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Vibes upbeat at Entrepalooza; Business networkers cite economic progress; Marketplace of ideas generates optimism on growth in a time of recovery

Optimism about the direction of the economy was flowing at Entrepalooza '12.

The Thursday gathering in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center was a chance for businesspeople to network, hear from experts about how to make their companies grow and chat with exhibitors.

A common view among people interviewed was that the economy seems to be improving. Many of them are directly involved in trying to drum up sales for their employers.

"From our standpoint, it's doing great," said J.P. Midgley, CEO of Avalon Document Services. "I don't know about anyone else, but we don't have any complaints."

Joseph J. Jacobi, a buyer for Riverside Men's Shop, said that during two weeks in April, the Amherst store had its best sales period since new ownership took over in 2007.

"It's pretty amazing," he said. "We're seeing customers coming back that we haven't seen in years. They're buying suits and slacks, and made it into some big sales."

Exhibiting at Entrepalooza also served as a reminder, Jacobi said. "When we moved out of the Riverside district of the city [in 2005], people thought we had [closed]. Now we're at the Northtown Plaza [in Amherst], and we're still around."

John F. Maher, vice president of sales and marketing for Precision Manufacturing Group, which makes metal parts, said economic conditions are "improving. We didn't see the downturn that everybody saw during the Great Recession."

"We did see a bit of a slowdown, but we see it very steadily coming back to where we were and then some," Maher said. "We're on a growth path, we've been on a growth path, and we continue on it."

Precision has about 60 employees between its two divisions and is looking to hire more people. "It's something we take very seriously, in terms of kind of supporting our growth plans, to make sure we find people who are a good fit with the team," Maher said.

Thomas P. Schuster's business, Schuster Construction in Depew, does a range of work on homes, including building small homes, often for people who are downsizing their living space. "We're pretty busy," he said. "We did seven or eight [new homes] last year, and we've got four or five sold for this year.

Natale Builders is also upbeat about the housing market, despite the industry's struggles on the national level.

"Buffalo is very much a market all unto itself," said Lisa M. Norman, vice president of sales and marketing. "And we're glad we never had the severe lows. We'd love the severe highs, though."

Natale is developing a "green"-themed neighborhood, Rivera Greens, in Clarence. New-home construction is a catalyst for other segments of the economy, Norman said.

"The housing market's really the one that's always been responsible for the economic recovery, so you want to encourage everyone to keep buying and selling," she said.

James Manno, vice president of sales and marketing at Sonwil Distribution Center, came to Entrepalooza to make a presentation but also to learn.

"I want to see what's changing in the area of people's approaches to doing business, to understand what's happening with their customers, with their distribution systems," Manno said. "I want to know if they're entering new markets or if they're just surviving."

Sonwil is laying groundwork for its own growth: Its owner has acquired three properties in the last several months.

"If you get it at the right time for the right price, it's a good deal," Manno said. "On top of that, customers we have worked with are asking us to do more."

This year's Entrepalooza combined what had been separate events and drew about 300 people. Organizers will review how things went this year and decide whether to stick with the new format, said Paul E. Buckley, chairman of the University at Buffalo Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Alumni Association.

"I'd like to think that eventually this becomes so large and so popular, that it becomes a can't-miss event," Buckley said, citing the Buffalo Home & Garden Show as an example. "Obviously, that's the ultimate goal. We're not there yet."

The event was hosted by the UB CEL Alumni Association, Buffalo Niagara Sales and Marketing Executives, and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.