Akron/Canton (3279)

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:52

Business Notes

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Premium Balloon Accessories of Sharon Center has purchased one of its competitors, The A. J. Ganz Co. of Los Angeles. Both companies are leaders in the balloon accessory industry.

Northcoast Signworks has moved to a new location inside the original Richfield Fire Department building in downtown Richfield.

GBS Sticker World of Stow has unveiled a new product called Cling On’s. Cling On’s is a material that will stick to almost anything without adhesive.

Hasenstab & McCarthy Architects of Akron has been awarded a $4.3 million contract by the Ohio Department of Mental Health to renovate and reconfigure four patient units at the Massillon Psychiatric Center.

Ken-Tool of Akron received two awards from the Forging Industry Association for its workplace safety record.

Industrial Distribution magazine has named Akron-based Tri-Power MPT as one of its 1999 50 Outstanding Small Distributors. Tri-Power MPT sells power transmission products, motion control systems, sensors for machine automation and worker/machine safety products.

Akron entrepreneur Jim Drey has created an Internet-based source for home improvement advice, Everythinghandyman.net.

Robert A. McWhirter has founded the accounting and consulting firm McWhirter & Associates in Akron.

Hudson residents Jeff Bissell and Jack Angelotta have founded Third Force Inc. Third Force, an affiliate of Resource Associates Corp., will provide workshops and custom-developed processes to Northeast Ohio companies.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:51

Travelers snared in the Web

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Lake Cable Travel’s business has more than tripled in the last five years, thanks in part to its emerging presence on the Web.

The 26-year-old business, among the oldest travel agencies in Canton, was doing about $500,000 a year in sales when Art and Jan Schneller bought it five years ago. About two years ago, the couple moved the agency online, and today, sales top $1.6 million a year.

“We saw then that the Internet was the way to go,” Jan Schneller says. “The travel industry is very competitive. We felt that getting on the Internet would help us alot, and it really has.”

The site features vacation packages, an online magazine with stories and photos on travel destinations worldwide and answers to frequently asked questions. Leading the site is the Cruise Search Network, which allows clients to describe the cruise they’re looking for and the price they’re willing to pay. The agency then searches its inventory for a match, and vacationers get better deals by booking online.

For Lake Cable Travel, being on the Internet didn’t have an immediate impact, Schneller says. But Web-related business began increasing as search engines included the site, and increased even more after it began advertising on Hometown Ohio, a Massillon Internet site.

Schneller estimates about 25 percent of Lake Cable’s customers come to it through the Web, but expects that to increase.

“It’s still a really young thing for the travel industry,” she says. “It’s a real growth area. You’ve got to be on the Internet to survive. You’ve got to be unique and your site has to be something really different.”

Many who come to the agency through the Internet are Canton area residents who find the company online, then stop in in person to follow through. And though much of the agency’s business remains local, the Web is increasing its reach. It recently sent a westside Cleveland man on vacation after he searched for Cancun on the Web and came across Lake Cable’s packages.

The Internet has benefited the agency in other ways as well.

“The Internet has changed the way people travel,” Schneller says. “With people going on the Net all the time, they’re getting more information and they’re a lot more savvy when they call us.”

That helps travelers give the agent a better idea of what they want.

“Before, people would call and say, “I want to go on vacation,” Schneller says. “We’d ask, ‘Where do you want to go?’ and they’d say, ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you recommend something.’ I can suggest a whole lot of places, but I don’t know you and I don’t know your interests.”

With the Internet at their fingertips, travelers are researching multiple locales to find their dream destination before getting the travel agent involved.

“They’ll check out some Cancun sites, and they’ll know a lot more about it before they call,” Schneller says. “They may not know a specific property” they want to stay at, but they do know they want to go Cancun.

That Internet savvy can work against independent agencies as computer users book vacations through sites such as Preview Travel.com and Travelocity.com. Schneller says the downside of booking that way is that the service often stops there, while a travel agency combines the best of the Internet and personal service.

