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    Local companies cruise despite slow economy

    Stagnation is a word tossed around when talking about the nation. But Pinellas businesses are fine, officials say.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 8, 2001


    George Ruiz recently moved his landscaping business from Palm Harbor to Dunedin and expanded his reach into installing waterfalls and ponds.

    In neighboring Clearwater, NexTrade is looking for new employees to fill jobs paying $35,000 to $100,000 a year.

    And Ocean Optics of Dunedin is scouting for a new place to expand production.

    Business is good in Pinellas County, experts say. And moves like these are keeping the area out of an economic slump.

    The cushion: a diverse employment base. In other words, the county hasn't invested all of its hope into one industry. Pinellas has a little bit of everything from manufacturing to a solid foundation of service-oriented businesses.

    "Services are not as hard-hit as equipment," said Ken Wieand, the director for the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You still buy groceries, but you may put off buying a new refrigerator."

    Perhaps nobody knows better that Ruiz. He opened Nice, Green and Beautiful Landscaping 11 years ago and recently opened Nice, Cool and Beautiful Ponds.

    His business has done well since he moved on Jan. 15 to Alt. U.S. 19 and Michigan Boulevard. Few people have canceled their landscaping service, and customers still are buying improvements for their lawns. Instead of seeing a decline, he has seen his profit rise 15 percent.

    "The confidence of the people is what's basically important," he said. "They feel all right."

    Still, Ruiz kept one eye on his business and the other on the economy as he opened the second venture of his already thriving landscaping business. He decided to take the risk because of falling interest rates.

    "We're very glad we opened the division," he said.

    Other business owners share that optimism.

    Of 350 businesses surveyed by their local chambers of commerce, 58 percent rated the business climate as good or excellent during the first two quarters of the year, according to preliminary figures analyzed by Pinellas County Economic Development researchers.

    Forty-four percent reported they found it somewhat difficult or very difficult to find workers.

    Twenty-six percent say they will expand in the next year, while 23 percent said they were likely to hire significant numbers of workers.

    The figures in each category have decreased slightly from last year's figures, said Laura Berkowitz, a senior research manager for economic development in Pinellas. But the decreases aren't sharp because the area has a diverse employment base, Berkowitz said.

    What business experts are finding is that job growth is keeping pace with gains seen last year. The unemployment rate inched up to 3.1 percent in Pinellas in May, up from 2.5 percent last May. But companies have created a steady stream of jobs since 1993.

    "That's saving us," Berkowitz said.

    Consumer confidence isn't the only thing boosting companies' coffers. Sometimes customers' desire to save money will bring them to long-established businesses.

    That's the case for Ocean Optics. The company makes, among other things, a device called a fiber optic spectrometer. Some companies charge as much as $100,000 for the device. Ocean Optics charges about $2,000.

    As a result, sales are up 30 percent this year compared with the same time last year.

    "The last time we had an economic downturn, our sales shot up," said Mike Morris, president of the company. "This time around, it's also happening."

    Ocean Optics is looking for a building in North Pinellas for its thin film division, which makes devices used in stage lighting and telecommunications equipment. Once open, the new and expanded division could pump as many as 100 jobs into the market, Morris said.

    One of the reasons the company is doing well is because it sells its products to all kinds of industries instead of just a few.

    But the slowing economy hasn't completely left the business unscathed.

    "It affects our ability to raise equity," Morris said. "We've got the customers, we've got the products, we just don't have the capital to take advantage of it."

    Keeping costs low, however, is a sure-fire way to post gains in a lagging economy.

    NexTrade, an electronic marketplace, is steadily growing and hasn't felt the tugs of the slowdown because it has kept costs in check.

    The company, which works primarily with brokerage firms, spent most of last year focusing its energy on becoming a fully electronic company. Now it is reaping the rewards. During the first quarter of the year, the company traded 75-million shares. During the second quarter, that number jumped to 234-million.

    "Business is growing, no question about it," said Mark Yegge, chairman and chief executive officer. "Right now, we don't have enough resources to handle all of the business we could handle."

    NexTrade is looking for people to fill information technology and operations positions that pay $35,000 to $100,000 annually. Though the company only needs five new people, that represents about an 11 percent increase for the staff of 45.

    The future also looks promising. NexTrade has submitted applications to become a stock exchange and a futures exchange. If approved, NexTrade would compete with the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ and futures markets. It also could create as many as 50 jobs in Clearwater.

    "It would basically mean duplicating our entire organization," Yegge said.

    What has worked to the company's advantage is its location and a competitive fee for its services, Yegge said.

    Most of its competitors are on Wall Street, where salaries have a high ceiling. Being in Clearwater allows NexTrade to hire workers for lower pay.

    On the flip side, the company is so far away from the action, it doesn't receive many calls from financial and business reporters who can give the company priceless exposure.

    "We're still called the little guys in Clearwater," Yegge said.

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