* Companies with 100 or fewer employees may now pay 60% to 75% more per person for health insurance than large self-insured corporations with similar claims and benefits. That's the conclusion of a recent analysis of insurance industry data by benefits consultant Noble Lowndes. Because of economies of scale some difference has always been present, says NobleLowndes's David Brenneman, but it practically doubled in the 1980s. One factor: costly medical technology has increased the frequency of very expensive claims, so insurers fear one claim could wipe out all profits from a small group.
* Ontario may be the best place for a small start-up to get a loan these days. In an unusually aggressive program, the provincial government there guarantees 100% of unsecured start-up loans up to $15,000, as long as the entrepreneur matches the loan with cash equity and gets the business plan approved by a bank. (The bank is liable only if more than 50% of its start-ups default). With five-year loans, the three-and-a-half-year-old program does not yet have much of a track record, but it has already guaranteed about 14,000 loans. Manitoba is now launching a similar plan.
* Look for increasing use of credit cards in ever smaller business transactions. After promising tests in fast-food restaurants, the big credit-card companies are hoping to target not only fast food, but other small-purchase businesses like convenience stores, parking lots, and movie theaters. One reason: advances in technology enable credit cards to be checked against frequently updated databases of problem cards within a few seconds, without a need for a signature.
* How tough is it to sell franchises today? A few companies go so far as to guarantee minimum sales levels for new franchisees. Brian Peskin of Ultra Wash Inc., a Houston-based truck-washing company, raised his franchise fee by $17,500 to pay for the marketing support his guarantee requires. Still, he says, sales of franchises increased 75% after the guarantee took effect in 1988. His explanation? The former corporate managers his company targets "don't want risk."
* A California consulting firm hopes to cash in on Japan's increasing technological leadership with its new "Japan due diligence" service. The idea: for $2,000, potential company investors can have Meitec America, a Santa Clara subsidiary of a Japanese company, search its databases of Japanese-language business and technical publications and provide English translations. The pitch? Before you invest here, check on market potential and competitive technologies there. Notes Meitec America president George Leslie: "In the 1990s, somebody is foolish to make an investment in the United States without looking over his shoulder at what's happening in Japan."
-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf
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