From the August 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Then customers pull up to Marshall Hoffman's drive-thru window, they can't order a burger, a cup of coffee or even pharmaceuticals. What do they request? Steel. In December 1994, Hoffman moved his Houston-based business, Steel Supply Inc., into a 9,000-square-foot vacant bank building.

"We realized we could utilize the building for our business almost exactly as it was," says the 42-year-old entrepreneur.

The building seemed the perfect solution to Hoffman, who was seeking a larger facility and a way to improve customer service. The lobby is now his business's showroom, and the sales staff occupies the building's office space.

But it's the drive-thru window that really attracts attention around town. After placing orders ahead of time by phone, customers simply pull up and and pay through a drawer. Then they're handed a ticket, and the order is sent via computer to a warehouse Hoffman erected on the property. By the time the customer pulls around to the warehouse, says Hoffman, the order is waiting.

More proof the setup isn't just some attention-grabbing gimmick: While sales in the former facility were approximately $3.5 million, Steel Supply's 1995 annual sales pulled in a sturdy $6 million. -Heather Page

Country Roads

Small towns draw big-city refugees.

The grass looks greener in rural America, literally as well as figuratively, which is why more city slickers are swapping their metropolitan lifestyles for farm livin'. The growth rate in rural population in the 1990s is more than three times higher than it was in the 1980s, according to a study
of Census Bureau population estimates by Calvin Beale, senior demographer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Kenneth M. Johnson, a demographer with Loyola University of Chicago.

The study found populations in towns have been on a rebound since 1990, with about 1.5 million more people saying howdy to nonmetropolitan counties than those bailing out.

Beale points to signs of the times: Corporate downsizing in the '90s is spurring more corporate refugees to flee the oppression of big-city crime, pollution and traffic. And they're bringing their trusty technology with them. Online services, faxes and the like "make certain types of business possible in rural settings that wouldn't have been practical 15 years ago," says Beale. With residential preference surveys showing there are still fewer people living in rural areas than those who want to, Beale believes technology may provide the final push for those "who lived in the urban environment only out of economic necessity."

-J.C.

Contact Sources

American Bankers Association, 1120 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20036, (202) 663-5107;

American Booksellers Association, 828 S. Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591, (800) 637-0037, ext. 219;

Brea Redevelopment Agency, 1 Civic Center Cir., Brea, CA 92621, (714) 671-4421;

Brundige Glass Inc., P.O. Box 9415, Brea, CA 92622, (800) 544-5277, (714) 529-2141;

California Democratic Leadership Council, 830 Orange Ave., Ste. C, Coronado, CA 92118, (619) 522-0195;

Electronic Design & Manufacturing, 31 Millrace Dr., Lynchburg, VA 24502, (804) 385-0046;

Greener Pastures Institute, (800) 688-6352, http://www.mythbreakers/gpi;

Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, 409 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay, WI 53217, (414) 963-3100;

Steel Supply Inc., 10600 Telephone Rd., Houston, TX 77075, (713) 991-7600;

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 1301 New York Ave. N.W., #340, Washington, DC 20005, (202) 219-0482;

Virginia's Region 2000, (800) 628-3413, http://www.region2000.org.