“When you have a problem, who is going stand up for you?” Schneller says. “No one is going to help you. With our volume of business with tour operators and cruise lines, they do listen and we can address problems right away.”

How to reach: Lake Cable Travel, (800) 257-6622, (330) 494-8884, or lakecabletravel.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:51

Take it personally

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As vice president and district manager of Bank One’s northeast Ohio division, Robin Reuther heads up Bank One’s commercial client services division in Akron, Youngstown and Cleveland. By assigning each client service consultant a specific customer base, Reuther says they are able to build one-on-one relationships with clients.

Customer service skills and product knowledge score high marks on semi-annual customer satisfaction surveys, Reuther says, noting that client satisfaction, rated on a scale from 1 to 6, is in the mid-5 range. She also receives unsolicited penned praised from clients who plaudit Bank One’s client service consultants.

“We recently got a letter signed by the CEO, the CFO and an accountant from a local company that was so complimentary of the person who services their relationship. I’m frequently told by clients that they feel as though this person doesn’t just work for the bank, but for them,” Reuther says.

No doubt, influential in the penchant to please is Bank One’s bonus program, which is based on customer satisfaction, customer retention and teamwork.

“But a lot of it comes from this one-on-one relationship we have,” says Reuther. “We’re not a call center — we actually go out and visit our clients, not just when there’s an issue, but to check up and make sure everything’s okay. We have a face-to-face presence with the customer, which distinguishes this group from a call center environment.”

When consultants aren’t giving their customers face time, they’re becoming better acquainted with client needs by documenting data about every incoming or outgoing call. Information is input into a PC-based system that generates reports, which are constantly scrutinized for details such as the product or service involved and how long it took to address the issue.

“We’re very proactive in looking at the customer’s business, the bank products they use and the types of issues they’re calling us about, so we can suggest ways they can make life easier for themselves,” Reuther says.

Neil Cotiaux of Bank One’s public affairs office adds that, in cases in which a new associate is working the phones, “Management wants to insure that the best possible service is given by that newcomer. Therefore, they’re going to listen in for a while to make sure the approach is correct, cordial, professional and factual.”

On a national scale, Bank One also participates in a quality assurance program in which it internally monitors conversations between retail customers and client service representatives — for example, within the credit card operation of First USA, a subsidiary of Bank One.

How to reach: Bank One (330) 972-1000

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:51

Global leader

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Canton-based Diebold Inc. has a history that’s rich in innovation. Founded in 1859, Diebold was one of the first manufacturers of security systems in the country. Now, 140 years later, the company has stayed true to its roots, with security products ranging from the vault that houses the Hope Diamond to the weather-resistant ATMs at the new Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Since the 1960s, Diebold has been a pioneer in ATM technology. Diebold’s product lines also include electronic security and bank facility systems, such as drive-through teller equipment. The company’s primary customers include banks and financial institutions, hospitals, universities, public libraries and utilities.

Under the leadership of Robert Mahoney since 1985, Diebold has expanded its product line to include automated drug dispensing and inventory control systems for the health care market. Another product line, card security systems for colleges and universities, enables students to use a single card to access campus facilities, as well as make purchases from campus retail establishments.

The company has yet to rest on its laurels.

“We file for over 200 patents a year,” says Mahoney, the company’s chairman and CEO. About 40 percent of those applications become patents, consistent with the national average.

Even with 80 new patents a year, the company continually challenges itself technologically. Mahoney says he encourages innovative thinking among his 7,000 employees (including 1,000 at the Canton headquarters) by communicating with them on a regular basis over a number of different channels and offering remote education through the Internet.

In addition, Diebold fosters an entrepreneurial environment, which encourages people to take calculated risks without fear.

“Each developmental area within Diebold, in a sense, is set up like its own company,” Mahoney says. The philosophy gives each employee within those areas a greater sense of ownership.

