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SMALL BUSINESS | SMALL TALK

With Loans, Their Dream Needn't Die on the Vine

September 24, 1997|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Q: Do you know of a loan or grant program that might assist us with the financing of a small vineyard in Mariposa County, where we own 21 acres? Perhaps there is something for women farmers or funding for agricultural endeavors spearheaded by minorities (my husband is Latino). We would appreciate any leads you might provide.

--Linda M. Poverny, Los Angeles

A: The Farmer's Home Administration, a government agency, sometimes makes loans for agricultural start-ups. Along with the Small Business Administration and conventional bank loans, they would be your best bet as far as investigating financing.

I counsel and advise existing growers and people interested in starting agricultural enterprises through the cooperative extension service at (209) 966-2417. Our office is at 5009 Fairgrounds, Mariposa. Currently, there are four wineries based in Mariposa County and they are always looking for additional locally grown grapes. Agricultural conditions here are well-suited for vineyards and olive trees.

However, I recommend that you take your time and do extensive homework before you start seeking financing for your project. Visit other vineyards and wineries, attend seminars and ask a lot of questions. Start-up costs run $10,000 an acre, and you must wait four years before your first crop goes to market. Your expenses are not tax-deductible until you actually start selling your grapes. For these reasons and others, most new vineyard owners start with a large amount of capital and private backers.

--Wain Johnson, farm advisor,

University of California

Cooperative Extension Service,

Mariposa

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Q: I am a 29-year-old trying to start a plumbing company. I have a truck, my own machines, business cards and four years' experience. So far, I have gotten most of my business through referrals. Can you give me some advice on getting started?

--Eric Lee Benefield, Westchester

A: The first thing you need to do is decide what makes you as a plumber different from everybody else. Are you a specialist in a particular kind of work? Are you available 24 hours a day? Are you wonderful working in condos? Figure out what your real strengths are based on where you see a market in your local area. If you see a lot of retired people living in condos in your community, specialize in that market.

Then talk to local homeowner associations or community groups. Put together a one-page booklet that includes tips on preventing plumbing problems and do-it-yourself fix-it suggestions. Include your name, address, phone number and slogan. Eventually, everyone needs a plumber. If they get something from you that's useful and shows you know what you are doing, they will call when they need help.

If you would not be violating a non-competition agreement with your former employer, send a mailing to people whose homes you have worked in before. Let them know you are now on your own and would welcome their business.

A good way to find new customers is to talk to local real estate agents and ask who is moving into the area. Maybe they will include your booklet in the packet of information that they give to new homeowners. Or think about working with other professionals to offer a discount or giveaway to new residents.

Once you have a customer, especially if you have done a long and expensive job, call a couple of days later and ask if everything is all right. Then ask if they will recommend you to their friends. This kind of care makes your customers feel valued and goes a long way in ensuring their loyalty and referrals. You could also offer a reasonable written guarantee and be prepared to honor it. However, you should talk to a lawyer or your trade association to make sure it is worded correctly and doesn't get you into trouble.

An ad in the Yellow Pages is necessary, but try to write it--or get some help writing it--so that it makes you stand out from the crowd.

The most basic thing--and one that most people forget--is to tell everybody you know. Your doctor, your insurance agent, the supermarket checker and the baby-sitter should all get your business card. And when it comes to plumbing, having a nice smile and a friendly attitude is probably just as important as being a great pipe-fitter.

--Sylvia Rose,

Client-Member Services,

Santa Monica

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If you have a question about how to start or operate a small business, mail it to Karen E. Klein, Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia 91016 or e-mail it to Kklein6349@aol.com. Include your name, address and telephone number. The column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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