As the political winds shift, and a new Republican administration moves into Washington this week, business owners and trade associations are preparing new strategies for influencing policymakers and legislators.

"If you don't blow your own horn, someone will use it as a spittoon," quipped Ted Fowler, chief executive of the Golden Corral Corp., a Raleigh, N.C.-based chain with 460 family-style restaurants in 38 states.

Fowler, who also serves as vice chairman of the 220,000-member National Restaurant Association, said business owners absolutely could make a difference if they make their opinions known to lawmakers. For example, he said, grassroots lobbying efforts by restaurant owners lessened the financial impact of the Clinton administration's minimum wage increase. Although the NRA didn't prevent Congress from increasing the federal minimum wage to $5.15 an hour, efforts by restaurant owners pushed lawmakers to include training tax incentives, which made the increase less painful.

"If you own a restaurant or any small business, it's vitally important to be involved politically at the grassroots level," said Steven Anderson, president of the NRA. "We literally storm the Hill (Capitol Hill) during our public affairs conference in September. The legislators know when the restaurant owners are in town."

Anderson said thousands of small-business owners belong to his group, since 70 percent of America's eateries employ 20 people or less and post annual sales of under $500,000.

While you may think you are too busy running your business to be active in politics, consider how state, local and federal policies affect your bottom line. Health and safety regulations, environmental standards, labor laws and the tax code all impact the way that you manage your company's affairs.

"The key thing for a small-business owner is to personalize an issue and explain to employees how a government action can affect the business, positively or negatively," said Amy Showalter from Columbus, Ohio, a consultant who helps big and small companies become politically active.

"Small-business owners have a great advantage because they have a personal relationship with their employees," she said. "Once you inform them about an issue, then help them get involved."

Showalter managed grassroots political efforts for Nationwide Insurance for about 10 years before starting her own firm, The Showalter Group. Her expertise entails creating presentations and conducting workshops aimed at tapping the political power of employees.

"Many small or medium-sized companies don't have the financial resources to hire lobbyists," said Showalter. "However, you have a rich resource in your employees."

She said even the busiest entrepreneur can quickly obtain current legislative information from their trade or professional association and pass it along to employees via e-mail, company newsletters, meetings with supervisors, paycheck inserts, or bathroom stall posters.

"Posters work really well because you have a captive audience, and people read that stuff," said Showalter. "You can also call a staff meeting and say, 'There are things happening that will impact our business.'"

Showalter suggests building political awareness by hosting a voter-registration drive for your employees. Or, invite local politicians to visit your company. If you are located near the state capital, organize a field trip for a few employees to meet with legislators.

"The No. 1 way to communicate with your legislator is face-to-face," she said. "No. 2 is through a personal letter, and three, a phone call. E-mail and faxes are way down the line."

"The groups that get in front of the lawmaker, eyeball to eyeball, have the advantage over those who are sending e-mails," she said, adding that, "the key question a politician asks himself or herself when meeting with constituents is, 'Who is more likely to vote against me?'"

Sue Pechilio, director of political programs for the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, hired Showalter to conduct a workshop for 20 members of the 2,000-member trade association. She said all of her association's members own their own agencies, which sell sophisticated insurance products to high net-worth clients.

"We do have our own lobbyist, but our members are our best lobbyists," she said. Encouraging the leading agents to become involved in politics is easy, she said, "because our industry is regulated by the tax code. We remind them that these lawmakers are legislating how our members will be selling their insurance products to the public."

Online Resources

EqualFooting.com has added lending to its long list of offerings to small-business owners. CIT Small Business Lending Corp., is now offering SBA-guaranteed loans through EqualFooting.com's Finance Center. EqualFooting.com, based in Dulles, Va., is an online marketplace that helps business owners buy industrial and office supplies, lease equipment and schedule freight deliveries.

"As the nation's top SBA lender, CIT will further strengthen EqualFooting.com's financing, offering to help fuel the growth of small businesses in the United States," said Jim Fox, EqualFooting.com's CEO.

"By sending us only complete applications that fit within our lending criteria, EqualFooting.com's Finance Center provides us with a powerful customer-acquisition channel and saves us significant time and money. It's a win-win situation for everyone," said Keith Strove, CIT's vice president of e-commerce.

If going global is on your list of New Year's resolutions this year, check out the new Small Business Global Marketing online, moderated discussion hosted by Laurel Delaney, president of Global TradeSource Ltd., based in Chicago. Delaney's free online marketing group is aimed at helping business owners tap into the online export market, which is expected to reach $1.4 billion by 2004, according to a Forrester Research study.

According to the SBA's Office of International Trade, American small-business owners are very active in international trade. About 97 percent of U.S. companies involved in export are small companies, with 40 percent owned by women.

"All members of the group will learn something important about global e-business and how to apply it to their own business concerns," said Delaney, who is author of "Start and Run a Profitable Exporting Business" (Self-Counsel Press).

Check out the group at www.eGroups.com.

Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is CEO of SBTV.com, a multimedia site providing small-business resources. She can be contacted via e-mail at jane@sbtv.com, or by mail at P.O. Box 768, Pelham, NY 10803.

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