One of the projects Mahoney now leads is helping banks transform their facilities so they can offer a wider range of products, including insurance and financial management services.

“It’s a huge opportunity, with over 650,000 bank branches in the world,” he says.

In addition, Diebold has invested in databases that will provide information on where customers shop, where they bank and the actual routes they take during the day (footprints). The information will be used to help banks transform into selling-oriented facilities, he says.

“We’re getting into professional services, outsourcing and consulting,” Mahoney says. “We’re not just a manufacturer.”

After a disappointing year last year — income before taxes dropped 35.5 percent to $119.8 million — Mahoney led a realignment effort that is proving successful. The effort, which included consolidation of facilities and the elimination of some jobs and noncore products, has saved the company $22 million.

Mahoney is focusing on bringing innovative, cost-competitive products to market more quickly and boosting worldwide sales. Diebold has offices in Argentina, China, India, South Africa and several European countries. Its manufacturing operations are in Ohio, Virginia, California, South Carolina and Argentina.

How to reach: Diebold Inc., (330) 490-4000 or www.diebold.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

Cutting through the red tape

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When Steve Higley finalized the business and financial plans for American Bright Bar, an innovative steel processing business he’s launching in January 2000, he intended to target big banks such as Citicorp and Bank Boston — financial institutions he’d done business with during his years as an officer for LTV Steel and, later, Republic Engineered Steels.

But first, he agreed to meet with the Orville branch of The Savings Bank and Trust Company, which had learned of his interest in doing business in Wayne County.

It was during that meeting (which Higley confides he considered a dry run before talking to the large financial institutions) that Higley’s plans for financing — and his preconceived ideas about small banks and government agencies — began to change.

“I thought regional banks might be the most interested. But The Savings Bank put some ideas on the table that fit where we wanted to go with this business,” Higley says, referring to the business and financial plans he co-authored with John Sears, who will serve as American Bright Bar’s vice president of finance.

Higley says that Jim Kleinfelter, senior vice president at The Savings Bank, pointed out that the scope of his business, located in Wayne County between Massillon and Wooster, would appeal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Business and Industry Development division.

“The USDA’s rural development area is kind of a country cousin of HUD, to assist economic development in rural areas where the population is less than 25,000,” Kleinfelter says, noting that the USDA program is not available in most of Summit and Stark counties. “They’re particularly interested in manufacturing since that tends to create the best-paying jobs and the best tax base.”

Kleinfelter asked Higley if he could arrange another meeting, this time with Orville’s key business leaders, representatives from the USDA, the Small Business Administration, the Ohio Department of Development and the owner of the property Higley was considering for purchase.

“I was surprised and intrigued, because the bank treated us as if we were General Motors,” Higley says. “They assembled this team of people and said, ‘We think you have a great business plan, we think your start-up can be done on a very large scale and we want to make that happen.’”

Higley says the city expressed the position that its future is in strong, diversified businesses, and the USDA articulated its intent to promote entrepreneurial efforts for rural growth.

Kleinfelter says he was particularly impressed with Higley and Sears.

“They put together the most thorough and professional business plan I’ve ever seen, and based on their knowledge of the industry, and the talent and capital Steve put together, I knew they were an excellent candidate.”

Higley was able to acquire a Business and Industry Development Guarantee, in which the USDA provided a substantial guarantee for The Savings Bank, and The Small Business Administration provided a portion of a revolving line of credit. As for encumbrances tied into the transaction, Higley says they are no greater than those involved in a conventional loan.

“The USDA tried to structure an approach that fits with conventional banking. For example, my business plan had to hold up to critical analysis of both the USDA and The Savings Bank. I had letters of support from four key customers and two major suppliers I’ve worked with over the years,” Higley says. “In terms of debt to equity ratios and financial parameters, other financial benchmarks were really no different than conventional loans.”

It did take some time to work with all the agencies, Higley admits. Still, the process came together in about six months, in part because of his propensity to meet deadlines and exceed expectations.

