How small businesses can win in the tight economy

Are times tough? Yes. But times are always tough in the small business market.

Those of you running hedge funds and getting bonus checks north of US$20 million should be nervous about your jobs if you still have them. Those of us in the small business world never had the burden of huge bonuses so we're not panicking as much. On the smaller end of the business scale, money can still be borrowed, and bargains on business essentials can be found everywhere.

Realistically, some of those bargains are from other small businesses cutting deals to keep customers and find new business, just like you're doing. It's not peaches and cream out here right now, but it's not all moldy fruit and curdled milk, either.

Am I crazy? Maybe, but new single family home sales actually rose 2.7% in September (according to an Oct. 27 story by Associated Press published by The Motley Fool). My bank vice-president friend is still making loans, a leasing company executive I know is making deals, and a specialty server manufacturer I've told you about before just got a new $100,000 credit line. All may not be well, but it's not time to pick out your coffin.

For instance, gas is about half the price it was earlier this year. When you breathe a sigh of relief at the pump, all the collected sighs around the country mean about $200 billion more in our pockets this next year.

If you need a new company truck to put gas into, dealers are rolling out the red carpet. The Chairman and CEO of AutoNation, Mike Jackson, tried to blame his company's recent poor performance on the lack of credit for car buyers. Dallas area automotive expert Ed Wallace pointed out in one of his outstanding BusinessWeek.com articles -- "There Is No Auto Credit Crisis" -- that while an AutoNation Ford dealer sold only 60 Fords in September, a Chevrolet dealer a mile up the road sold 439 vehicles. Sounds like one dealership still has happy customers, and the other is not doing the work required to succeed when times get tough.

My bank vice-president friend is not one of those buying funny mortgage security notes, but the kind who goes to see customers and helps them grow. She finances churches, jewelry stores, helicopter services and other small, growing businesses. Her bank still makes loans, and she still looks for customers who need a banking partner. If you're in the Dallas area, let me know and I'll connect you.

Regional and local banks who stayed out of the mortgage meltdown by avoiding rolling the dice on crazy credit default swaps still have money and still need customers. If your small business is on Wall Street, you have problems. If your small business is on Main Street, you have options.

A company that makes specialized servers, the one that just got the $100,000 credit line, had to pay slightly higher rates than it would have last year. But remember that the plan for the last few years has been for the Treasury to cut rates at every trigger event, like when the tides come in. Rates have been lower than usual, so now we're back to normal. It's the normal from four years ago, not the normal of last year, but it's not terrible.

Talk to your local banks and see what they have to say. The ones I talked to in Dallas are still open, working to keep money in the community, and ready to make deals. You may have to pay slightly more than last year, but loans still happen every day.

Leasing companies don't get their funds from Wall Street, so they have money and are looking for deals. Need to lease new computer systems? New dirt moving equipment? Call your leasing company.

I ran into a leasing company representative at the airport the other day who arranges financing for a hardware vendor I know. I was going to Kansas City to speak at the ITEC show and he was going to Omaha to work on a big deal. If you're in Omaha, at least one company has a new lease approved for a big new project.

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James E. Gaskin

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