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September 11: What Did It Mean to Your Business?

For one business, it meant an opportunity to combat terrorism. For another, it meant financial ruin. Where does your business stand?

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Two companies here in Louisville, Kentucky, were affected in opposite ways after the September 11 terrorist attacks. One company was prompted to develop a potentially lucrative mail-screening service for its security-minded corporate clients. The other, a mom-and-pop aerial advertising company, has been financially devastated by restrictions on low-flying aircraft imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration after terrorists hijacked three commercial jets and were allegedly looking to rent crop-dusters for future attacks.

"What a difference a day makes," said Janet Sacher, co-owner with her husband of Sellersburg, Indiana-based Sky Signs, which makes and flies banners over sporting events, shopping malls and festivals around Kentucky and Indiana. "We've lost our entire profit for the year and about 30 percent of our annual income," said Sacher, adding that the one-plane company was totally grounded for a month after the attacks. The company has suffered financially since the FAA has banned or restricted small planes from flying promotional banners over football games and public events.

At this point, the Sachers can fly at 3,000 feet, but that's too high for people on the ground to read a promotional message pulled behind the plane. In order to make this unique form of advertising work, Sacher said her husband needs to fly their small plane at an altitude of 1,000 feet.

While the September 11 attacks have devastated Sky Signs, Louisville-based Outsource Management Group (OMG), which provides off-site mailroom services to Fortune 1000 companies, was prompted to offer additional mail-screening services to its big corporate clients. OMG, which has 135 employees, is working with Lockheed Martin to develop a high-tech mail-screening service for hospitals, financial institutions, universities and government agencies.

The company's new "bio-mail" screening system has the potential to dramatically increase revenues, which were around $4.4 million this year. "We already manage mail for 20 customers," said Jeff Harper, director of sales. "We control the mail from the delivery from the post office until it's delivered back to the client."

Harper said when anthrax-tainted mail was discovered after the September 11 attacks, OMG's clients began asking for additional mail-screening services. They were willing to pay extra for the specialized screening after estimating how expensive it would be to shut down for even one day if a suspicious piece of mail was found on-site. "One hospital we work with estimated losses of $800,000 to $1 million a day if they had to shut down," said Harper, adding that a recent hoax shut down a branch of National City Bank for a day. There was no real threat to safety because "an employee sprinkled boxes with baby powder as a practical joke," said Harper.

The new mail-screening system being developed by Lockheed Martin will scan 40,000 pieces of mail an hour for anthrax, smallpox and other biohazards. The mail will travel on a fast-moving conveyor belt through screening machines that are designed to shut down if a hazard is detected. "A device shuts down the screening machine whether it detects a hoax or a real biohazard," said Harper. "The hazard is isolated to a 12-foot section of the line." If the mail is founded to be clean, it is put back into sorting trays and sent on to the client for distribution.

"Have we made a lot of money because of the terrorist attacks? No," said Harper. "But are there new business opportunities for the company? Absolutely."

Harper said OMG's clients look to his company for ways to save money and improve mail security. He said clients save 10 to 35 percent by outsourcing their mailroom operations. OMB employees usually work on-site, sorting and delivering mail and often running the company's printing and copying operations as well. "Screening mail is another way to make your work environment safe, just like using alarms and security guards," said Harper.

Meanwhile, Sacher is hopeful her plane will be able to take to the skies again soon. "Our congressman says that even he doesn't know [when the altitude restrictions will be lifted] and can't find out because the information is classified," said Sacher. "Our workplace has been taken away from us. We cannot rebuild another sky. It's not like our building got knocked down and we can build another building."

Back on Track America
Entrepreneur magazine is proud to be a sponsor of Jane Applegate's Back on Track America, a coalition of small-business experts--including our own Editorial Director Rieva Lesonsky--who are embarking on a rail journey across the United States to bring free guidance to the doorsteps of America's small businesses. The effort is dedicated to revitalizing those small businesses still reeling from the recession and the September 11 attacks. Visit www.backontrackamerica.com for more information and a schedule of upcoming events.

Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to info@sbtv.com.