Small businesses beginning to hire again

At this time last year, Randy Herz wasn’t planning to add any new employees at his estate planning and asset management firm. He thought it would be more prudent to invest money in technology.

Now, Herz said he expects to hire three or four people by the end of the first quarter, joining his payroll of seven at offices in Farmington, Conn., and Boca Raton, Fla.

“A number of our business areas have started to expand to the point where we need to add on additional staff,” said Herz, who attributed the improvement to clients who have more money and who are more focused on making decisions about their finances and estates.

The growing economy has helped some small business owners decide that it’s time to start hiring again, or in the case of new companies, hiring for the first time. They’ve held off expanding their staffs while they waited for the right business conditions – sales, cash flow and a sense of confidence and optimism in their customers and clients.

These business owners are part of the hiring trend across the country. The nation’s employers, many of whom are small businesses, are adding jobs at a steady pace, said William Dunkelberg, chief economist with the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group representing small company owners.

“It looks like everything is proceeding nicely and smoothly,” Dunkelberg said after the Labor Department reported that employers created 157,000 new jobs in December. That number was fewer than Wall Street wanted, but Dunkelberg said an even and sustainable pace is healthier for the economy than a torrid one.

Improving business for customers of Steritech Group Inc. has allowed the Charlotte, N.C.-based pest prevention and food safety firm to increase its hiring plans, human resources director Mark Moser said.

While Steritech’s business has grown in the past few years, the company was conservative in its hiring because many of its customers are in the hospitality industry, which was hit hard after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Moser said.

Moser said the company has continued to hire service workers, the staffers who perform the work for customers, but “we wanted to make sure that industry was back on its feet before we made an investment in support personnel” such as office workers.

Steritech, which has about 550 employees nationwide, expects steady growth in hiring this year, Moser said.

At Harbor Sweets, a Salem, Mass.-based candy maker, “we probably have not grown at the rate we might have if we had felt more confident in the economy,” owner Phyllis LeBlanc said.

Now, because of its sales growth, the company plans to add some key positions, including a chocolate factory operations manager, she said.

At YC Media, a New York-based public relations firm, owners Caitlin Friedman and Kimberly Yorio are hiring full-timers after relying on freelance help since they started the company more than four years ago. They’ve taken on an assistant and expect to hire two more employees this year.

Friedman said the company needs to hire because of its continuing growth. She called the improvement in the economy more of an indirect factor in the decision to build a staff.

“It’s more our clients’ optimistic outlook on the economy,” she said. “If they’re on top, they feel they can afford PR because they think things will go well for them, then it’s great for us.”

A growing business that’s also getting ready to hire is the New York Enterprise Report, a bimonthly publication aimed at small businesses in the New York City area. Publisher Robert Levin said he didn’t need full-time staffers after launching on the Web in September 2003 and putting out his first print edition in May.

“But business is going in such a way that it looks like toward the end of the year we will be hiring someone,” he said.

Like many business owners, Levin must wait until he feels his cash flow can support the new hires. If his company’s growth continues at its current rate – “and we think it will” – he’ll be able to take on employees.

Building Small Business is a weekly column on the topic by the Associated Press.

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