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Eight Buffalo-area companies, seven of them major manufacturers, pledged publicly Friday to keep their operations in Western New York, making a commitment they hope will be followed by hundreds of local operations.

The eight companies, led by Rich Products, which celebrated its 50th anniversary Friday, signed the "Buffalo Business Compact," making a long-term commitment to stay here and work to improve the community.

"We are proud to be part of Western New York, proud to be part of the Western New York business community and proud that all of us intend to stay here for a very, very long time," said Robert E. Rich Jr., president of Rich Products, during a ceremony at the Rich Renaissance Niagara Atrium on Niagara Street.

The eight companies -- which employ 5,644 in Western New York, have a collective payroll of $227 million and have sales of $3.9 billion -- are the lifeblood of the local economy, said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Greater Buffalo Partnership.

"In our business we kill for home-based companies who export their goods and services elsewhere," he said. "The CEOs of these companies are the best salespeople in the world."

The companies pledged to remain here, to find investment opportunities to strengthen the economy, to increase their roles as corporate citizens working for the community, to promote Western New York to businesses outside the area and to work to persuade other local businesses to join in their commitment.

Along with Rich's, the compact was signed by Outokumpu American Brass, Moog Inc., Varity Corp., Gibraltar Steel, American Precision Industries, Pratt & Lambert United and Vastola Heating & Air Conditioning.

Several other local businesses have told the partnership they want to sign the compact, Rudnick said.

Friday's action was significant because most of the initial group that signed the compact could move their manufacturing operations elsewhere if they wished, Rudnick said.

"That's true, we don't have to be here," said Richard A. Aubrecht, Moog's chairman. "But we were born in East Aurora in 1951, and Western New York has always been the center of our business."

Aubrecht, who frequently visits other Moog operations, suppliers and customers, said he often gets a negative reaction when he discusses New York with out-of-town businesses.

"New York suffers from a very poor image, but when you start to talk to them about the area and the work force they begin to say 'Oh really?' "

Western New York will lure more businesses to the area if New York becomes more competitive in terms of taxes and regulation, he said.

Warren E. Bartel, president of Outokumpu American Brass, said his company would not think of leaving the area.

"Our ownership has changed several times, but we are very heavily invested from a capital equipment, technology and employee standpoint," he said.

He believes Western New York has the elements necessary to once again become a major manufacturing center.

"There is enough of an industrial base that manufacturing can be very successful here, especially because there is a wonderful labor pool," he said.

Rich's held an anniversary lunch Friday afternoon in its atrium for several hundred local business leaders and government officials.

The lunch ended with a restaging by Robert E. Rich Sr. and two of his three original associates of an early publicity photo that showed Rich testing the company's first product, Rich's Whip Topping.

"I never dreamed 50 years ago that I'd be standing here today with so much to celebrate," Rich said.

The luncheon was followed by a party Friday night in the Buffalo Convention Center for 1,400 associates of the company.

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