Deborah Garofalo

Jim Shelley comes face to face with the reality of unemployment every day. As director of the Men's Resource Center at Lakeland Community College, Shelley works with men who find themselves part of a growing statistic -- maturing professionals looking for a job rather than looking forward to retirement.

Being pushed out of the working circle close to the end of one's career can be the result of downsizing, redesigns, retirement buyouts or economics. Whatever the reason, an estimated 23 million near-retirement workers between the ages of 56 and 64 are involuntarily out of the work force.

In a tight labor market, that's led to a dichotomy of sorts: while many employers are offering early retirement, others are plucking those affected for their own work forces.

The Department of Aging has recognized the trend and is a primary supporter of the Senior Employment Center, with offices in nine Northeast Ohio counties. The nonprofit agency is part of the Senior Workers Action Program headquartered in Akron.

At the Lake County office, employment consultant Holly Traub helps people take their skill sets and transfer them to meet the demands of today's employers. She says she's found that participants often feel hurt and betrayed by the moves of employers, but stresses they shouldn't take those feelings into an interview.

"The most important first step is to ease yourself over the negative issues," she says.

To help do that, she suggests taking a "skills inventory" to get comfortable in understanding what you have to offer.

"Your job security is your current skills," she says, adding that self-directed tutorials available at the center not only improve tech skills but also help rebuild confidence.

The growing trend has received attention and energy from the Washington D.C.-based think tank the National Academy of Social Insurance. Studies are underway to determine what economic factors are the driving root causes, as well as to investigate the social and financial implications on the economy.

All of this has employers wondering which side of the fence they're on -- recruiters or downsizers.

And, although unemployment remains low, Shelley says there's one aspect of the situation that can't be measured -- the degree of job insecurity that people are feeling. How to reach: Men's Resource Center at Lakeland Community College, (440) 975-4747; Senior Employment Center, (440) 350-2557

Deborah Garofalo (dgarofalo@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN Magazine.

Thursday, 13 September 2001 08:49

A picture's worth a thousand words

In 1998, the acquisition of Voice-Tel Enterprises booted Nadia Clifford out of the director's chair and into the unemployment line.

With no strong desire to jump back into the corporate lifestyle, she began researching new technology for business opportunities.

"At that time, dot-coms were a dime a dozen, but I did feel there was some great potential in Internet-based technology," Clifford says.

Turns out she was right.

Clifford's research led her to iPIX Picture Corp., a Tennessee-based panoramic imaging company. The panoramic technology allows researchers to see a 360-degree view of everything from a city street to the interior of a restaurant.

She decided the best potential for iPIX was in the university and hospitality industries. The idea was that incoming freshmen want to see the college they're considering without an expensive trip to the campus. In the same vein, travelers appreciate seeing accommodations before making reservations.

With iPIX technology, the customer can create a bird's eye view effect that can be used on the Web or produced for CD-ROM and print brochures.

"You get three different versions in terms of an internal sales tool," explains Clifford.

But navigating the bureaucratic infrastructure of higher education proved difficult.

"Departments are very autonomous and to have a consensus of opinion from a university is sometimes very challenging," Clifford says.

Eventually, Oberlin College and Western Reserve Academy added panoramic imagery to their Web sites, but focusing on the slow-to-react educational world could have meant the end of the 2-year-old company.

Stepping back and looking at the market from a different angle, Clifford tried envisioning where the technology could be used. Her conclusion: She needed to open up her marketing efforts to cities and marketing firms.

For Ron White, executive director of the Beachwood Chamber of Commerce, attracting new businesses is important. With 4 million square feet of office space and approximately 2 million square feet of retail, White believes iPIX offers a great way to present his city to the outside business community.

"My goal is to get their (relocators) attention ... entice and not give away the show," White says.

Beachwood's Web site offers maps and text, but White believes the upcoming addition of virtual tours will attract people looking to relocate businesses, promote commercial real estate and showcase the residential community.

Clifford ran with the idea, and soon, the Greater Cleveland Media Development Corp. will integrate virtual tours into its Web site.

"It makes sense to use that type of technology ... to entice producers to come into Cleveland," says Clifford.

Recently, she was joined by her husband, Jim, who studied photography at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and Bridalview.com was born.

The offshoot targets the computer savvy bride-to-be, typically a master researcher of information on everything from banquet halls to travel and formal attire. Wedding-related vendors advertise services, and banquet halls give a full room view of a hall decorated for the occasion.

Clifford says the iPIX technology does not sell itself. The biggest challenge doesn't come from competition but from finding a way to help clients understand the value of the technology.

