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Small businesses find ways to cope with gas prices
First Published Feb 23 2012 08:06 pm • Last Updated Feb 24 2012 08:33 pm

As any driver knows, rising gas prices can put a dent in a household budget. For small business owners, it can hurt — or even wipe out — profits.

The recent rise in the price of gas is pressuring business owners to find ways to protect their earnings. Some of their strategies are simple, such as using GPS devices to track fuel usage. Others are drastic — like moving manufacturing operations to the U.S. from Asia.

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Correction

Feb. 19 » In last week’s Small Talk column, The Associated Press erroneously reported that President Barack Obama was proposing a $1 million exemption for the federal estate tax and a tax rate of 55 percent for amounts above that threshold. Obama actually proposed a $3.5 million exemption and a tax rate of 45 percent.

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Small business owners have navigated this road before — most recently in 2008 when the price of gas rose to a national average of $4.11 a gallon. But gas is expected to surpass that record and reach $4.25 by late April. And even if the price follows its usual pattern of gradually falling back from a high reached in the spring, it will still be expensive for the rest of the year.

Here’s a look at how some companies are coping:

A direct hit • Chris Hundley runs Limousine Connection, a 31-car limousine service in Los Angeles. He likens the surge in gas prices to "being run into by someone without insurance" — there’s no way to avoid having to pay.

In 2007 Limousine Connection began adding a 3 percent fuel surcharge to its bills to offset the cost of gas. Since then, the rate has crept up to 10 percent. Hundley says customers have come to understand the necessity for a fuel surcharge, and prefer it to a rate increase.

But the company doesn’t start charging extra on its base hourly rate the minute gas prices rise. For customers that have contracts with Limousine Connection, he’ll wait 30 days, and until prices have gone up 10 percent, before raising the surcharge. If prices rise, say, only 7 percent, he won’t raise it. "We are eating it — it’s the cost of doing business," he says.

Hundley also tracks fuel usage. Speeding or idling for extended periods wastes gas, so Hundley monitors driver behavior using the GPS systems installed in his fleet. When the company detects wasteful patterns a manager sits down with the employee to explain how he can help the company keep down fuel expenses. Limousine Connection is so serious about saving gas that, in some cases, it has issued verbal warnings to some drivers.

Hundley also has added more fuel-efficient vehicles to its fleet. The company has some hybrids, and all except a few Mercedes use regular, rather than premium, gas.


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Cheaper to make it in the U.S. • The rising cost of jet fuel has convinced Seesmart Inc. to make the commercial and household lights that it sells in U.S. factories instead of Asia. Ray Sjolseth, president of the Simi Valley, Calif.-based company, says that the savings he used to get from manufacturing overseas is being wiped out by higher air freight rates.

Sjolseth says his customers tend to have last-minute deadlines. "We don’t have a choice but to air freight the products," he says He estimates that 80 percent of his goods are shipped by air and that rising rates are raising his manufacturing costs between 5 percent and 8 percent.

So Sjolseth’s solution is to move his manufacturing to the U.S. He currently has one factory in California and expects to have one in Chicago operating by the end of the year. He estimates that a year from now, he’ll save between 5 percent and 10 percent because he won’t be getting shipments by air.

Shifting resources • Higher gas prices are cutting into travel budgets and that’s hurting Towne Park Systems’ revenue. The Annapolis, Md., company runs valet parking services for hotels across the country. These days, fewer guests are parking cars in hotel lots so the hotels don’t need as many attendants.

Town Park responded by shifting some staffers to different jobs, says Kirk Pozadzides, the company’s general manager. The company also provides concierge and other services for hotel guests. Now, the employee who parks cars may shift to working as a concierge.

The company also added "park and fly" services. Towne Park finds unused spaces in garages near airports, and shuttles passengers to airline terminals. It costs a traveler less to use the service than it does to park in an airport lot, Pozadzides says.

"You have to find creative ways to artificially drive revenue," he says.

Working with vendors • The surge in gas prices in 2008 was a shock for Capriotti’s, a chain of sandwich shops based in Las Vegas. CEO Ashley Morris says the company didn’t pay much attention to a clause in his company’s contracts with distributors that said Capriotti’s would pay more for deliveries if the price of gas went up. So when gas soared that spring and summer, the company was paying far more than it expected for food, paper products and other supplies.

"It hit our business fairly hard," Morris says.

Now, the surcharge rises and falls based on the price of diesel gas. This time around, he says, Capriotti’s won’t suffer. "We heavily negotiated a sliding scale."

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