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod.