Daniel Bates

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

The thinking tree

Rushing around our house, we were too busy to notice initially that Nicholas had quietly wandered away. But once we did, we launched a frantic search, inside and out.

Outside, I hollered his name several times before I finally caught a glimpse of our blond 4-year-old meandering happily out of our woods and down the hill toward the house.

"Where were you?" I scolded.

"In the woods," he said, as if that were a stupid question after I'd seen him walk out from the trees. "I'll show you."

I followed him back up the hill and onto the path I once cut through our woods. Along the way, he talked about the flowers and ferns and how pretty the woods were, something I hadn't taken the time to notice in quite a while. Then he stopped under a tall pine tree along the path.

"Is this where you were?" I asked.

"This is my thinking tree," he said with the earnestness of a 4-year-old.

Then he pointed to a flat rock where he sits.

"And what do you do here?"

"I think."

"And what do you think about?"

Said Nicholas: "Oh, God and the birds."

This was one of those parental moments when one's heart tries to squeeze into the throat. But that lump in my throat wasn't one of pride for a preschool son who shows some weighty intellect. If truth be told, I was saddened by the profound lesson he had just given me with regard to a major shortcoming in my professional life.

In this world of speed and frantic efficiency, how many of us stop long enough to think about anything, let alone God and the birds? I run around in a professional frenzy, going to meetings and interviews, doing lunches, attending seminars and conferences and doing my work, all without pausing to think. It's as if we can't handle those still moments, those moments of quiet reflection.

It's like we're afraid we might miss something if we, even for a moment, break away from our computers, e-mail, cell phones or our co-workers. And when we do pause, someone always makes us feel guilty because there's always something else we could have been doing instead.

Recently, entrepreneur Geri Mataya invited me to her day spa in the Marriott-City Center, called Spa Uptown. She wanted to sell me on the merits of stress-reducing relaxation. But like many younger professionals, I didn't think I could spare the time. She persisted, so I reluctantly accepted.

I arrived early for my massage and other spa treatments, hoping to get it over with quickly and rush back to my growing pile of work. But then she pulled a move. She sent me into the steam room first, which wilted me mentally and physically. I had no energy to worry or think about my next appointment. I had no strength to pace.

By then, it was time for my massage. At first, I tried to talk my way through it, ready to leap from the table in a moment of professional exuberance. But the soft music, remedial scents, candles and, well, the massage itself put me into a virtual trance. So this was what it was like to be still, if only for a moment.

I then experienced a facial and, finally, a manicure before finding my way back to the office. And wouldn't you know it -- the spa treatment had uncluttered my tangled brain, and I could think clearly for once. The stillness had allowed me to daydream -- to think about God and the birds.

Sadly, Geri says, "I see people who continuously watch their clocks," even at her day spa. "They put so much stress and pressure on themselves that they're running in the crisis quadrant rather than in the planning quadrant. You should always plan for some quiet time."

Words of wisdom from a fast-paced entrepreneur who admits to having similar difficulties slowing down, even in her own spa. Oddly enough, she says, many of her stressed-out customers find their way to her spa only because friends or loved ones buy them gift certificates in hopes of forcing them to relax.

Imagine if we all accepted those quiet moments and took the time to think and to dream. I can only imagine the refreshing new ideas that would flow out of such exercises in self-preservation. It's OK to pause. It's OK to stop and think about God and the birds.

All we need now are a few more thinking trees. And the wisdom of a 4-year-old to show us the way. Daniel Bates (dbates@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:36

Internet enlightenment

OK, admit it. You know all about the Internet and its future. You understand that all companies need to make the Internet part of their future.

But are you really making it part of your own?

Not exactly, according to Jon Steffey, director of business development and head of the Pittsburgh branch of WestLake Internet Training. He says more business owners and other top executives, while using the Internet at some personal levels, aren't using it to its fullest potential simply because they haven't taken the time to learn.

"You have to get people to learn more things," says Steffey of the challenge facing many local business owners and executives when it comes to the Internet.

That's why Steffey, who started working for WestLake at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., moved back to his native Pittsburgh, bringing with him the wherewithal to educate Pittsburgh businesses about Web training and development.

Here's what he's finding. Many of his students to date have turned to his operation because their bosses told them the company was launching a Web development initiative and they needed to find out how to use it -- and create their own sites. The owners themselves don't take the time to grasp the language and process, so they typically have been sending their administrative, secretarial and other support staff to learn the basics, such as the computer language, HTML and, more recently, XML.

"One of our big challenges has been that [managing a company's Internet strategy] has become an additional task for some people, but they don't want to turn down [the opportunity] because they're interested in it," Steffey says. "We've designed task-centric classes, but we're not geared toward people wanting to change careers."

Others are attending his classes, he says, to learn how to create active server pages, which integrate a Web site with their company's database. More and more, though, he says he has been teaching advanced classes for computer software developers and programmers who want to add HTML and other related programming languages to their knowledge bases, and for Web designers and developers who want to maintain the latest design skills.

But Steffey still isn't seeing a full commitment to learn more about the Internet from the decision-makers themselves: the presidents, CEOs and other senior executives. The reason, he suspects, is time.

"The biggest place they fall short is the available time they take to learn," he says. "People feel like they can't take the time to adequately learn these things."

But they should, he says.

"The most successful [leaders] are the ones who do, indeed, plan ahead and are proactive" when it comes to getting up to speed on the Internet and how it might help their companies.

Steffey says some companies are using such training as a means to "run existing employees through the transition," and as a retention tool, as well as an incentive for new employees.

Says Steffey: "One of the nice roles for training is that it fits well into a growth strategy." How to reach: WestLake Internet Training, (800) 357-2320 or www.westlake.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:34

Oh, the color of profits

The color of money may be green, but picking the right colors to get you to the money has become a science unto itself -- a science which can mean the difference between staying in the black or sagging into the red.

So says Color Marketing Group (www.colormarketing.org), a Virginia-based organization whose primary purpose is to prognosticate about the colors that will sell best in the future. This coming year, the organization predicts, expect a focus on a new wave of softer colors, with blue, aqua and true lavender, along with a spectrum of neutral colors and warm gray, clay, taupe and pale brown leading the way. Officials at the organization see those colors as "the most important colors of the decade."

These professional color designers anticipate consumers will demand softer but more energizing products that reflect a physical and global influence in 2001.

Maybe it's more of an art than a science, but is picking the right color really as important as the product's functionality? Nada Rutka, who runs Nada Associates, a Southpointe-based independent color consulting firm (www.colordesigner.com) and is a former chairman of Color Marketing Group, says color is crucial.

"Color is important because it influences consumers in their decision to buy a product," she says. "Sixty to 80 percent of products are purchased based on color. So color always matters to some degree."

Colors are becoming more bold, Rutka says, because "people are more confident in themselves and more accustomed to seeing more color." She says color tends to "reflect a consumer's personality. It's an opportunity to express themselves creatively. Part of it is a backlash against computers and technology, which reduces people to numbers."

However, she adds, color choice shouldn't take precedence over what your customers say they want.

"Business people should not ignore the trends," she says. "Rather, their first priority should be to know their customers, their target market and the image they want their product or service to portray before they select a color or before they can apply the color information derived from color trends."

Still, Rutka and Color Marketing Group acknowledge that staying up on color trends is becoming more difficult because trends change so quickly.

Here's why, according to Ricki Gardner, co-chairman of Color Marketing Group: "Because the world is at our fingertips and we are now living in a truly global society, we are seeing new color and trends develop and gain acceptance much faster today than we did even five years ago. The immediacy that the Internet, television and other media afford brings new lifestyles and design influences into our homes and offices on a daily basis."

Consider Color Marketing Group's latest predictions:

Marrakesh Red -- The earthiness of natural dyes used from Morocco to India come out in this soft red.

Pink Lady -- Soft and sophisticated, yet strong, this true pink will combine with many different tones.

Sandy Egg-o -- This clean and vibrant yellow has lots of personality.

Amaizing -- A touch of red warms this pale, yet vibrant, yellow.

Copper Blush -- Remindful of a translucent cameo, this hue is tinted with white and pink.

Smudged Green -- Green undertones and a trace of yellow create the base of this warm, dirty neutral.

Cocobola -- Neither brown nor red, this chameleon color is a deep earth hue.

Black Pansy -- A deep, blackened, blue-based purple.

"People want to create individuality," says Rutka, "so they're looking for ways to refresh, renew, relax. Color sells, and the right color sells better."

It doesn't get any more black and white than that. How to reach: Color Marketing Group, (703) 329-8500; Nada Rutka, (724) 746-1646

Daniel Bates (dbates@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, 18 March 2003 04:36

2001 Pittsburgh Pacesetters

Last May, the San Jose Mercury News, in the heart of Silicon Valley, served up a starkly contrasting set of articles on the success of California’s famed high-tech mecca.