"It's a learning curve for everyone, but fortunately, our clients' clients are computer savvy, so they have to work very hard to keep up with their demands," says Clifford. How to reach: Clifford Digital Studios Inc., (330) 656-0025 or www.cdsin3d@aol.com; Beachwood Chamber of Commerce, (216) 831-0003, www.beachwood.org or ron@beachwood.org; Liggett-Stashower Inc., www.liggett.com

Deborah Garofalo (dgarofalo@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine

Thursday, 13 September 2001 07:29

Zen and the art of motorcycle business

If you're not familiar with SuperTrapp, odds are you're not a motorcycle enthusiast.

The Cleveland-based manufacturer is well known in racing circles for its line of high-performance exhaust systems for motorcycles. According to former general manager Larry Trevathan, SuperTrapp's products appeal to the emotional horsepower of the recreational and hobbyist industry.

But like any company with a product dependent on discretionary income, SuperTrapp felt the brunt of the economic downturn that hit in mid-2000 and sent the recreational market skidding down the same tight and winding road.

Spending on discretionary products almost always trails economic fluctuations -- remember what the early '90s luxury tax did to sales of high-end automobiles and the marine industry -- and even though the company backs its products with power, SuperTrapp was not immune, says Trevathan, who in June and was replaced by Jon Hedges.

Hedges, recruited from Summit Racing, a well-known distributor in the performance after-market in Akron, has his work cut out for him with domestic sales running on empty. The slump that cost SuperTrapp 35 percent of its work force could have put an end to the after-market supplier just as easily. But it didn't. Working within a global rather than national market saved the day. To that end, Hedges says he is confident of the future and plans to build upon one of the company's core strengths -- its quality.

The large and fragmented market of more than 200 suppliers worldwide typically enjoys annual sales of between $300 million and $500 million. And, although it would be the easier road to follow, SuperTrapp has not put all of its sales efforts into the affluent American market that ties prestige and status to fast and furious motorcycles.

Instead, the privately held business survived and is on the rebound because it established sales in foreign markets. It is those markets that are providing SuperTrapp with much-needed growth during these soft economic times.

And, because business agreements are diversified on a country-by-country basis, the foreign sales that constitute 30 percent of the business are profitable and continue to fuel the company's engines, especially in the European markets.

The bulk of SuperTrapp's products -- 80 percent -- are sold through dealerships. Sales to original equipment manufacturers account for the remaining 20 percent.

For nearly 20 years, the company has worked with international distributors throughout Europe, including Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, as well as in Japan.

Many countries have more stringent noise and emissions standards than the United States and the bikes can also vary dramatically from American-made counterparts, depending on where they are made. So to keep product development costs down, SuperTrapp established partnerships with organizations that provide research and development work on the targeted motorcycle brands on a country-by-country basis.

Under the agreements, partner companies develop products, submit testing to regulatory agencies and register with governmental authorities. After meeting compliance regulations in accordance with local laws, SuperTrapp manufactures and exports the product under its own name.

In 1988, after creating a strong reputation in the motorcycle after market, SuperTrapp was purchased by Dreison International Inc. and moved from its original location in California to Cleveland. In 1991, Dreison purchased exhaust system specialist Kerker Inc., which produces complementary systems, and merged it into SuperTrapp. Dreison's management housed the company in 75,000 square feet of manufacturing space under the leadership of SuperTrapp's management team.

While one Cleveland plant handles production and exporting, the "development activity has been decentralized in order to handle the issue of logistics," says Trevathan.

In Germany, dirt bikes are popular because of the country's narrow, condensed streets and the need for maneuverable, basic transportation. SuperTrapp's partnerships work there because the motorcycles are similar to American-made dirt bikes. The German dual sport bike is ridden as a dirt bike and is street legal. Hedges says German noise regulations are very strict, and the rest of Europe will eventually follow suit.

Japan also has very stringent laws regarding noise, a result of the souped-up exhaust pipes sold by SuperTrapp. Working inside Japan requires a different strategy and a slightly different structure -- the touch of the Japanese bike is very different than that of the American. So in 1998, SuperTrapp forged a relationship with a major Japanese manufacturer that handles all developmental work and manufactures the products under a private labeling agreement.

"It just makes sense for us to set up somewhat of a satellite manufacturing arrangement," Trevathan says. "It's our brand name and some of our technology."

So far, the strategy has worked, Hedges says, and SuperTrapp enjoys a significant share of Japan's market.

As the company pulls itself up by its bootstraps to overcome the downturn in the U.S. economy, other manufacturers are copying technology that made SuperTrapp products unique 20 years ago. But they've got a difficult gap to overcome. While those features helped establish the product over the years, its global presence leveraged the brand.

That leaves SuperTrapp in much better shape than its last 18 months would indicate, and though Hedges admits he faces a challenging future, the company's diversified customer base at least gives him an edge to work with.

How to reach: SuperTrapp, (216) 265-8400

Deborah Garofalo (dgarofalo@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine.

SuperTrapp website

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