“He and John Sears did an excellent job in working their way through the maze of red tape,” says John Finnucan, a managing partner at the Akron/Canton accounting firm of Bruner Cox LLP, to which Higley turned for financial expertise.

Part of the transaction’s success was in the fact that finding investors was no problem, Higley says, revealing that he was able to raise “a substantial amount of money.”

“When I made it public that I was starting this business, several people called and wanted to invest. We offered a fair return on their investment and we did it without involving an investment banker, which is always an expensive proposition,” he says. “We did a private placement, which leads to a fine capital structure and puts us in a position to compete.”

Finnucan says Bruner Cox helped structure a strategy to acquire the interest of investors, afford a greater return to compensate investors for the transaction’s intrinsic risks, and protect the company so that, when stock is redeemed, all the equity is not stripped out.

“We made an S Corp. selection so the redemption price would be less than the accumulated retained earnings. That has some disadvantages to the investors, but the cash payout should be so substantial that it compensates them for that,” Finnucan says.

The Ohio Department of Development counseled Higley in job creation, tax credits and training. Higley says American Bright Bar will provide jobs for 35 people and its specialty will be cold finished bars (steel bars), a product that will be enhanced because of Higley’s chosen production process.

“We first take the raw material and mechanically clean, or shot-blast, it. The bar is conveyed, lubricated and drawn through carbide dyes. It’s a big operation with a 300-horsepower motor and imparts value added characteristics for close tolerance, machining, cutting and drilling,” he explains.

The bar is then sheared to length, restraightened, packaged and shipped.

Most comparable steel-processing facilities produce the product on a batch basis, but American Bright Bar’s continuous process production line will do in a half-hour what it takes days for other companies to accomplish, Higley explains.

The company’s 45,000-square-foot building is currently under construction and production is set to begin in January. Joining Higley and Sears in the venture will be Gary Lenhart as vice president of operations. Among the three of them, they share about a century of experience in the steel industry — another element that appealed to the agencies backing them.

“This is a bold move, because at this point we have no revenue stream and we’re off and running. But we’ve had tremendous support from all directions and we’re confident we’re going to have a solid business,” Higley assures.

“I know the market, the industry and manufacturing trends and I didn’t take this step without talking to potential customers, making sure we’ll have a strong niche in the market place.”

How to reach: The Savings Bank and Trust Company in Orville, (800) 475-8961; Bruner Cox LLP, (330) 497-2000

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

Breaking barriers

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Karen Brown, president of DataNow Corp., has made a name for herself by breaking the mold. “We don’t really go by old models or old ideas because the industry that we’re in is not an old industry,” she says. “So generally, we look at everything fresh, including new innovations and creative ways to use older things, too.”

Brown has subscribed to that philosophy from Day One. She founded the business, which specializes in electronic workflow solutions, out of her home in 1992. As she added employees over the years, she found that she could tap into a wider and better-qualified pool of job candidates if she completely disregarded where they were located.

“It actually happened by default rather than design,” she says. “When I decided to expand my staff, the virtual office had already been working for me for years, and we decided to try it in an expanded version and it worked really well.”

Now, with 20 employees, DataNow still has no offices. All employees work out of their homes, and interact with customers and other employees via e-mail and the Internet. Staff meetings are conducted over the company’s intranet.

With today’s shortage of good tech people, Brown uses programmers as far away as New Zealand, most of whom specialize in Lotus Notes and Java. “On certain projects, it’s just as seamless to the customer as using someone who’s entirely local,” she says.

In England and New Zealand, Brown says, the technology job market is flooded with Asians and Russians who will program more cheaply than their counterparts in this country. Because of the competition, she says good programmers often look to make money outside of those countries, which creates a great opportunity for U.S. companies with virtual offices.

Brown is able to give her employees the freedom to think creatively by avoiding traditional job descriptions when they are hired.

