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Business links grow between U.S., Britain

Whether you're putting Shell gasoline in your car, Pillsbury biscuits in your mouth, USAir on your itinerary or, maybe soon, MCI on your telephone bill, you're doing business with Britain.

Business dealings between the United States and Britain are growing as close as the countries' shared history, language, culture and legal tradition.

As corporate ties increasingly blur national boundries and trade within Europe and North America becomes less restricted, it has become easier _ and essential _ for companies to cement their links with foreign markets. And for British companies looking to expand abroad, the United States presents an enticing and practical market.

The weak dollar has made everything American _ from autos to airplanes _ cheaper for foreigners.

Moreover, "there's a great interchange of human resources" that helps U.S.-British transactions move at a rapid rate, said Irwin Stelzer, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Two of the latest deals represent the expanded business links between the two countries.

Greater traffic in people and information means more opportunities for a transnational airline or telephone company.

British Telecommunications PLC is buying 20 percent of MCI Communications Corp. for $4.3-billion. The deal would give each company broader reach into each other's markets and marry MCI's marketing savvy with British Telecom's financial strength.

British Airways reached into the U.S. market by purchasing a 19.9 percent stake in USAir for $300-million earlier this year and won U.S. approval for the two airlines to coordinate their operations.

"Borders are irrelevant to airlines and communications companies," Stelzer said. "They're physical fictions created by governments. . . . Those seem to be disappearing. That's what prompts these two."

The United States has long been a favorite of British investors, well before fears of the Japanese buying America were inflamed.

Shell, whose gas stations dot street corners across the country, is owned by the British-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch-Shell. And the Pillsbury Doughboy answers to the parent company in Britain, Grand Metropolitan PLC.

Henry Wendt, who helped engineer the 1989 merger of Philadelphia-based SmithKline Beckman and London-based Beecham, splits his working time between the two cities as chairman of SmithKline Beecham.

Since the two drug companies joined forces, they've integrated operations and research while tapping into each other's sales territories.

Treating the world as a global market rather than using the colonial model of a home office with foreign branches, is the key difference between the old-style multinational and the new world of borderless business, Wendt says.

But borders aren't completely gone and, to some, governments are still getting in the way.

Both MCI's competitors and USAir's rivals complain those deals give British companies access to American customers while the British government denies similar opportunities to U.S. companies. American Telephone & Telegraph, American Airlines and other companies in both industries say they have been restricted in providing their services in Britain.

Critics say British Telecom and British Airways still enjoy the protections to their businesses that was fostered under government ownership and heavy regulation. But since being sold to investors, the companies' managers have been able to mix that protection with spirited entrepreneurship to expand internationally while feeling confident their home base is safe.