Anyone who's ever attended a business conference knows that the coffee breaks can be as interesting as the workshops. Such was the case recently at Inc.'s Third Conference on Growing the Company, in Orlando, where I had the chance to catch up with Thomas S. Shattan, a managing director of Kidder, Peabody & Co. and head of its Private Equity Financing Group, as well as an architect of one of the more intriguing strategic alliances we've seen in some time.

The alliance brought together the United Parcel Service of America and Mail Boxes Etc., a seven-year-old company that has prospered by offering customers 24-hour-a-day mailboxes, access to fax machines and copiers, and handling of packages shipped via UPS. Under terms of the agreement, UPS acquired 9.5% of the smaller company's stock, with warrants that could bring its total holdings up to 17.4% over the next three years. Mail Boxes Etc. got an immediate infusion of $11.3 million, with the prospect of more to follow.

Like any good alliance, this one offers benefits to both parties. Mail Boxes winds up with much-needed capital at an attractive price. By bringing in an investor with deep pockets, moreover, it strengthens its position with prospective franchisees. That's significant when you consider that last year franchise fees accounted for some 27% of the company's $25.7 million in revenues. Perhaps most important, the deal allowed Mail Boxes CEO Anthony DeSio to turn a potential competitor into a strong partner with one stroke of a pen. UPS transactions accounted for 35% to 40% of Mail Boxes Etc.'s revenues in 1990. If UPS had decided to open local outlets ( la Federal Express), Mail Boxes could have been devastated.

As for UPS, it gets a minority stake in a growing, nationwide channel of distribution -- the 1,300 Mail Boxes stores. The deal offers UPS a less obvious benefit as well: increased operational efficiency. When there's no one around to receive a package, the UPS driver will now be able to drop it at the local Mail Boxes Etc., leaving a note for the package recipient. That could eliminate a lot of unsuccessful delivery trips. And UPS acquires that capability instantly, without having to invest many years and tens of millions of dollars in creating a retail system of its own.

What's most interesting about this deal, however, is its implications for other growing companies. Until recently, almost all of the strategic alliances we've seen have occurred in technology-intensive industries -- for obvious reasons. Small technology companies need capital and distribution channels; big technology companies need new products and a window on the future. The upshot is a proliferation of partnerships, despite the fear (often justified) that the big company will use the deal to strip the smaller company of its proprietary technology.

But Mail Boxes Etc.'s "technology" is the know-how to create and deliver value-added service. That kind of technology is hard to steal. The deal with UPS suggests, moreover, that strategic alliances may have broader applicability than has been generally realized. These days large companies are under great pressure to be on the cutting edge in service and distribution as well as in products. Meanwhile, growth companies are facing an alarming scarcity of capital. Is it possible that the Fortune 500 will increasingly become direct providers of capital to the fastest-growing companies? Shattan thinks so. "I know I'm not alone," he says, "when I say that -- if debt ruled the roost in the 1980s -- the '90s may well become the decade of the strategic alliance."

Speaking of alliances, remember the one we mentioned here last month, between Harvey Mackay and Rolodex Corp.? Well, no sooner did our issue hit the newsstands than Insilco Corp., Rolodex's parent company, filed for Chapter 11. As far as we know, Harvey himself is doing fine and networking up a storm.