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Good morning, Utah business owners and managers. Have we got a deal for you. Beginning next week in the Sunday Money section of the Deseret News we will launch a new Small Business Focus column featuring YOU - your problems, your questions, your needs.

Are Utah businesses prepared to meet the economic challenges of the next century? It's a question we at the Deseret News have been asking ourselves lately and we decided maybe you have too.To that end, we have assembled a panel of local individuals who have wide-ranging experience in a variety of disciplines related to business growth. These people are willing to share their hard-won expertise with others in the local business community using the Money section of the Sunday Deseret News as their forum.

Thus, inside these pages each week, we will publish information and suggestions, written by members of our panel, which should be helpful to those who want to see their small business become a mid-size business - growth so urgently needed in this state.

The topics? Funding, organizing, getting patents, hiring, firing, productivity, marketing and more will be among the subjects addressed.

But we can't do it without YOU, our readers. We ask you to help identify and prioritize the needs of small-business owners and managers by writing to us with your problems, questions and comments. What is your most pressing need? Send your letters to SMALL BUSINESS FORUM, The Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.

Why do we think this kind of forum is needed? Utah's economy is racing into the 21st century on full after-burner; a century that will begin with much promise but many problems: fewer workers, higher labor costs, technological advances increasing the rate of competitive change and gradual elimination of local markets in favor of global ones.

The changes are taking place right now and will accelerate over the last decade of the 20th century. "Help wanted" signs are becoming permanent fixtures in many business windows. The microchip has revolutionized everything from hand-held calculators to huge assembly-line robots.

In the area of international trade, there is no Utah business that remains unaware of the intense competition being brought to bear by foreign companies and their products.

How important is small business to this country? In the present national economy 60 percent of all new jobs, 66 percent of on-the-job training, 55 percent of all product innovations and 38 percent of the nation's Gross National Product come from small business.

In Utah, companies with fewer than 500 employees - the criterion for "small business" - represent 99 percent of the Utah labor force. Thus, as goes small business so goes Utah's entire economy. Utah's "big business" is "small business."

How Utah small business reacts to the economic realities of the 21st century will affect the lives of all Utahns.

As pointed out in a recent report to the Utah Housing Authority by The Council for Community Development Inc., Boston, Mass., Utah's small business community is atypical for the nation as a whole.

The study cited the unusual pattern of business size in Utah as a central challenge to the state's economic prosperity and compared the shape of the Utah business community to an hourglass - a sizable number of large business at the top, a small number of medium sized companies in the middle and a large number of new small businesses at the base.

The report notes that Utah consistently ranks among the top 15 states nationally in new business formation and entrepreneurial activity. unfortunately, it also notes that the local support structure for nurturing small business on its journey to mid-size is underdeveloped.

As we explore specific ways in which the Deseret News can contribute to building the needed support structure, we have become convinced that increased communication among small business owners/managers on the fundamentals of expanding a business mayu be a useful tool.