James Peters usually gives unexpected visitors less than five minutes of his time, but he broke that rule for a group from Signode Industries Inc. last year. "We really got freewheeling," recalls Peters, then-editor of a packaging-industry trade magazine. "I had the impression they were on a fishing expedition, dropping a hook in the water to see what comes out."

This was the big one that didn't get away.The casual contact with Peters was part of Signode's very formal approach to finding new business opportunities. It was a productive session: Over the next year, Signode will spend about $10 million on a new venture to make plastic trays. The idea grew out of talks with Peters and others.

Signode uses such meetings to achieve the same kind of close relationship that entrepreneurs have with their own markets, which enables them to perceive and then pursue new niches quickly. The venture teams aim to cut through the layers of bureaucracy that grow as a company matures, insulating it from its customers. For Signode, a 72-year-old company that had sales of about $750 million last year, the venture teams could help put some spring back in its step.

Signode's business is stable but not very glamorous. It makes strapping systems for shipping and materials handling. Because a leveraged buyout has burdened it with heavy debt, expensive routes to growth are impractical. It can't gobble up many other companies or invest heavily in research, as other large concerns do.

Instead, it is spending more than $3 million to send teams out to identify new opportunities. Each group has five to seven of Signode's best managers, handpicked after a three-month screening period. Taken from their jobs, they are given about $500,000 and at least six months to talk to customers and market gurus, who can help them spot new opportunities that are consistent with Signode's strengths. The company evidently thinks that employees are more productive on venture teams than consultants, who often don't know much about the business. "Talented and experienced people can act as good antennas," says Jack Campbell, director of corporate development.

Each of the groups presents its findings to top management at the end of its term. The executives evaluate every proposal, and usually return a verdict in less than three weeks. If they approve a new venture, they choose a leader from among the team members.

The program has yielded two new businesses: plastic trays and hightechnology plastics. If upcoming teams -- 12 in total are planned -- also produce acceptable ideas, Signode's biggest challenge could be finding people to implement them. It usually has to coax managers into giving up generous bonus plans to take over a new business, in which more of their compensation is tied to performance. "We are a big company, and we have big-company people here," admits Robert Schaffhauser, executive vice-president. "If they wanted to grow mushrooms in a garage, these people wouldn't be here."