“Generally, when we hire someone, instead of saying, ‘This is our definition of this job,’ we talk to the person and find out where they will bring value to the company and what makes them happy,” she says. “We try to tailor each job to the individual person’s skills. If we like somebody, we’ll make a job for them that fits.”

This month, Brown will break another rule, this time one of her own. She’s opening a physical office in Barberton, “a think tank place for developers,” she says.

While she won’t require employees to work out of the office, she says it will provide a place for people to work collaboratively, when necessary. “We decided that we were getting better results out of our developers when they could work in teams. It’s going to be interesting to see what they come up with.”

So far, Brown’s strategy seems to be working. DataNow has been recognized in its industry as a finalist in the Lotus Beacon Awards for the last two years. Brown has been selected as a regional finalist in the 1999 Working Woman Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards in the Innovative Approaches category.

How to reach: DataNow, (330) 645-1255

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:49

Taking the plunge

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The United States Parachute Association warns that skydiving is a potentially dangerous activity, but that the sport can be safe when a jumper exercises proper precautions.

Some entrepreneurs say that starting and running a business is like strapping on a parachute and jumping out of a plane. To do either, you’ve got to have guts — and a contingency plan.

Barb Casey agrees business ownership and skydiving are much the same. Five years ago, she invested $20,000 to establish Faircrest Door in Canton, a garage door sales and service company. She says it was her life savings, a big risk, and she could have lost it all.

“The scariest thing about running a business is that it might fail. But you’ve got two chances of surviving when you’re skydiving. If your main parachute doesn’t open, you can pull your reserve,” she says.

Casey speaks as one who knows. As an avid skydiver, she spends her weekends at Canton Air Sports, a popular northeast Ohio drop zone. And each October, she travels to New River Gorge in Fayetteville, W.Va., to participate in “Bridge Day” — where, in a “legal base jump,” more than 350 skydivers parachute off an 800-foot-high bridge, cheered on by a crowd of about 150,000 spectators.

Greg Pigott, owner of Professional Carpets Inc. in Canton says that plunging into business ventures and free falling from high altitudes are similar. The giddiness one gets from catapulting a new business equates to the euphoria of human flight. But there’s tranquillity in free falling that’s seldom found in piloting a business, he says.

“First, there the rush of free fall,” says Pigott, whose signature jump is every Friday at sunset. “Then, when you open your parachute, there’s just total peace and serenity under a 120-square-foot canopy.”

More notable is the fact that business failures far exceed skydiving fatalities.

According to the Small Business Administration, of the more than 500,000 new businesses launched each year in the U.S., eight out of 10 crash, most due to a lack of expertise and planning.

Conversely, the USPA says that of the 3,250,000 skydives made in the U.S. last year alone, 47 resulted in a fatality. Most accidents occur during landing and could be prevented if jumpers used proper caution, says the USPA.

Contingency plan

While their skill and chutes safeguard them in the air, like most company presidents, Pigott and Casey have contingency plans for their businesses.

If her business gets into trouble, Casey jokes, “I can always go for a loan.”

Primarily, she says she relies on her partner’s expertise. As vice president of Faircrest Door, Bill Bird oversees overall operations. Ironically, he was also Casey’s jump instructor when she decided to take a skydiving course seven years ago at Canton Air Sports. Since then, Casey and Bird have shared an entrepreneurial spirit at the office and an adventurous spirit in the air.

Today, Casey says she wouldn’t trade her parachute for anything. But she wasn’t always so courageous in her business pursuits and recreational activities. In contrast, Bird says the risk taker spirit runs in his family.

“I’m an army brat. My dad was a chief warrant officer and my uncle was a paratrooper. So I was around a lot of it. One day I just went out and made a jump. Actually, I made four jumps that first day,” he says.

Until last year, Bird held a 19-year record for being the first-time jumper with the most jumps the first time out. Last year, his 16-year-old son took the title from him, beating the record with five jumps on his first day of training.

