Small companies with a spiritual bent are profiting from the $3 billion-a-year religious products market.

"When young people get married and have children, religion becomes important," said Richard Molfeld, president of Religious Art Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Those children grow up and lose interest, but then they have children, and religion becomes important again."

Molfeld, whose firm imports and distributes Christian giftware, crucifixes, rosaries, First Communion sets, statues and medals, said his sales are surging in an industry in which revenues have remained steady for decades. His 25-employee company imported and distributed from $3 million to $4 million worth of merchandise last year, mostly items from Europe and Asia. He opened his firm four years ago after working for another importing company for 40 years.

"There's never been a decline," Molfeld said, adding that religious merchandise is far from trendy. "We've been selling the same products for 40 years."

But stability doesn't mean that there isn't room for inventive entrepreneurs to carve out their own specialized niches. Easy access to the Internet and affordable computers are having a positive effect on the religious products industry.

Sylvia Dorham, a mother of four in a Navy family that is as computer-savvy as it is devout, founded Bibletech Christian Resources in 1995. The Seaside, Calif.-based company distributes Christian software applications and computer games.

"There was a lot of space out there for Christian computer products, and what was out there was not distributed well," said Dorham, whose products include games like "Captain Bible," "The Dome of Darkness" and "Heaven Quest," which feature 3-D graphics and modern music. Dorham also sells a Bible study program that compares texts and shows users the original language, in addition to selling Charlton Heston's "Voyage Through the Bible."

Cyberspace seemed the perfect place for a business run by a stay-at-home Navy wife whose family moved frequently. The low start-up costs were another plus. Dorham said Web design, registration, license, fees and taxes cost her about $1,000. In response to customer demand, Dorham soon expanded into selling T-shirts, which now represent 85 percent of her business. The site draws a global customer base that crosses all demographic lines. Dorham projects Bibletech will earn about $15,000 in 1999 small change for most people, but the company's sales have tripled in the past four years. In fact, e-commerce is so new that Dorham's four years online make her a veteran Internet retailer.

Tova Rabinowitz, a Chicago-based fiber artist, found a niche for her talents where the religious products industry meets the $54 billion-a-year wedding industry. Rabinowitz handcrafts customized wedding chuppahs, the canopies beneath which brides and grooms exchange their vows during Jewish wedding ceremonies.

Rabinowitz first became interested in Judaic art during a college internship at an artists' cooperative. Several years later, when Rabinowitz' sister announced her engagement, Tova enrolled in quilting classes and spent one year making her first chuppah.

"I got such a great response, I went out and bought yards of fabric," Rabinowitz said.

She spent another year crafting four pieces to create a portfolio while working full time as a dishware designer. Rabinowitz eventually quit her job to devote all her time to her own business. The equipment needed to start her company, Simcha Tovah, cost about $20,000, most of which she financed on her credit cards. Advertising was a major expense, but now she reaches many clients via her Web site, www.simchatovah.com. Her customized chuppahs start at $1,800, but depending on the intricacy of the design, can cost several thousand dollars. She can meet her expenses by producing one chuppah a month.

"Most people don't know what to do about the chuppah, so they ask their wedding planner or florist," Rabinowitz said. Florists usually lease a swath of fabric with poles to hold up the canopy. Since the canopy represents the couple's future home, Rabinowitz meets with the couple and sketches a design based on symbols meaningful to them. Then, the chuppah becomes a cherished keepsake from their wedding. It can be displayed on the wall, like a quilt.

"Once people see my chuppahs, they want one of their own," she said. "I'm making something that is an actual expression of the couple and comes from the heart." she said.

In January, Karen Merritt of Acworth, Ga., took the plunge into part-time entrepreneurship when she decided to provide customized and imprinted promotional products ordered in volume by churches, ministries and schools. "My church was constantly buying specialty items like pins, pencils and tags," Merritt said. "There was only one competitor in the area, so they had a monopoly. There were always complaints about the prices and that they didn't change their product lines."

Merritt founded Kingdom Keepers and became an independent dealer for a large supplier of imprinted products. In just two months, she landed two local churches as customers. She's now developing a line of stock items to decorate with custom imprints.

"My goal is to buy directly from manufacturers and have my own sales reps," said Merritt. "If I tried to purchase from them now, my quantities are so low I wouldn't be able to offer my customers a good price." Her other goal: to earn enough money to quit her full-time job as a systems analyst. "I am hoping to be able to do this business full time and stay home with my children," she said.

Big companies are also involved in the religious products business.

After 36 years as a leader in the giftware industry, Russ Berry & Co.

decided to launch a line of specialized religious products last year. "We started seeing the marketplace was looking for more products beyond those for traditional holidays and occasions," said spokeswoman Helen Guss.

Guss said Berry's product development team believed more young people were looking for religious and spiritual products to put in their homes. "Young people were looking for gifts with spiritual messages, but with a less traditional, updated look that would match the decor of their homes," Guss said.

The company now sells a variety of plaques and gifts with religious messages in addition to plush stuffed animals and other collectibles. Russ Berry & Co., based in Oakland, N.J., sold $270 million worth of merchandise to retailers in 1998.

Briefly...

Members of the National Women's Business Council and hundreds of other women entrepreneurs gathered in Washington, D.C. on March 18 to present members of Congress with the Master Plan from the October 1998 Women's Economic Summit.

"This is the very first time the women's business community has gotten together to speak with a unified economic voice," said Marsha Firestone, executive director of the Summit, which was funded by several major corporations including New York Life, Bank of America and Dell Computer.

The plan calls for major corporations to: increase their purchases from women suppliers; increase capital and credit available to women business owners; encourage equity investments in women-owned businesses; create a National Women's Loan Fund; and increase entrepreneurial training opportunities for women.

There are currently 8.5 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., according to Kay Koplovitz, chair of the National Women's Business Council. Koplovitz said venture capitalists currently invest only 1.6 percent of all venture capital in women-owned firms, an amount that needs to be increased.

To obtain a copy of the full report, call the council at 1-202-205-3850, or visit www.womenconnect.com/summit98.

Reporting by Robin Wallace. Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business." For more resources, visit jane@janeapplegate.com.

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