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Small business is bullish on the economy, at least according to a new survey released by one of the nation's largest business advocacy groups.

The National Federal of Independent Business polled members in all parts of the country and found that 20 percent plan to add workers in the first half of 1999.

While wages continue to increase (25 percent of those surveyed said they increased worker compensation in the fourth quarter of 1998), there is still no sign of inflation. In fact, nearly one out of five small businesses reported that they actually cut prices in December.

While Western New York's economy has typically lagged behind national trends, there are indications that many small businesses in the area are booming. The Alternative Board, a business consulting firm, surveyed local members and found that two out of three companies plan to hire workers in the coming year.

It's no wonder the regional head of the U.S. Small Business Administration is talking proud. Franklin J. Sciortino believes that businesses with fewer than 100 employees have been a major catalyst for economic growth.

"Small business is the locomotive that's driving the train in Western New York," Sciortino said. "And as we move into a new year, I see an even bigger train coming down the track."

Joseph and Christine Noonan of Hamburg have hopped aboard the small business locomotive -- or shall we say moving van. Two years ago, the husband-and-wife duo started a business that offers packing and moving services to budget-conscious people who need help after they rent do-it-yourself moving vans.

Noonan was no neophyte in the arena. He spent 18 years working for national movers and was typically gone for two weeks at a time. The couple has two children, ages 4 and 6, and Noonan was determined to make a career change that allowed him to spend more time at home.

His wife said they hit upon an intriguing idea in early 1997. When people move, they generally face two options: Hire a full-service mover or rent a truck and beg friends and relatives for help.

"You had services at both ends of the spectrum, but nothing in between. That's where we fit in," said Ms. Noonan.

B.I.G. Helpers Packing and Loading Service has been steadily building its customer base. Sales were up 50 percent in 1998. In less than two years, the company has done 500 moves involving 9 million pounds of cargo.

Some clients just want help with large pieces of furniture. Others hire B.I.G. Helpers to pack and load every item and even rearrange the furniture once it reaches its destination. The company sells all the necessary packing supplies and equipment and even offers setup service for garage sales and estate sales.

"We provide everything except for the moving van. We don't own or operate any trucks," said Noonan.

Like many entrepreneurs, the Noonans launched their venture without putting together a formal business plan.

"I knew the moving industry, while Christine had a background in business. And we knew that the need was out there," Noonan said.

The company works closely with a number of truck rental businesses, a major source of client referrals. Ms. Noonan emphasized the importance of focusing marketing activities on a specific target audience, noting that small businesses don't have the money to launch regional advertising blitzes.

The Noonans offer a few other tips to aspiring entrepreneurs, based on their successful start-up venture:

Make sure you know a lot about the business before you hang out the shingle. Having several years of experience -- even as an employee for someone else -- can help small business owners to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Don't grow too quickly. Noonan said overextending yourself is the easiest way to lose customers and create unfavorable word-of-mouth. The owners of B.I.G. Helpers said they are in a controlled-growth mode, with two full-time employees in the winter and up to 10 employees during the busy summer months.

Try to keep debts down.

"Our business is totally paid for. We wanted to make sure that if the business was shut down tomorrow, we would be debt-free," said Ms. Noonan.

The Noonans have not needed to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration. But Sciortino said many enterprises require start-up capital or need loans to move them to the next level. He said the SBA has taken steps in recent years to streamline lending programs in an effort to make them more accessible.

The SBA also launched a program last year to increase the number of loan guarantees to African-American businesses.

According to a national survey of the owners of small and medium-size businesses, the No. 1 problem facing their companies in first quarter of 1999 is a shortage of qualified employees. The study was conducted by the Alternative Board, or TAB, a national organization that offers consulting services.

Miles Rothman, a Clarence business consultant who owns a TAB franchise, said a shortage of qualified workers continues to spark concern.

"The economy is stable and credit remains available to us, but we'll need a qualified pool of workers to continue our growth," said Rothman. "Local college students think there are no jobs in Buffalo."

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