Bird, who’s logged 3,285 skydives, says he doesn’t really think of parachuting as a dangerous sport.

“My job is more dangerous than skydiving,” he says, explaining that when he’s not juggling daily operations, he’s making repair calls with his crew. “Installing rolling steel garage, fire and overhead doors isn’t the safest profession. A garage door spring is under hundreds of pounds of pressure. That can do you a lot of damage.

“We work from ladders, and we work in a lot of hazardous environments. We also have to drive from call to call, and that’s a risk right there. Just having a business in the ’90s is a big risk. Hiring employees is a risk. You never know what you’re going to get,” he laughs.

Leap of faith

It’s a glorious Saturday afternoon and a big day at Canton Air Sports, located in the heart of the Berlin Lakes Recreational Area near Alliance. Greg Pigott and Lloyd Smith are checking their gear, preparing to board the Twin Bonanza that will take them to a drop height of 14,000 feet, where they will make their 1,000th jump together.

As owner of Airgasmic Photography, based out of Canton Air Sports, Smith specializes in photographing and videographing static line, tandem and relative work jumps. (A static line jump is the standard skydiving training method in which, after the jump, the parachute is deployed from a static line attached to the aircraft. In a tandem jump, two people jump together, wearing linked harnesses and sharing one parachute. Relative work jumps are made by experienced jumpers who freefall in varied formations.)

It wasn’t long after Smith’s first jump in 1992 that he decided to take up aerial photography as an entrepreneurial profession.

“I would see people with cameras on their helmets and I thought, ‘That doesn’t look hard — I can do that.’ I went out, bought a system and the very first roll of film I shot, I sold,” he says.

Since then, he’s photographed hundreds of skydivers in the act — from CEOs to secretaries. And he has his own theory about why they do it.

“Corporate people are generally power types who look at skydiving as their equal,” he says. “A lot of them see it as a way to overcome their fears. They realize there’s danger there, but their skill level enables them to be safe.”

Smith’s rationale isn’t just from an observational point of view. Before he took on a position as a training officer for the State of Ohio Adult Parole Authority, he was a SWAT team officer for a maximum security prison. And he reveals that he started skydiving to overcome his fear of heights.

“I knew I had to beat that fear because I wanted to be in control,” he says.

Watch that first step

Pigott says that after a grueling 60-80 hour week on the ground, there’s no greater exhilaration than plunging from high altitudes at an initial drop speed of about 120 miles per hour. But accidents do happen, he says.

Pigott once had a scare when his main parachute was rendered useless, due to his own negligence. His reserve saved his life. And Bird once broke his leg during a landing. But he didn’t stay grounded for long — he was back in the air six months later.

Both have since become USPA licensed instructors and jumpmasters. They say that, compared to other sports, there’s less risk involved in skydiving.

“As far as the most dangerous activities in the world, skydiving is like No. 9 on the list,” says Pigott .

“I scuba dive, too, and parachuting is far safer than diving. It’s just a different element,” Bird says. “Once you learn how to survive in that element, it’s just a calculated risk. It’s like, ‘Well, this sport might break every bone in my body, but that one, I might get eaten by a shark.’ I have control over breaking every bone in my body when I parachute. But I don’t have any control over that shark.”

That calculated risk, say these business owners, is the correlation between stepping into business ownership and plunging from a plane.

How to reach: Canton Air Sports 1-800-772-4174 or w ww.canton-airsports.com; Airgasmic Photography (419) 525-DIVE; United States Parachute Association www.uspa.org


Daredevil beware

“Like in any extreme sport, there’s some risk. But you minimize it by playing it smart, paying attention and not being a daredevil,” says Pigott. “If you disrespect the sport, it can kill you.”

Skydiving has advanced dramatically during the past few decades and the equipment has become more reliable, simpler and more durable, says the USPA.

“Parachutes never fail,” says Pigott. “It’s people that fail to use them properly.”

