Daniel Bates

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:02

From the editor

That's probably just what the owner of one local mortgage brokerage firm told himself recently when he decided to leave me hanging there for almost three months like a dried up Christmas wreath in March. No big deal. A minor casualty. He was an idiot with marginal credit, anyway. Or something like that.

In my unrelenting pursuit of a refinanced mortgage, I didn't get the refinancing in the end, so I guess he got the last laugh. Or did he?

It all started in August, when my wife and I got a call from one of dozens of hungry mortgage brokers begging to give me the ultimate dream mortgage when rates were at historic lows. For the sake of this column, I'll call him "J."

Certainly, we were interested in lower mortgage payments and maybe even a shorter term on my loan. He assured us that he would be able to get us a great rate and that the whole process would take no time at all-and would cost us no money up front. "Fine," we said. "See what you can do."

He came back with incredible rates and a promise that, barring any unusual, unforeseen difficulties-and he didn't think there would be any-our loan should be approved within a few days, and we could close within a week.

At least two weeks, an appraisal and lots of paperwork later, he regretted to inform us that we couldn't get that rate. But maybe he could try again-if we'd be willing to pay a slightly higher rate. You see, given our situation, we wouldn't be able to get a conventional loan, he told us. So it may be the higher rate or nothing. Again, after a lengthy wait, no deal.

Once more, he said he would try at still a higher rate-rates had gone up since we last talked, he noted. This company surely would take us, he said, and we should know within 72 hours at the latest.

Then a really odd thing happened.

Seventy-two hours passed, so I called him and left a message. Several days later, I tried again. I called him every weekday for more than two weeks after that. Still no reply. One day, his associate put me on hold for 11 minutes before finally telling me J. was still on the phone with an important call. And one evening I got a hold of whom I thought was J. until he told me he was J.'s son and that he'd gladly leave a message for me.

After three weeks, I finally received a generic loan-denial form with no explanation or apology, just a signature at the bottom. Finally I reached J.'s assistant, who said he knew nothing about his proposed deal with me, but that he would see what he could do. "Oh, and by the way," I asked, "does J. have a son who works there?" "No," the assistant said.

A day later, the assistant came back with an interest-rate proposal that actually was five basis points higher than my existing mortgage. And I never did get to speak to J. again.

As far as I can see, J. made only one serious business mistake. It's not that he should have landed me a new mortgage at a reasonable rate. I can live with the fact that I couldn't refinance my mortgage. What I can't live with is his total disregard-and dishonesty-toward me, the customer. But even that wasn't his big mistake.

His big mistake - and it's one made by more local companies than I can count - is that he obviously viewed me as just one lousy customer. He couldn't make money off of me, so he treated me like dirt. But so what? He had plenty of prospects in line without me.

What he didn't seem to consider was that I know lots of people and that I meet dozens of new people each week and that I may have an audience of 23,000 executives who read what I have to say. And that I may feel compelled to share my experience, my dismay, with each one. The multiplier effect holds true here, without question, which is why you should treat every customer as if he or she maintains a global circle of influence.

But the same holds true when you treat a customer with kindness and respect. If someone treats me well, I always spread the word.

Indeed, it's called word of mouth, and it can prove the most significant and cost-effective result of good customer service. By treating your customers right-even if you don't make a sale right now-chances are that you've now created an ambassador whose testimony will prove more effective to more people than a sales pitch from your best sales representative.

J. didn't get it. He wanted the sale, but not the customer. He wanted the revenue without the relationship. What he's getting in the end is probably more than he bargained for.

But I'll let his son be the judge of that.

In the meantime, I thank you for your patronage this year and wish for all of you a happy and healthy holiday season and a prosperous new year.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:01

Who To Watch in 1999

As the stadium controversy continues, as civic leaders continue to bemoan the potential loss of major sports franchises as a death blow to our economy, someone forgot to tell the smaller business community.

Without question, entrepreneurs will never face an easy, hurdle-free path to success—with or without the Pittsburgh Pirates or Steelers. But for many, their perseverance, tenacity and technological know-how are transforming the region into a quiet hotbed of aggressive growth and prosperity.

In this, our fifth annual Who To Watch issue, SBN showcases eight companies and their leaders, including two entrepreneurially driven, economic development-oriented organizations. As usual, our criteria include a diversity of industries and ownership, at a variety of growth stages.

They all have one thing in common: They’re all forging bold new paths in their industries and promise an exciting 1999.

Granted, our selection process is less than scientific, and we certainly recognize that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other local companies offer similar hope for success. But the companies we selected represent a positive and optimistic perspective of a region sometimes mired in its own gloomy image of itself.

All we ask is that you read our perspective and decide for yourself. And join the optimists.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:01

Technology

As predicted, Y2K liability claims have already begun to rear their ugly heads in Pittsburgh, but you may be surprised at the outcome of the nation’s first case to reach the courts.

Pittsburgh-based ASE Ltd. signed a contract in 1995 to develop and install an enterprisewide computer system for INCO Alloys International of Huntington, W.Va., over five years.

At one point, INCO halted the contract and, ultimately, tried to make a legal claim for $3.9 million in what it called Year 2000 remediation damages. The company claimed ASE was liable for the cost of making changes that would make the new computer system Year 2000 compliant, even though no such tasks had been included in the ASE contract.

A federal district court-designated arbitrator rejected the claim, citing the fact that no such obligation had been expressed in the 1995 contract.

The moral of this story, says Arthur Schwab, chair of litigation at Pittsburgh law firm Buchanan Ingersoll P.C., and ASE’s trial attorney in the case: “The decision is a warning to any company purchasing, using, selling or developing software, that contracts involving software development should identify all specific Year 2000 tasks to be performed and clearly describe any Year 2000 obligations.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:01

From the editor

”It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.”
—Isaac D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature (1834)


My piano teacher loved to talk. I discovered this each week when I had to sit down with her to demonstrate the skills I had learned the previous week.

I would arrive just in time with my stack of music books and a carefully planned list of potential discussion topics. When it came time to play my first song, I would straighten my back, confidently position my fingers and turn to my teacher.

That’s when I would ask her the big question—the question that always warranted not just a yes or no, but a 10-minute discussion which prompted further questions and more discussion. My 45-minute lesson inevitably would last roughly 20 minutes.

I was clever, indeed. As long as I could engage her in conversation, I didn’t have to play the piano for her. And as long as I didn’t have to play, I didn’t have to practice.

Ten years of lessons later and I demonstrated the skills of a five-year student. Not that it mattered much, because I was smart enough to quit just before my required high school recital.

I have to admit I thought about that one day while sitting in a Grove City College auditorium listening to my baby brother perform as any 10-year student-turned-concert-pianist should. Instead of playing outside after school, he practiced. Instead of talking his way through his lessons, he played. He ultimately graduated from college with a dual teaching degree that included music.

In the end, I embraced my limitations. He didn’t. I found an easy way out. He didn’t. I accepted mediocrity when it came to playing the piano. He didn’t. Today, I play Chopsticks. He won’t.

That’s what’s great about mediocrity. It requires no effort—no risk. You sacrifice little. You let no one down because they don’t expect much from you anyhow. The best part is that you will fit in with most others in your class or business or society. Most of your peers will revel in mediocrity.

However, as our annual Who To Watch special report attests, there are always those few who rise above mediocrity and aim for the excellent. They work 18 hours a day. They constantly innovate. They invest their intellect, their homes and their lives. They know their limitations, yet choose to ignore them. They transform industries. And lives.

Certainly, plenty of mediocre entrepreneurs and their companies continue to survive and exist. They talk a good game, dress the part and continue on, in much the same way their predecessors did. But they’re only half the companies they could be because they take the easy approach. They don’t innovate. They aim for industry averages. They embrace mediocrity. They skip the big recital.

You won’t see that mentality at any of the companies featured in SBN as those to watch this year. These entrepreneurs set goals well beyond industry averages. They all are reaching for excellence, for market leadership. And regardless of the outcome, they just keeping reaching.

Some will make it, others won’t, but they still keep reaching. They set the standard for the economic success of this region. That’s why I think the eight we selected, though not alone in their search for excellence, are worth watching. And perhaps learning from.

As you enter this new year and head toward this new millennium, I encourage all of you to reach a little higher, to break out of this world of mediocrity, to practice instead of just talking about it. To stick around for the big recital.

Today, as my piano repertoire consists of "Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and a few bars of Chopin, I wish I had.

So it goes for mediocrity.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:00

When your image must change

searchable "

Computer software engineer Tom Joseph thought he had it made when he launched Bookminders, his automated accounting and bookkeeping service. Not only had he developed unique bookkeeping software applications and solutions, he had created a work force of highly educated accounting professionals who had chosen to work at home.

That home-based angle became a public relations hit which he rode from home-based business publication to home-based business organization and beyond, all the way to a coveted feature in the Wall Street Journal.

The attention proved invaluable in getting his business beyond the start-up mode. It gave him free publicity and brought him a host of small business clients. Anyone who wanted to write about home-based business or the fast emerging ""virtual"" company knew to call Joseph.

But there was one small problem he hadn't considered. All of that seemingly great publicity created an image of Bookminders that was, in the end, dead wrong.

As Joseph relates in this interview with SBN, the virtual company, home-based image led the marketplace to associate Bookminders with the smallest of the small, not only in size and structure, but in capabilities, which resulted in small monthly retainers-and poor retention.

But his story doesn't end there. This interview is about his realization that it was time to reinvent his company, turning the focus away from how he does business (using a home-based work force) and toward what he really does (provide outsourced, technology-driven accounting solutions for larger companies with complex accounting problems). In the end, he may have lost the media angle, but he gained a whole new level of business.


How did you get started as sort of a virtual company, with employees working out of their homes?

It really was something I stumbled on to when trying to help my father and uncle out with their small business, to get rid of their office administrator/office bookkeeper. I thought I could just set up a computer system that they could run for their painting and wallpaper business. And I found out that, once we had the system set up, they didn't have the resources to run the system themselves.

My sister agreed to work on the system. She would work from her home and pick the work up. It got down to where she could do what a full-time bookkeeper could do in just a few days. It's very similar to what I would then set up eight years later.

That was the business, but how did you decide on your marketing concept at the time?

I think being an engineer, I didn't really have much of a clue from a marketing standpoint. We got it started and tried marketing it to CPA firms. That was probably one of the first glitches we ran into. When you tell a CPA firm you're doing a bookkeeping service, they traditionally look at that as a monthly after-the-fact activity. I think we naturally were being referred by them to smaller businesses that could not afford a bookkeeper.

As we had more time in the marketplace, we found that there was a market-and this is what we eventually moved our business to-for businesses that needed to hire part- to full-time bookkeepers or in-house accounting staff but couldn't always find people because they didn't have the right skills, or they were having problems with turnover, or their systems were so sophisticated that they have a hard time managing that type of technology.

Obviously, when you came out with the business, you latched onto a good thing in marketing it. You got in the Wall Street Journal and you got a lot of other coverage. What was good about it at the time?

The good part about it was that it certainly made a lot of people aware. The Wall Street Journal article led to a lot of other articles that we were able to use to promote the business-having people working from their homes to provide bookkeeping services. The downside was it was difficult for the people who were first, primarily the accounting market, envisioning us doing something other than this real small business write-up type service. It led to a lot of referrals that weren't necessarily a good fit for us. They were too small.

Why do you suppose they put the two together in their minds-bookkeeping out of the home and a small business clientele?

I think it's because of the tradition of the market. I think they saw that as work they didn't want to do and it was hard for them to visualize exactly how we'd be able to satisfy the requirements of a company that typically would hire somebody on a full- or part-time basis.

Where did it take you, this whole image?

The good news is that a lot of companies that read the articles could visualize what we could do for them and how we could solve their problems. So we got a lot of validators that helped us solidify these clients that had more complexities. At the time, our clients spent typically $200 to $400 with us per month. Since that time, the average has doubled. But that's taking into consideration not only the impact of the PR, but us doing a lot of marketing work to directly promote this image of us being this virtual accounting department and the fact that we're actually a function of an in-house department and not just for businesses that are too small to afford one.

At what point did you realize that maybe your home-based marketing message wasn't good for your image?

We became a victim of our own PR, meaning that people put limitations on what they thought a home-based work force could do. I probably did a lot to support that when you go in and start talking about the home-based worker.

Now, when I go out, I pretty much focus on what their requirements are, how we're going to process it, and sometimes we forget to tell them that our people work out of their homes. It's really a moot point now. It's not an issue. The customer, all they care about is getting the work done, having a process and how they get the information.

We found that clients that were spending under $300 a month, when they had a hiccup, they'd drop the service.

What did that mean to you?

It means we were investing money in clients, to get them on line, that we weren't retaining. There was an issue of retention and the ability of these types of clients to pay. Clients that are larger, they need to have this service done regardless. It's not like they have the option that, if they stop using our service, they'll be able to do it themselves.

What did you do to change your image?

One of the things we did was started putting out a publication that promotes the concept of outsourcing and what we called our virtual accounting department. But even our literature on the virtual accounting department really doesn't talk about the home-based worker aspect of it all. It just talks about how we can network our solutions into our clients' and that they can have internal systems which can integrate into our system.

You buried the notion of the home-based aspect of your business?

Yes. It sort of made a nice story and gave people something to talk about, but I think it limited us. Now when I talk about having a home-based work force, I have to point out the fact that it allows us to hire much more qualified people available from an employment standpoint.

The other thing that happened is that things in the marketplace were changing, with the Internet becoming so prevalent with electronic banking capabilities, so we made a shift to using QuickBooks software, which really has become the industry standard. We found that we've positioned ourselves to take advantage of different things that are out there. Our service is now being able to address the needs of our larger clients. We now are an automated accounting service.

We went from a slogan of ""We mind the books while you mind the store,"" which sounded small. We now say, ""We provide automated accounting services.""

Where do you stand today, thanks to your transition?

We have larger, more sophisticated clients. I think the accounting firms that recognize what we can do-the feedback we 're getting is that they're going to do a lot better job for their clients working with us. We've had feedback from several auditors who say their audits are taking a lot less time now.

It also leads to more and better referrals and our client retention is up. We're being a lot more selective about the clients we bring in. We don't encourage the smallest clients to come on board. I think I originally defined our market as clients who could spend between $100 and $500 a month.

Do you regret taking your original marketing track?

No. I think this is still difficult to get people to pay attention to the market that we serve. I think it's very interesting some of the solutions that we've been able to do and actually going into a company and re-engineering a job and taking a job that may have taken a full-time person and turning it into a part-time job using technology or taking advantage of what a payroll service can do or what a bank can do. To me, that's the interesting part about what we're doing. It's really re-engineering the way the accounting function really works within an organization. It's really a technology solution.

What did you learn in the process about image?

I think it's much more appealing for people to write about somebody who has a home-based work force than somebody who's re-engineering the way work gets done.

Understanding that, what would you tell other business owners who have to be willing to adapt and change, but who do have to have some angle? You found an angle-the question is whether that angle works for or against you.

That angle took us to a certain level, but it led to a certain market perception about what we could or couldn't do. We needed at that point to make other marketing efforts to take advantage of what we got with that initial surge of public relations and sell what we really do, which is automated accounting services. But I don't regret it. We just needed to focus on what we do and not on how we do it. SBN

"
Monday, 22 July 2002 09:59

Hands off my IRA

If you’re in the unfortunate position of bankruptcy or have just closed your business, you probably thought the pension plan money you rolled over into an IRA was safe from creditors. And you would have been wrong.

At least until last year, that is, when the state legislature passed House Bill 1048.

