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IMAGINE YOUR $3,600 AS $1 MILLION

Check out these tidbits picked up at last week's Western New York Investors Conference in Rochester:

Don't let anyone tell you that you can't make money in the Buffalo Niagara region. If you had invested just $3,600 in M&T Bank Corp. stock back in 1980, you'd have $1 million today, Michael Pinto, the Buffalo-based banking company's chief financial officer, proudly noted during the conference.

That's what happens when you're fortunate enough to be one of the first people to jump on the bandwagon of a company that went on to grow at a nearly 26 percent annual rate during that time -- the 12th best growth rate among more than 1,000 major U.S. companies.

"I wasn't one of them" Pinto says.

M&T isn't the only locally based banking company to become a big hit with investors. First Niagara Financial Group' stock has returned more than 300 percent since the company first went public in 1998, roughly matching M&T's return, albeit over a much shorter time.

Columbus McKinnon Corp. is looking overseas for much of its growth.

That's nothing new for the Amherst material handling equipment maker, which has increased its international sales at a 25 percent annual rate over the last eight years. As a result, international sales, which accounted for just 13 percent of the company's revenues in 1995, now is the source of more than a third its business.

Timothy T. Tevens, Columbus McKinnon's president and chief executive officer, says the faster-growing economies in China and the Far East still offer some of the company's juiciest prospects. The company also recently set up a sales presence in Hungary to tap into Eastern Europe.

"Our growth opportunities abound outside North America," he says.

Don't view the plant Wilson Greatbatch Technologies' is building in Mexico as a threat to the medical components maker's more sophisticated manufacturing operations in the Buffalo Niagara region.

"They're two completely different operations," says Tony Borowicz, Wilson Greatbatch's treasurer.

Instead, look at the 144,000-square-foot factory in Tijuana, Mexico, as a potential source of new business, Borowicz says.

The Tijuana factory will do less-skilled assembly work that Borowicz and other Greatbatch executives hope will help the company build its relationship with important customers and possibly even lead to more manufacturing opportunities in the future. "We're looking at this as a bundling concept," Borowicz says.

Initially, the Tijuana plant will do assembly work for Medtronic, a medical device maker that is one of Wilson Greatbatch's major customers, although it accounts for less than 10 percent of its revenues. Wilson Greatbatch will take components that Medtronic supplies and assemble them in the Mexican factory, where the company can take advantage of lower labor costs.

The assembly venture, if it works out, will give Wilson Greatbatch an extra capability that could make it harder for competitors who just make components or do assembly work.

But it's not a threat to supplant the company's more sophisticated battery making work in the Buffalo Niagara region, which includes a new plant in Alden that will be ready in a month or so. "It's very important that the plant be close to our research and development operations" in Clarence, Borowicz says.

Acquisitions just aren't Mod-Pac Corp.'s style.

Although the Buffalo printing and packaging company has little debt and generates plenty of cash, Mod-Pac executives are content to try to build the business by investing in the latest printing technology and either signing on new customers or winning more work from its existing ones.

"Our strategy is operations-based and marketing based," says C. Anthony Rider, the company's vice president of finance.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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