The first of the articles, entitled “Dot-Com Angst,” echoed the great lament of residents there who are tired of the gentrification of the region and its skyrocketing cost of living, thanks to the aggressiveness of its youthful Internet economy. But that wasn’t the real attention-getter. Rather, it was the second article, entitled “Dot-Com Envy.” As it turns out, it was a profile of, well, Pittsburgh. The epicenter of the New Economy suddenly was looking at this former steel town for the hope and promise it offers those willing to give this laidback cross between Midwest and Northeast a second look. Finally, people here — and now those looking in from the outside — are beginning to see a region where the people are friendly, the culture is easygoing but world-class, housing costs remain relatively low, entrepreneurial ideas flow as powerfully as the three rivers and money to fund the best of those ideas continues to grow exponentially. Pittsburgh has come into its own again.

The continuing transformation is no accident. Behind every changed attitude, behind every entrepreneurial success and behind every new stadium and building are tireless business, civic and government leaders contributing their time, clout and money to make Pittsburgh the dot-com envy of the New Economy.

By day, they run their companies and organizations and governments to the best of their abilities. But their visions for the region then drive them to jump head-first into the sometimes thankless role of civic visionary as they donate their energy and earnings to the collective growth of this unusual region. We call these people Pittsburgh Pacesetters. Choosing this year’s honorees was no easy task; the region seems to breed new Pacesetters as fast as the Silicon Valley breeds new Internet companies. And we continue to uncover more and more Pacesetter-worthy individuals who are less worried about the publicity and more concerned about their impact on the community.

Still, the selection process proved fairly straightforward and unscientific; the editors of SBN Magazine simply combined some serious observation and insight garnered from a year of writing about the region’s most successful business leaders with a bit of research and other feedback from afield. Then we narrowed the list to 20 people who clearly are fueling the region’s transformation (21 if you count both co-founders of CoManage Inc.). They join the ranks of last year’s lofty group of 55 Pittsburgh Pacesetters.

To these 20, we congratulate you not so much for the Pittsburgh Pacesetter distinction, but rather for what it represents as you put your hearts and souls into making this region the envy of even the Silicon Valley. In fact, we commend all of the business and civic leaders who contribute well beyond what’s expected to make this a better place to work, play and raise a family. That’s what pacesetting is all about.

If you think a top performer can be characterized simply as being intelligent, a better problem solver, more creative, more driven and outgoing, and willing to take risks, local author Robert Kelley is out to prove you wrong.

In his new book, "How to Be a Star at Work" (Random House Inc.'s Times Business unit), this Carnegie Mellon University business school professor says research proves top performers don't fit any specific personality stereotypes. Rather, it's a consistent pattern of certain day-to-day behaviors that clenches stardom.

In his book, Kelley identifies nine "key work strategies" (in order of importance) designed to push employees beyond mediocrity. Star employees:

1. Show initiative

2. Network with those in the know

3. Manage their whole lives at work

4. Maintain a broad perspective of their jobs

5. Work as an independent but cooperative follower

6. Take ownership of projects as a positive contributor to a team

7. Lead by convincing workers using their expertise and influence

8. Learn to navigate the competing interests of their organization

9. Learn to persuade their audience with the right message

You can reach Kelley by Internet at www.KelleyIdeas.com.


Monday, 22 July 2002 10:06

Nightmare of a nuclear physicist

As an academic nuclear physicist-turned-entrepreneur, Ashok Dhar has faced his share of, shall we say, technical challenges over the years. But none have ever proved as difficult-and costly-as when he decided to hire his first secretary.

After placing an ad for the position, an experienced secretary reportedly came to his office for an interview and proceeded to tell Dhar, president of Computer Science & Technology Inc. in Monroeville, how she had been downsized out of a job, that she needed to make at least $25,000 a year to pay her mortgage, and, by the way, she was pregnant.

When Dhar decided to hire another secretarial candidate for significantly less money, he one day received a rather large package in the mail. In it was a long letter from a lawyer representing the pregnant woman claiming discrimination and demanding a $25,000 settlement. Dhar, who admits to a naivete in such matters, says he was stunned.

"It was terrible," he says, looking back. "It was a disaster. I didn't think it would be an issue." But it was.

Dhar says the woman finally dropped the claim, but by the time he was finished addressing the issue, he had doled out roughly $5,000 for his own lawyer to handle the situation.

The lessons he says he learned-the hard way-from the situation:

  • Don't interview candidates alone.

  • Document everything.

  • Don't ask personal questions.

Dhar says of his hiring experience: "It scares the hell out of you."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:06

Keeping the media happy on line

Members of the media no longer have to call St. Francis Health System's public affairs department for information. Now, it's all in a special Web site designed just for those pesky reporters.

The new electronic press room, designed recently by St. Francis to improve its media relations, includes the latest press releases, medical specialties and contact information for immediate access to System professionals in any medical area.

It also includes fact sheets and biographies of executives and physicians. Of course, the site also includes general information about the System's three hospitals and more than 25 other sites, as well as a history of the 130-year-old institution.

To glance at the new Web site-and get a few ideas for your own site, St. Francis Health System's Web site address is www.sfhs.edu/pressrm.html.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:06

From the editor

When I was growing up, Sundays usually proved the most hectic day of the week. My parents faithfully dragged all four kids out of bed and sternly motivated us to get dressed and eat breakfast before gathering the troops for church. And each Sunday morning, chaos ensued. Ditto as they rounded us up for the trip home.

Sure, our parents loved us and cared for us, but they sometimes took us for granted. Upon pulling into the driveway of our home after church one Sunday, our parents suddenly realized they had failed to notice a discrepancy in the routine roundup. My young brother Matt, it seems, never made it home.

It turns out he was left standing at the curb, dejected and alone. And forgotten.

Imagine a poor young kid whose parents have seemingly abandoned him in his impressionable adolescence and who, if only for as long as it took our parents to race back to the church, thought he had to face this world-or strange neighborhood, at least-on his own.

Now imagine a bunch of umbrella organizations created to help poor young kids, in general, find their way, but which simply drive past my brother on their way to a gathering where they will expound on the blight of these kids and the urgent need to help them. And there he stands.

Now replace that kid with many of this region's smaller companies, those which don't offer sexy new technologies, so-called spike-industry glitz, or year after year of 50 percent annual growth. Yet these quiet, unassuming companies still employ people, generate revenue, spend money and pay taxes. They are the entrepreneurial ventures-some with long, deep roots in Pittsburgh business-that make up a majority of southwestern Pennsylvania's economic foundation.

So why are they-I'll call them our Forgotten Majority-left standing alone at the curb while some of the most prominent and aggressive economic development efforts of today drive right on past on their way to spending millions of dollars to promote the region to the rest of the world?

Our contention at SBN - and the reason for this month's cover story - is that a large number of small companies have been left out of the equation as such organizations seek to shore up our region's economic future. Without question, their efforts are bound to give the region a boost.

But what about the Forgotten Majority, those who want to grow and prosper in the shadow of the region's more visible Sonys, Fore Systems, EchoStars and the like.

Granted, they make great stories when it comes to public-private partnerships, entrepreneurial gumption and building the region's status. But do such stories truly help the majority of less-sexy companies grow and prosper? In some ways, perhaps. However, I don't think such companies have even been asked what they want and need to thrive.

So that's what we set out to do this month. We took such questions to the street and asked them of a variety of small-business entrepreneurs. Their candor may surprise you. Some, of course, want easier access to capital, while others want more educational resources and networking opportunities. Some, who actively exercise their fierce entrepreneurial spirit, just want to be left alone. All, however, say they feel left out of the Big Plan. They feel forgotten.

My parents, fortunately, redeemed themselves by racing back to that curb to pick up Matt. My question to local economic development officials looking to make the region better is this: Will you do the same for the region's Forgotten Majority? I hope so.

How do you feel about it?

Now I'd like your feedback, whether you agree or strongly disagree. Tell me your thoughts about local economic development efforts and whether you think they're effective for the region. And while you're at it, tell me what you think you need from their efforts to help your company grow. We'll gladly publish your responses as they come. Fax your comments to me at (412) 321-6058, or e-mail me at dbates@sbnnet.com. Please include your name, company and daytime phone number.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:03

In Brief

Move over, Pittsburgh

Evidently, Indiana County isn't about to sit back and wait for any of Pittsburgh's upcoming "regional" marketing efforts to send new businesses its way. So its leaders have unveiled their own marketing theme.

Officials there recently introduced "Indiana County: Growing Right Here," a campaign that includes advertising, stationery and a variety of other promotional materials. The goal: to promote the county as a good place for businesses-existing and potential new ones-to grow and expand.

"We're really saying that businesses not only grow here, but we're working together to help businesses grow the right way, right here," says Bernie Smith, Indiana County commissioner and chairman of the county's Center for Economic Operations.

Adds Tom Bayuzik, executive director of the Indiana County CEO: "When we look around and see this new energy, focused as never before on building new and existing businesses in our county, it just feels right-just like our new theme."

Does your elephant wear a pink tutu?

Well, it should, according to local marketing communications consultant and author Mary Maloney Cronin.

She's talking, of course, about companies and the way they should be promoting their efforts to customers and the public, and it's the subject of a new book she co-authored with local consultant and author Suzanne Caplan. Called "Everyone Remembers the Ele-phant in the Pink Tutu-How to Promote and Publicize Your Business with Impact and Style" (Career Press, $15.99), the new book asks business owners to address problems such as the color of their tutus (how they should make their companies sound unique, whether the bearded lady is their friend (how to approach the media), and what to do when they tear their tutus (how to handle crises).

"Even if your primary business is one that seems very ordinary or is in a field crowded with competitors, there is one (or perhaps a few) unique hook that you can build a PR campaign around. You just have to find them," according to the book, available in most local bookstores.

The book also provides templates for press releases and press kits, as well as guidelines for photo releases and a list of other related books worth reading, among other references.

And in its chapter entitled "Advice from the ringmaster," Cronin addresses a long list of frequently asked questions about PR, with answers from a number of local media sources-including the editor of Small Business News. So it's a must-read, indeed.

Why you shouldn't dodge your own greatness

Patricia DiVecchio, founder and president of Pittsburgh-based Life-Work International, would be the first to tell you that your work and life don't have to co-exist apart from one another, leaving you unhappy and unfulfilled. In fact, she has made this message her mission as she helps entrepreneurs find their own niches in life.

"We're very habitual creatures, and we get comfortable real fast," she said in a recent workshop on finding your life's work. She was explaining why many people continue to trudge along unhappy in what they're doing but unwilling to change.

"Is work about conflict, about stress?" she asked. "Work can be hard and a struggle, but work can also be exhilarating. Work can be a mission. Work can be a passion."

DiVecchio said entrepreneurs simply need to take steps to develop and act on their own "vision of choice," which often is held back by what she describes as a fear of our own greatness, a fear of the "responsibility of being great," and a fear of our humanness (our feelings and emotions).

"Your responsibility is to you-only you can shift your thinking," she added. "You need to not talk yourself out of your own greatness."

For more information about Life-Work International and its workshops, call (412) 488-9890.

How to effectively lose business to your competitor

Yearick-Millea Inc. employee Helen Ciaramitaro says she was more than a little surprised when UPS called her about a package of film she had just shipped to a publication in England-especially since she had sent the package via a competing shipping company the day before.

It seems the competing company, which Ciaramitaro has declined to disclose, accidentally dropped the package on the street-right in front of the UPS terminal on Beaver Street in the North Side. The mistake obviously didn't bode well for the competing company, but then UPS isn't one to pass up such a lucky opportunity either. The UPS employee who found the package called the competing carrier and gave the package back to it. The competitor then finally sent the package securely on its way.

And what did UPS get out of its act of selfless service? As Ciaramitaro puts it, a new and loyal customer.

"I think they went over and above the call of duty," Ciaramitaro says of UPS. "They were excellent."

As for the competitor, the hard lesson no doubt was not lost, at least on the driver.

Do you hear what we're saying?

Should it come as any surprise that improving office productivity could easily start with better communication with your staff?

That's the finding of OfficeTeam, an administrative staffing service, in a recent nationwide survey of "150 big-company executives. According to the survey, executives believe that 14 percent of every 40-hour work week is wasted due to poor communication between staff and managers. That's seven weeks a year lost.

Says Diane Domeyer, executive director of OfficeTeam: "Unclear communication not only results in errors and missed deadlines, but also lies at the root of many other serious workplace issues, such as low employee morale and poor job performance."

Here's one Pittsburgh marketing strategy that might even work

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver John Acunto has his own ideas for creating a slick campaign for marketing his hometown Pittsburgh to the rest of the world, and it doesn't involve millions of dollars of government or foundation funding.

He plans to use his truck.

Acunto, who drives Chevrolet Truck No. 13 for the RMJ Race Team, so far reportedly has secured a sponsorship commitment from Pittsburgh Brewing Co., and he says he hopes to secure other Pittsburgh-based companies in an effort to promote the region's work ethic, values and culture.

