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HERE ARE EIGHT 'HOT' ENTERPRISES FOR THE NEW YEAR

"Plastics."

In a single word, Walter Brooke tried to point the way of the future to Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film "The Graduate."

If director Mike Nichols were to shoot a 1998 sequel in Buffalo, those telling words might be: computers. Or day care. Or home-based consulting.

The street-smart entrepreneur knows that timing can be a key ingredient in success. A dozen Buffalo-area experts were asked to identify some "hot" small businesses for the coming year. While they didn't always agree on the ranking or respective risks of each type of enterprise, a number of businesses vaulted to the forefront. You might call them "Eight for '98" -- eight arenas that offer growing markets or unmet demands.

Computer-related services -- It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that any business that taps emerging computer technology is ripe for growth. Robert C. Novak, deputy district director for the Small Business Administration, says a variety of enterprises are popping up that offer everything from computer repair and software design services to web site support services.

"We're seeing a growing number of smaller businesses helping other firms to transition into the computer age," says Novak.

As a growing number of companies launch web sites on the Internet to boost sales of their products and services, a cottage industry is beginning to blossom. Many firms are hiring outside consultants to help design promotional pitches. A new study indicates that Internet advertising will skyrocket from $480 million in sales this year to $1 billion in 1998.

Local entrepreneur Ron Ramos thinks he's positioned himself to cash in on the computer age. Two years ago, he founded Priority Film and Video, a full-service production facility based on Harlem Road. Ramos and his staff of two tap the latest in digital technology to produce commercials, corporate videos, marketing tapes and television programs.

"The industry is being turned inside out and upside down by something called the computer. It has totally revolutionized the video industry. Thanks to technology, you can have one- or two-person outfits which are major players in the motion picture and television industries," says Ramos, who works with such clients as Honda Motor Corp., NBC Sports and Rite Aid Inc.

Ramos says advances in computer technology have created new revenue opportunities for small video production companies, including Internet marketing and the production of slick brochures and pamphlets.

"Years ago, a businessman would have needed $1.5 million to set up a production facility with all the capabilities that we have," he says. "Thanks to changing technology, a person could be up and running tomorrow with an investment of $200,000, maybe even less."

Ramos credits the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College for helping him to formulate a sound business plan and pinpoint financing vehicles Priority Film and Video managed to get an SBA-backed loan.

Day-care centers -- Of the 20 million children in the U.S. under the age of 5, one-third will spend at least part of their time in a day-care center. Millions of others receive after-school care.

Susan McCartney, director of the Small Business Development Center, said there is a tremendous demand for child-care services in the Buffalo area. New centers are opening on a regular basis and some long-established centers are expanding.

One example is the Ripen With Us Child Care Center at 500 Kenmore Ave. Executive Director Ruth Cleary says there has been an especially fierce demand for after-school care.

"We have a waiting list of 25 to 30 children," Ms. Cleary says. "Many parents don't want to leave their kids home alone after school."

The center is building an $800,000 facility at its location behind Jubilee Foods. The not-for-profit provider recently obtained a $100,000 loan to assist with construction of the 9,644-square-foot center.

Home-based consulting -- In this era of corporate downsizing, there's no shortage of consultants. They range from people who advise small businesses to individuals who offer consulting in the environmental arena. Ms. McCartney says her center has helped dozens of people develop sound business plans for consulting enterprises.

"If you have a specialty, people will pay for your expertise," Ms. McCartney says. "We have some sharp local people who consult all over the country, and in some cases outside the country."

One attractive aspect of home-based consulting is the low overhead, according to Novak of the SBA.

"You rarely have to make a huge investment," he says. "Many times, all you need is a kitchen table and maybe a laptop computer."

Medical products -- Experts claim that every month, two new local businesses are born that cater to the health care industry. And 80 percent of the companies that produce health care products are considered small businesses, with fewer than 50 employees.

Bill Burns, president of the Western New York Health Care Industry Association, estimates that there are at least 150 medical product firms in Western New York, a substantial increase over the past five years. He expects the growth pattern to continue over the next decade.

Specialty boutiques -- In the words of Ms. McCartney, "retail never goes away." She says small shops that carefully carve out a niche can be successful, even at a time when national chains are altering the retail landscape. Matthew Brown, vice president of the Buffalo Enterprise Development Corp., says specialized retail might even benefit from the proliferation of chains, as a growing number of consumers root for the home-grown entities.

"A lot of people seem to be growing tired of the national chains," he says. "I think someone with a good business plan can succeed in retail, especially in the clothing and food business."

Restaurants -- Competition is fierce, but local business experts are convinced that small family-run restaurants can be successful if the owners pick the right location and focus on quality.

Trade distribution -- The Buffalo region is the fifth-busiest international trade corridor in the United States and with the Peace Bridge slated to undergo a massive renovation over the next five years, firms that work with importers and exporters could flourish.

Daniel S. Bicz, the outgoing president of the Buffalo Enterprise Development Corp., says many small firms are recognizing the business opportunities that exist in warehousing, distribution and other support services.

Senior services -- For the first time in our nation's history, there are more people over 65 than there are under 20. Local experts think the market is ripe for more businesses that offer adult day services to an aging population.

But experts stress one point: succeeding in any arena requires a sound business plan and, in most cases, plenty of sweat equity.

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