Reserve parachutes are inspected and repacked every 120 days by an FAA-certified rigger, whether they’ve been used or not. Student main parachutes are packed by a rigger or are packed under direct supervision of a certified rigger.

“The mentality is, ‘I hope my main parachute works, but I know my reserve will,’” says Phil Mihai, a certified FAA senior rigger and owner of S.O.L. (Sky’s Our Limit) Rigging Loft in Canton. “You learn to trust your gear and know that it’s going to work.”

Mihai says that of the hundreds of reserve chutes he’s packed for jumpers, 23 people have had to rely on those reserves when their main chutes failed.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:49

Lost money

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The Internet has made not only accessibility to information easier and faster, but accessibility to money as well. A Web site with increased traffic over the last few months, www.unclaimed.org, has links to most states’ departments of commerce, including the Ohio Department of Commerce.

Visitors to the site can immediately access information on any unclaimed funds in their or their family’s names, then click on a form to request those funds.

In Ohio, funds belonging to some 200,000 people are turned over to the state each year, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce.

Since 1968, businesses have been required to report any unclaimed funds on their books. The most common types include payroll or expense reimbursement checks, accounts receivable credits or checks, security deposits and pension account balances. The problem with this requirement, though, is that many companies have never actually filed the report, says Jeffrey Dimos, an accountant with Bruner Cox, with offices in Canton and Akron.

Historically, the state has not enforced this law, and generally has not pursued or penalized nonfilers. This year, however, The Ohio Department of Commerce has subcontracted to agencies and private organizations in order to expand its audit effort and enforce penalties for noncompliance.

Ohio businesses were required to file a report to the Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Unclaimed Funds by Nov. 1, whether or not they possess unclaimed funds. The department recently extended the deadline to Dec. 31. The only businesses exempt from reporting are some hospitals and government offices.

Even if you do not have unclaimed funds on your books, you are required to file. For accounts of $50 or more, a notice must be sent to the owner at his or her last know address before reporting to the state.

“Basically, it’s a chance for people to step forward without getting themselves into trouble,” says Bill Teets of the Department of Commerce. “The thought is that there are people out there who are fearful of repercussions.”

Businesses which meet the extended Dec. 31 deadline will be exempt from penalties and interest. The extension only applies to funds reportable to Ohio, not other states. The Ohio Department of Commerce is requiring that a written request for the extension be filed, but “if they don’t give us one [an extension request], they will still be free from penalties and interest,” one commerce department staff told SBN on the condition of anonymity.

Noncompliance penalties can add up to $500 per day, plus 2 percent of the balance of the unclaimed funds, says Dimos. But he adds that the increased stringency of the law will also make it easier for business to claim funds they might be owed.

How to reach: The Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Unclaimed Funds, (614) 466-4433; Bruner Cox (330), 376-0100

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:49

Early adapter

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When Akron-area Federal District Court Judge James Gwin ordered the small law firm of Willis & Linnen to file a case electronically this spring, the firm was forced to quickly come up to speed on the Internet. After all, it didn’t so much as have a Web page.

Initially, the firm’s principals shopped for some high-speed alternatives to connect to the Web. “They were very fast,” recalls partner Mark Willis, but with no speed requirement, he ultimately decided, “There’s no need to drive a Ferrari in a parking deck.”

Instead, with the help of Akron information-technology consultant Jeff Satterfield, the firm opted to employ the “open-source” software, Linux, to facilitate its connection to the Web. The firm’s new Linux server now sits quietly in its offices, out of sight.

“It’s in this little putty-colored box, sitting down in their basement. No one ever sees it or touches it. It’s not even in their computer room,” says Satterfield.

A subject of fascination among the computer geek subculture since hundreds of programmers around the world collaboratively cobbled it together under the loose direction of Finnish-born Linus Torvalds, Linux has more recently had a splashy introduction to the general public. This summer, a North Carolina company named Red Hat, which packages the otherwise free software on a CD-ROM and adds an instruction manual, went public, creating a number of paper millionaires.