Federal law under ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) has long protected assets in a qualified employer-sponsored retirement plan, whether pension, profit sharing or 401(k) plan, from the reach of creditors of employees who are plan participants. IRAs, however, are not protected by federal law, which means employees who terminate their employment and roll over their money into an IRA lose their protection from creditors. That’s where state law comes in.

In Pennsylvania, according to Gary Gunnett, an attorney with Pittsburgh law firm Houston Harbaugh, state law protected up to $15,000 in IRA-rollover assets, leaving anything over that amount unprotected from creditors. As state law noted. “Amounts contributed by the debtor in excess of $15,000 in a one-year period” are excepted.

Then in 1997, in the case of In re Barshak, the Third Circuit Court held that a rollover from a qualified employer plan to an IRA is a “contribution” within the meaning of the Pennsylvania statute, which reaffirmed the $15,000 protection limit.

Gunnett, in a letter to State Sen. Tim Murphy in December of 1997, wrote, “While opinions may differ as to whether creditors should be able to reach retirement plan assets, most would agree that there is no reason for the inconsistency between qualified employer plans and IRAs, particularly where, for business and tax reasons, an individual has no choice but to effect an IRA rollover. This inconsistency is clearly contrary to the policies behind both ERISA and 42 Pa. C.S.A. S8124.”

Gunnett said in the letter that the law as it stood was particularly of concern to physicians who sell their practices to hospitals and other larger groups and have to terminate their retirement plans.

“To avoid current taxation, a physician often has no choice but to roll his qualified plan account into an IRA,” he wrote, “thereby exposing it to potential creditors under the Barshak decision.”

In early 1998, the state finally put the issue to rest by changing the law itself and protecting IRA rollovers at the same level as qualified employer-sponsored retirement plans.

“This legislation was important because, for a lot of small business owners, their major asset is their retirement plan,” Gunnett says of the new law. “I think the Pennsylvania legislature should be commended for recognizing the problem and correcting the legislation.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:57

Small Business Exporter

Walter Robertson Sr. knew in the early 1980s that the opportunity existed in Japan to sell the products made by his company, Hydro-Pac Inc. So he lined up a trading partner to take his products there.

As he puts it now, “They did a good job of trading, but not so good in customer service.”

So it goes in what became the beginning of a long but fruitful education for Robertson in exporting to the Far East and elsewhere. That effort is now responsible for between 25 percent and 40 percent of the Erie County company’s annual revenue.

Robertson started his company in 1972 and today employs 45, including the next generation of owners, sons Walter Jr. and Jason. The company designs and manufactures machinery that generates and controls high-pressure liquids such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The liquids are used in manufacturing processes that create gas-assisted injection molding and foam plastics, such as polystyrene cups.

Robertson first realized the demand for his devices when he took one product to Canada, where he displayed it at a trade show. Someone purchased the actual display.

Getting his products into Japan, however, proved more arduous. Robertson quickly realized that simply having a trading partner whose main interest was sales wouldn’t be enough for customers who needed after-sale assistance.

“The market really required an after-service organization,” he says in hindsight. “We couldn’t just rely on a trading company to service our customers.”

In 1987, Robertson decided to pursue the creation of a joint-venture company with a Japanese partner. With help from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Robertson’s company set up a new company in Japan that is 75 percent owned by Hydro-Pac. Several employees from Hydro-Pac then lived in Japan for upwards of four years to make sure the project would succeed.

“Japan was a tough market,” Robertson says. “They’re task masters, so we had to adapt our products to their rules and regulations.”

Today, the company also sells its products in Australia, Korea, India, Europe and Canada.

Says Robertson of his export efforts: “I’m absolutely proud to do so.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:57

Media Advocate

Thomas Olson will be the first to tell you he has never thought of himself as a business advocate. He simply wants to make sure business people get enough good information to make the right decisions in business. And that, of course, is exactly why he was named the 1999 SBA Small Business Media Advocate.

