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THE YEAR'S WINNERS AND LOSERS

It's been another year on the roller-coaster for Buffalo-area businesses.

In fact, Buffalo still can't seem to get ahead, even in what soon will be the nation's longest economic expansion ever. For every step forward that the area takes, there inevitably seems to be a setback that puts the region back to Square One.

So while the region's unemployment rate, which stood at 4.7 percent in November, is low by historic standards, the area still isn't adding the jobs it needs to stem the exodus that keeps cutting into its population.

In fact, while the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area has been adding 2 jobs, the state has been creating 20 and the country as a whole has been adding 21. In other words, Buffalo's moving forward, but the rest of the country is pulling way ahead in the race for jobs.

So as the century draws to a close, let's take a look at some of the biggest winners and losers that emerged from Buffalo's business community in 1999.

The winners

Bill Smith and Caroline Powley -- Every small business owner dreams of hitting the jackpot like Smith and Powley. Eight years ago, the couple paid $3,000 to get a license for a new television station in the Buffalo area. They invested $2 million in their project and got WNGS-TV on the air in 1996 as the local UPN network affiliate.

Then lightning struck. Thanks to new federal rules that allow a media company to own two stations in the same market, Channel 67 suddenly became a hot property. So hot that Channel 7's owner, Granite Broadcasting Corp., was willing to pay $23 million for the station, or more than 11 times what Smith and Powley had invested in it.

Now that's a payoff.

John Sciuto -- When Sciuto took over as chief executive of Comptek Research Inc. in 1996, the West Seneca defense electronics firm was in disarray, thanks to an ill-fated foray into the wireless data transmission business.

Sciuto refocused the company on its core defense business and added to its niche with a string of acquisitions. Since then, Comptek's profits have grown by an average of 25 percent a year and its sales have nearly tripled. The company recently caught the eye of Forbes magazine and its stock is up 43 percent this year. And now, the speculation is that Comptek could be a nice takeover target for a bigger defense company.

Utility customers -- Let the competition begin! After years of talk and disappointment, Western New Yorkers finally are getting a choice for their natural gas, electricity and local telephone services. The savings, so far, aren't huge, but it's a start. And if more players move into the market, the deals might get even better.

Call centers -- It's Buffalo's only really hot industry. Buffalo call centers Telespectrum Worldwide and ClientLogic are looking to add a total of 1,000 local jobs, which is a mammoth hiring binge in an otherwise stagnant job market. While costs here aren't cheap, Buffalo still has a recipe that call center firms like: Plenty of workers, affordable wages and low employee turnover rates.

HSBC Bank USA -- It looks like Buffalo's flagship bank is dodging the bullet. After months of rumors that the merger with Republic Bank would gut HSBC's U.S. headquarters in Buffalo, it turned out that the deal will solidify the local office and probably even add jobs here. That's great news in a community with far too few headquarters and way too many branch offices.

The news even takes some of the sting out of the Marine Midland Arena naming fiasco, which kept the HSBC moniker off the arena during the event that the bank's marketers could only dream of when they paid $8.5 million for the arena's naming rights.

The losers

Victor A. Rice -- How'd you like to lose two jobs in a single year and still walk away with $27 million in your pocket? That's what happened to the former LucasVarity Plc chief executive, who had a promised job as TRW's No. 2 executive pulled out from under him after agreeing to merge LucasVarity with the Cleveland-based company. Then Rice took charge of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise initiative to turn the Buffalo economy around. But within months, Rice's hard-driving -- some say arrogant -- personality contributed to his ouster.

But don't cry too much for poor Victor. His $27 million golden parachute from LucasVarity can take the sting out of a lot of his woes.

Tim Tevens -- The chief executive of Columbus McKinnon Corp. looked like a winner this summer after he beat back a challenge from dissident shareholders who wanted to sell the company to drive its stock higher. "Just give me time," Tevens pleaded with shareholders, arguing that his plans for the company would pay off in the long run.

He didn't deliver. Columbus McKinnon missed its earnings targets by a mile in its first quarter after beating back the dissident challenge. The stock fell to an all-time low and company officials admitted their purchase of a business that helps design auto assembly plant was a mistake that needs to be sold. Now the heat's really on.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield -- Talk about bitter medicine. The health insurance company's decision to restrict its subscribers to a handful of drug store chains, led by Rite Aid, infuriated thousands of its customers. It also forces subscribers in rural towns not served by an approved pharmacy to drive farther to get the medicine they need. And with Rite Aid staggering under serious financial and management problems, you can't help but wonder if Blue Cross hitched its wagon to a falling star.

Richard and Joyce Taylor -- You can't help but respect the Taylors for trying. But it wasn't much of a surprise that their ballyhooed high-fashion women's clothing store went belly up after just eight months.

After all, the Taylors were swimming against some pretty swift currents from the start. Buffalo isn't all that upscale. We're not keen on dress codes, either. And downtown is a tough spot to open a store.

Computer Task Group -- The Buffalo information technology company got bitten by the Y2K bug. While CTG executives tried to keep its work on the Year 2000 computer problem to about 15 percent of its sales, knowing that the jobs would dry up with the dawn of the new Millennium, they didn't expect their clients to keep their purses zipped for other technology projects. But that's what they're doing, and CTG is paying the price with falling profits and sluggish revenue growth. Investors aren't happy either. CTG's stock is down 50 percent for the year.

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