Besides being free (downloadable at no cost from www.debian.org), Linux’s popularity has risen along with its reputation as a nearly crash-free alternative to the Windows, Macintosh and Unix operating systems. While the first fully usable version was released just five years ago, reputable industry estimates call for installations of the software to grow at a rate of about 25 percent a year over the next five years. That would mean that by 2003, its market penetration would be within striking distance of the vaunted Windows NT networking platform.

For his part, the 38-year-old Satterfield, a lifelong Akronite — who’s pained to admit that he was in the same Boy Scout troop as infamous mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer when the two were growing up in Bath — likes to think he has a three-year head start on the coming Linux boom. It was precisely three years ago this month that the former IT staffer for the economy hotel chain Knights Inn and the accounting firm SS&G first bumped into the then-novel software.

He’d recently left SS&G to strike out on his own as an independent consultant, when a client was in need of a networking solution that seemed to fit Linux’s strengths. Satterfield recalls “a lot of late nights” spent toying with the collaboratively created software, teaching himself the technology in the process of assembling a workable configuration for his client.

Of course, cutting-edge technology solutions, even the most reasonably priced, aren’t for everyone. Even with all the attention it’s been receiving, Linux is likely to retain its outlaw image among many business users for some time. A case in point: Satterfield laughs at a page from the Web site of the Cleveland Linux Users Group (www.cleveland.lug.net), where a slovenly self-proclaimed Linux master lounges in bed, his pet bird Hercules perched atop him. Not exactly the best advertisement for dependability in a business environment, he admits.

“I mean, do you want that couch potato in your business,” playing with your company’s IT family jewels? he asks rhetorically.

With that hesitation in mind, and perhaps also because competing software platforms are better for certain tasks, even confirmed Linux enthusiasts such as Satterfield continue to offer more familiar IT fixes to clients.

“We do [Windows] NT as a back-office solution. That’s because it’s a solution that’s understandable,” he says. If you tell people you’ve installed a Microsoft product in your business, “people won’t wrinkle their nose at a cocktail party,” he says.

In fact, the mixing and matching of various networking platforms probably matches the comfort level of many businesses these days. That’s been the case for 79-year-old Amer Insurance. The downtown Akron insurance agency, which specializes in property and casualty coverage, called on Satterfield to install a Linux system for front-end connectivity to the Web. But it continues to rely on more traditional platforms for other, even more vital, pieces of its network architecture, says executive vice president B.G. Labbe.

“We have a Novell server” for applications such as running credit checks, “and a Unix system for the agency’s internal management system. We’re insurance agents, not computer experts. But we’re pretty advanced in our technology,” says Labbe, who claims to know just enough about IT to be dangerous, but also knows when to summon an expert.

It wasn’t too long ago that Labbe’s young nephew was constructing Amer’s Web site. Now, through the Linux server, Amer has taken a considerable leap in sophistication, beginning to perform some basic customer service transactions, such as soliciting client policy changes and application forms, through its Web site. Satterfield heartily approves.

“If a business owner is not looking at Web-enabled applications as we go to the 21st century, they’re going to be screwed. They’re going to lose sales as a result.”

And Satterfield thinks that, against the backdrop of that new competitive pressure, Linux will win more than its share of that emerging Web-solution market. The popular attention from the Red Hat IPO has helped, but perhaps even more important in demystifying it has been the recent decisions of large industry players such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard to climb aboard with their own Linux applications and pledges to support the software.

For all its funky reputation in the corporate market, Satterfield thinks Linux’s cost advantage, coupled with its growing reputation for reliability, will slowly but steadily win business converts.

“You can just set it up and leave it,” he says. “I have clients who haven’t touched their Linux box in months. It seems like you’re [fixing] an NT box every 30 days.”

How to reach: Jeff Satterfield (330) 666-7897, www.sattco.com

John Ettorre (jettorre@sbnnet.com) is a contributing editor at SBN.