Olson, 42, has been writing about business most of his 20 years as a journalist. However, as a child of the Nixon era and Watergate, he says he had every intention of becoming a political writer as he was earning his Master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University. Then he got a taste of business journalism.

“To my surprise and delight, I found that it was actually interesting, and I kind of got hooked,” Olson says.

He came to Pittsburgh roughly eight years ago and served for a number of years as the banking and finance reporter at the Pittsburgh Business Times. He currently is a business reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, covering both small and large businesses and the issues that affect them.

“A lot of what I write is hopefully useful to people – and instructive,” Olson says of his role as a journalist, almost uncomfortable with the notion of ‘advocate.’ “But in the greater context, I suppose I am an advocate of business.”

And so he is.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:56

The game of the name

MacTemps’ name said it all. The Boston-based company with an office in Pittsburgh provided temporary and contract staffing for companies in the areas of Macintosh computer-based print design and creative, print production, Web and other technologies.

For 13 years, the name worked for the company, easily defining its niche in the vast computer-related temporary services industry. The only problem was, the company wasn’t just about Macintosh-based designers and other temporary-service providers anymore.

“It’s now a company whose mission is to enhance the lives of independent professionals,” says Pamela Miller, vice president and regional manager of the company. Obviously, that’s not what the name suggested. So the company simply changed it.

Of course, “simply” isn’t exactly the way to describe a process that cost more than $1 million to implement, following a lot of soul searching to decide what the company was, where it was going and whether the current name enhanced the mission.

“We thought about changing our name for the last five years,” Miller says. “And we had to decide, do we want to shatter 13 years of brand equity? But then we said, ‘We have a mission that extends beyond Macintosh personnel, and we want to move beyond our image as a temp agency.’”

Its new mission, according to company documents, was to expand its commitment to serve as agent and advocate for the growing independent work force.

“Independent professionals represent 20 percent of today’s work force, or 25 million people, more than the number of union members in the U.S.,” says MacTemps CEO and co-founder John Chuang, in describing his interest in pushing his company’s focus in that direction.

Chuang took the naming challenge to veteran linguistics consultancy NameLab Inc. It was a challenge with which the San Francisco-based company was familiar, having already come up with recognizable brand names including Compaq, Acura and the PowerBook.

After considering such names as Indepro and InCommon, both of which play off of the “independent professional” theme, NameLab came up with a totally different name, which Chuang and company adopted: Aquent Partners.

“If Aquent were a Greek or Latin word, it would suggest ‘not a follower,’” says Ira Bachrach, president of NameLab in a prepared statement. “The word was coined to describe the rapidly emerging career path of independent professionals and a new employment relationship between corporations and highly skilled individuals.”

Miller says the name was derived “sort of from ‘asequential’ but admits it’s entirely made up. She adds, however, that “we’re going to create meaning in it. I liked it because it was different.”

Under the new name, Aquent will introduce customized programs for independent professionals and continue expansion into new industries and markets worldwide which, Chuang predicts, will push revenue up by 30 percent this year.

To implement the change, Miller says, the company recently hired a new public relations agency to develop a whole package of collateral materials emphasizing the change, right down to the little geometrically shaped people, dubbed IPs (for independent professional), in different colors and positions on business cards and other materials. The company also is doing a direct-mail campaign to customers and others announcing the change, and it’s meeting with its biggest accounts to personally discuss the evolution.

In similar fashion, Robinson Township-based DXI Inc., a high-tech company that provides automated back-office computer software solutions for firms involved with transporting ocean cargo, has adopted its own name change.

Like Aquent, DXI started out in 1987 as a company that provided automated rate and shipment management information to the ocean transportation industry. But what was it supposed to do once it expanded its portfolio of products to include a wide range of e-commerce solutions to those involved in global trade? And for that matter, what did DXI even stand for?

So it recently changed its name to E-Transport Inc.

“We feel that the new name better describes what we do and reflects our strategic direction in the transportation industry,” says Robert Ryan, chief executive officer of the 155-employee company. “We intend to be known as the premier facility for presenting, purchasing and managing industrial transportation services. Changing our company name helps our current and future customers and investors understand the value that we add to shipping transactions.”

