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State legislatures have been called many things-small-business friendly is usually not one of them. Yet a recent study by Expansion Management Magazine shows that our legislators may be putting last election's issues of welfare, education and crime behind them as they focus on tackling business matters such as workers' compensation, tort reform, industry regulation and wages.
"The  election had a lot to do with social issues," says Jack Wimer, Expansion Management's editor. "And when legislatures change parties, as many of them did, it's natural for social issues to come up early in the session. With many of those issues now addressed, the way is clear for more business-friendly issues."
While traditional areas of business legislation continue to dominate, more states are also exploring innovative ways to create a favorable business environment. "As states become more competitive with each other, they're trying to bring more attention to themselves as a great place to do business," says Wimer. "If they can't afford to lower their taxes, they'll try to figure out another incentive. The trend is definitely toward creating new and innovative ways of attracting [small businesses]. Everybody's got a program, whether it's training here, lower taxes there, or cash grants and lower utility costs in other places."
In its survey of states' "legislative quotients," Expansion Management found Texas hogged the top spot for the second straight year. Thanks to its combination of zero corporate and personal taxes, an effective ratio of bills enacted and reasonable legislative expenditures, "on a sheer dollar-for-dollar basis, Texas is a place where you can actually take home more of the money you make," says Wimer.
Overall, Wimer foresees a trend developing not only in legislative priorities but in the legislators themselves. "[State governments] today are much less dominated by attorneys," he says. "More businesspeople and educators-people who want to create jobs-are getting into legislatures. In the 1997 sessions, we should see a lot more business-related legislation."
Less Is More
Entrepreneurs answer the need for community banks.
After the bank where he worked was bought out in a merger, banking executive Michael Kowalski decided to resign. He toyed with the idea of doing securities sales, financial planning or opening a CPA practice, but in the end, he decided to go where the money was. "I realized banking was in my blood," says Kowalski. So in April, he opened his own bank-TownBank, National Association, in Mesquite, Texas.
Kowalski is just one of a slew of displaced or disgruntled bankers who are opening small community banks that specialize in customer service and appeal to entrepreneurs, says Virginia Stafford of the American Bankers Association. "These are bankers who have been in business for years, and a lot of them take their customer relationships and their colleagues with them to start these banks," she explains. "They've got experience and know what they want to achieve."
Both Kowalski and Stafford believe the emergence of community banks has larger implications for the banking industry. Because the majority of the 10,000-some banks in existence are small, the competition is fierce. And when mergers take place, Stafford notes, the resulting flux causes local banks to go after the disenchanted customers left in the merger's wake.
To Kowalski, what's happening in the banking industry reflects the big picture of business. "Any time you have consolidation, you have rebirth at the same time," he says. "As [an industry] consolidates, it creates opportunities for other individuals-and I think that's part of the normal cycle of business."
Helping Kowalski see the opportunity open to him were the shareholders and customers of his former employer, who urged him to start his own bank. The buyout was tough on the small-business owners who banked there, says Kowalski. "They had to deal with more impersonal bankers and more regimented procedures. I came to see that there was a need for a small independent bank that caters to small businesses," he explains. "A lot of the big banks just treat you like a number."-Lynn Beresford
Do you lose business once you open your mouth?
Excluding certain instances (like singing in the shower), for many people, the sound of their own voice isn't exactly music to their ears. In a recent study by Bruskin Goldring Research in Edison, New Jersey, 15.6 percent of respondents said they'd prefer a friendlier voice, 14.2 say they'd like to sound more powerful, and 14.1 percent want their voices to sound more confident.
Yet while some of us merely dream of having the bold voice of James Earl Jones, as a small-business owner, you should actually take the sound of your voice very seriously, says Jeffrey Jacobi, author of The Vocal Advantage (Prentice Hall) and a member of the speech communication faculty at New York University. Why? Your voice, he says, has a huge effect on your business's bottom line.
"Having a bad voice or speech habits can cost you business," insists Jacobi. "You could be losing millions of dollars a year in lost sales and unmotivated employees."
In fact, your voice may be making all kinds of unwanted impressions without your knowing it, says Jacobi. Speaking too fast, for example, makes you appear untrustworthy. Weak voices command no respect. And if your voice is flat and monotonous, people are likely to ignore you or tune you out.
How do you know if your voice is failing you? According to Jacobi, some red flags are if your voice trails off at the end of sentences or quivers when you get nervous, or if people often interrupt you, talk over you or ask you to repeat yourself.
Fortunately, you can subtly change your voice through exercise and achieve dramatic results, says Jacobi. Use a tape recorder to record a few minutes of your speech, or ask friends or colleagues for their honest opinions. If you hear something you don't like, Jacobi advises consulting a voice trainer or a book on the subject for exercises that can help strengthen, modify or change the pitch of your voice. -Heather Page