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SPRINT OFFERS FREE CALLS IN BID TO LURE CUSTOMERS

Sprint Corp. said today it's offering a free hour of calling on Sunday nights for six months, in a bid to draw new customers after Bell Atlantic Corp. received approval to sell long-distance service in New York.

Sprint said consumers who sign up for its Nickel Nights plan, which offers five-cent-a-minute calling from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and calls for 10 cents a minute at other times, will get the free hour. The new offer will be promoted with ads starring actress Sela Ward, which begin airing today.

Phone companies are racing to become one-stop shops, promoting bundles of local, long-distance and wireless services and extras such as paging and Internet access. The more services a customer buys, the more profitable it is for a company and it's less likely such customers will switch to a competitor.

Sprint, which has agreed to be acquired by rival MCI WorldCom Inc., in 1995 introduced the dime-a-minute rate that became the discount standard. The company began selling local phone service in New York in November, in anticipation of Bell Atlantic's entry into long distance. MCI WorldCom and AT&T Corp. also sell local service in New York.

Bell Atlantic, as one of the phone companies produced in the 1984 breakup of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. monopoly, was barred from selling long-distance until it proved its local markets were competitive. The company intends to pursue long-distance approval in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Spartech to buy Uniroyal division

CLAYTON, Miss. (Bloomberg) -- Spartech Corp., a maker of plastics for packaging, toys and signs, said it agreed to buy the plastics-making unit of Uniroyal Technology Corp., a maker of electronics and chemicals, for about $217.5 million.

Spartech didn't say how it would pay for Uniroyal's High Performance Plastics Inc. The unit had $130 million in sales in the fiscal year ended Sept. 26.

Spartech said the acquisition will add nine North American plants, boosting production, and give Spartech a wider customer base. It said more than 75 percent of High Performance's sales are from products that Spartech doesn't make. High Performance makes plastics for bulletproof vests, aircraft windshields and canoes.

Ford may build new van in Chicago

CHICAGO (Bloomberg) -- Ford Motor Co. may build a new type of minivan for Mercury and Volvo in its Chicago assembly plant in about three years, part of a plan that could create thousands of area jobs, people familiar with the plan said.

The jobs would come from a business park for suppliers that the world's second-largest automaker wants to build in a vacant field next to its 2,500-worker plant in southeastern Chicago, the people said. Ford now builds Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans at the factory, as well as in Atlanta.

Ford would consolidate Taurus production in Atlanta, and the Chicago plant would build Mercury and Volvo "tall wagons" -- a cross between minivans and station wagons that would have higher profit margins.

Frankel aide pleads guilty

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- A woman who worked as an office manager for indicted financier Martin Frankel has pleaded guilty to concealing money laundering activities.

Karen Timmins, 34, faces up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Prosecutors said Ms. Timmins knew that money being sent from Switzerland to pay Frankel's expenses had been stolen from insurance companies and then converted to travelers checks. Prosecutors said Ms. Timmins failed to report the activity to law enforcement authorities.

Frankel, a money manager from Greenwich, is accused of bilking more than $200 million from insurance companies in five states.

This week in business . . .

These are the major business and economic events scheduled for this week.

Tuesday -- The Conference Board releases the consumer confidence index. National Association of Realtors reports existing home sales for November.

Wednesday -- The Conference Board releases Leading Economic Indicators for November.

Thursday -- Some commodity trading ends early. Labor Department reports weekly jobless claims.

Friday -- New Year's Eve, most financial markets close early. Stock markets close at 1 p.m.