Both companies clearly have taken a chance changing more than a decade of brand equity, but in the name of better understanding of the changing company. It’s not for everybody, however.

Says Aquent’s Miller: “If a company is doing it just to do it, it’s probably not a good idea.”

How to reach : E-Transport’s Robert Ryan at (412) 788-2466; Aquent Partners’ marketing department, via e-mail, at hqmarketing@aquent.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:55

From the editor

My best friend Jeff and I knew the enemy hid somewhere before us as we darted from tree to tree with our guns poised for action. We climbed a hill and followed a narrow dirt path, that took us into an old cemetery. It was lined with tall granite monuments – perfect for protection against the yet-unseen enemy lurking just over the hill. We stopped behind some head stones and looked out ahead of us.

That’s when it happened.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone jumped me from behind, threw me to the ground and taunted me as he punched at my head and back with an evil fury. I was as good as dead, I figured.

That evil fury, it turns out, came from Jamie Morgan, a neighborhood bully who found cruel pleasure in tormenting two wimpy 11-year-olds who were simply trying to experience the perils of war in their Vietnam-era imaginations. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

As I lay on my stomach getting the snot beat out of me, I called for Jeff to help me. No answer. I called again. Still no answer. Morgan kept pounding. I kept calling, but to no avail. It seems my best friend, at that moment of real pain and peril, had abandoned me. At the moment I needed him most, he left me there. Alone.

High-tech entrepreneur Eric Bruce must have felt the same way as he and his company, TriLogic Corp., darted from creditor to creditor, ultimately facing them in bankruptcy court a few years ago. But while the bankruptcy itself proved painful, Bruce tells SBN in this month’s cover story that the overwhelming sadness and humiliation came when many of the people he considered his friends and loyal employees abandoned him when he needed them the most, making matters worse

Without question, loyalty is as important in business today as it ever was. With automation, voice mail, e-mail and e-commerce, we tend to forget the people side of business. That’s the side where employees, vendors, distributors, service providers and others all try to work together developing long-term relationships which, if handled correctly, look more like close friendships as time goes on.

I call it cooperative entrepreneurship, and I am convinced that this is the one secret ingredient that will either make or break Pittsburgh as an entrepreneurial region to contend with. In such a business utopia, you certainly have to earn the trust and loyalty of others. That means operating with a sense of honor, integrity and selflessness that forms a lasting bond with other business people.

But that also means being able to count on those people to help you smooth over those rough spots that inevitably arise in the daily perils of the business life. In some respects, business is business, and some risks may simply be too great to tangle with when it comes to helping a business associate out of serious trouble. But that’s no reason to abandon people you may call your friends. And occasionally they’ll get jumped from behind suddenly and find themselves face down in the dirt. All the more reason to help if you can.

With a spirit of serious cooperation driving business, companies in this region could accomplish much. Think of it — people helping people to succeed, giving all a better chance of growing and making money. Of course, you also would have to maintain a spirit of communication that keeps everyone informed in good times and bad.

Fortunately for Eric Bruce, his story didn’t end in bankruptcy with no friends. Because of the investment he put into honor and integrity, many of his outside business associates and friends rallied around him, cutting him breaks and helping him get his company back on stable financial ground. They helped him up even as he lay on the ground getting the snot beat out of him by the bankruptcy experience.

Thanks to those friends, he not only recovered, he’s now doing as well as he ever did and continues to grow.

Fortunately for me, my story didn’t end in total abandonment, either. While I still give Jeff a hard time about leaving me to get beat up that day, he likes to accuse me of leaving out the end of the story.

So, for the sake of fairness, I have to add that he actually ran off to get help. Within minutes of the adolescent assault, he came trudging back with an adult neighbor who pulled Jamie Morgan off of me. Then again, what are friends for? Dan Bates is editor of SBN Pittsburgh. Reach him at (412) 321-6050 or by e-mail at dbates@sbnnet.com.