Perhaps he should try the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:02

In Brief

Everybody knows that learning your way around Pittsburgh takes a lifetime, but at least one segment of the region is doing something about it.

The Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, in an effort to ease the directional difficulties of Pittsburgh West, has developed a simple solution: a map.

The detailed four-color map includes street listings for Carnegie, Crafton, Edgeworth, Glenfield, Green Tree, Haysville, Heidelberg, Ingram, Leetsdale, McDonald, McKees Rocks, Oakdale, Osborne, Pennsbury Village, Rosslyn Farms boroughs, and Collier, Crescent, Findlay, Kennedy, Moon, Neville, North Fayette, Robinson, Sewickley and Stowe townships. And let's not forget the various routes to Pittsburgh International Airport and, of course, Robinson Town Centre and The Point.

The maps cost $3 by mail or $2 at the Chamber's Moon Township office at 986 Brodhead Road. If you can't find the office, ask for directions-or call (412) 264-6720.

Now, if you could just find your way into Pittsburgh

Actually, the nonprofit Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which represents many businesses in downtown Pittsburgh, is hoping its feverish new marketing campaign will do just that.

The program is being spearheaded by Harry Finnegan, a native Canadian who moved to Pittsburgh more than a year ago as executive director of the PDP. His mission: to greatly improve retailing downtown.

The campaign is being introduced with image advertising in print and on the radio, with a slogan that says, simply, "Downtown. Get Into It." It also includes a shopping/dining guide-with a map of downtown.

At the heart of the campaign is yet another campaign, this one aimed at one of the most talked-about problems facing shoppers: parking. To ease the problem-or at least improve the perception-the PDP has launched "Easy Streets," a program created in Seattle that provides parking and transportation validation to shoppers.

The validation comes in the form of tokens given by participating stores to patrons who make at least $20 in purchases. Patrons use the token to get $1 off parking at participating lots and garages, $1 off a cab ride with Yellow Cab or a free one-way ride on a PAT bus within zone 1. The PDP is supporting the program with window decals, advertising and counter displays for participating stores.

"It's a transportation program that provides value," Finnegan says during a recent media blitz. "I'm not saying it's the be-all, end-all, but it does enable businesses to do something to deal with parking."

The catch is that the PDP has to convince retailers to purchase tokens at face value from Mellon Bank, the master distributor, or from any other participating downtown bank. Finnegan admits it's not necessarily an easy task.

Says Finnegan, half-jokingly: "We're thinking of calling it 'Not so Easy Streets.'"

For more information about the new marketing push, including the Easy Streets program, call the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership at (412) 566-4190.

Bags, bags and more bags

When entertaining family members at his Polish Hill home during a holiday last year, Robert Thomas watched as people pulled plastic grocery bags from drawers and cupboards all over the kitchen while loading up left-overs for their trips home. That's when the idea hit him: What American homes need is a container designed specifically to hold the bags for recycled use later.

And Voila! After extensive library research and more than a few design ideas, Thomas, 44, developed "The Bagg-ler." It's a plastic box with a hole on each of the four sides, from which plastic bags can be dispensed. Thomas, a former cab driver, says he assembles the boxes himself and makes his own labels, while contracting out the boxes to a local plastics manufacturer, with help from Goodwill Industries. And he has a Web page to support the product (www.baglerusa.qpg.com).

Because of the recycling message he includes with his product, Thomas recently won an award from KDKA-TV as part of its Wastebusters campaign (a program created by North Side-based entrepreneur Michael Jones).

Says Thomas in his marketing materials: "The future of our children and grandchildren depends on the subtle and small changes we make now. Small actions don't seem too small when millions of people are doing them at the same time."

And it won't hurt his next holiday gathering, either.

For more information, contact (800) 310-3315.

More SBA LowDoc

The U.S. Small Business Administration has been saying for some time that it wants to become more responsive to small businesses and their financial needs. It recently made good on its promises.

The SBA has introduced new and improved LowDoc and SBA Express loan programs that include an increase in loan maximums from $100,000 to $150,000, expansion in the number of lenders involved, and 36-hour (or less) processing time.

"The results thus far indicate that simplification, standardization, and centralized loan processing can produce substantial increases in SBA loan processing efficiency and effectiveness," says the SBA in an official statement. "This appears to have been accomplished with little or no negative impact on the overall quality of the agency's portfolio.

For more loan information, contact the SBA at (800) U-ASK-SBA.