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Companies doing business with very small firms may soon get more credit information about the firms' owners. Dun & Bradstreet has formed a joint venture with a big consumer credit bureau, Equifax. The idea? To sell D&B customers access to credit data on 150 million consumers when they need to check on the principals of a sole proprietorship or general partnership too small to have its own commercial listing. "With the number of small companies increasing . . . [so is] the need for more information on them," says Equifax's Michael Cahoon. D&B began testing in August and plans a national rollout early next year.

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During the first half of 1989, Japanese corporations invested a record $214 million in minority stakes in small U.S. technology companies, according to Venture Economics. That's about two and a half times what they invested in the comparable '88 period, and means that Japanese corporate investment has grown to about one-tenth the size of the U.S. venture capital industry. The increase partly reflects a new preference for strategic alliances over takeovers, says George Koo of International Strategic Alliances Inc.: the Japanese have learned that "the culture clash [in takeovers] is quite severe."

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Get ready for more regulatory confusion when the disabled-rights bill becomes law, probably this year. The Senate version requires companies to accommodate the disabled by making "readily achievable" changes in public spaces but doesn't clearly define the phrase or name the disabilities covered. The ambiguity means trouble, says Wendy Lechner of the National Federation of Independent Business. "If you loved fighting Section 89, you'll love fighting this bill -- because it's worse." The law would also forbid companies with 15 or more workers to discriminate against qualified disabled job applicants.

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An Atlanta business incubator is trying an innovative approach to helping its tenants get financing. The Advanced Technology Development Center has persuaded six large corporations to put up a total of $100,000 in return for special updates on the tenant companies, in case the big corporations want to become strategic partners. Now, the incubator hopes to use the money as additional collateral that will get banks to make first loans to tenant companies or offer better rates. The tough part? Getting the banks to cooperate, says ATDC's Don Plummer. Three loans are currently in negotiation.

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What do all the mergers among the Big Eight accounting firms mean for smaller companies? Surprisingly, more competition for their accounting business, according to some industry observers. Here's the argument: the "second-tier" accounting firms can't compete well with the new megafirms for larger clients, so they'll aggressively pursue small and midsize companies, which may feel the merged firms are just too big for them. Meanwhile, says Accounting Today editor Robert Crane, partners at the newly merged firms will need to retain all the clients they can, so their jobs aren't among those cut.

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A few small companies are experimenting with selling through "electronic shopping malls." Some 1.5 million people now subscribe to on-line information and shopping services known as videotex, and the field is growing. Regional phone companies are testing videotex services in local markets. Meanwhile, start-up Prodigy Services -- an IBM-Sears joint venture -- is expanding to 20 cities. Though targeted to big advertisers, Prodigy has ended up with a substantial minority of small firms among its 200 advertisers.

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf




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