Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cable industry offers low-income rates

NEW YORK — Cable companies said Wednesday that they will offer Internet service for $9.95 per month to homes with children that are eligible for free school lunches.

The offer will start next summer and is part of an initiative the Federal Communications Commission cobbled together to get more U.S. homes connected to broadband.

One third, or about 35 million homes, don’t have broadband. That affects people’s ability to educate themselves and find and apply for jobs, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

“The broadband adoption gap in the U.S. is very large, and the costs of digital exclusion are high and getting higher,” Genachowski said.

The initiative, called Connect-to-Compete, also includes Microsoft Corp., which pledges to sell PCs with its Office software suite for $250 to low-income families. A firm called Redemtech is offering to sell refurbished computers for $150, including shipping.

For those who can’t afford those prices, Morgan Stanley is pledging to develop a microfinance lending program for community-based financial institutions.

All major cable companies are standing behind the $9.95 offer, which will be valid for two years. The price doesn’t include taxes, but the companies are pledging to charge nothing for installation or rental.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Privacy is now No. 1 issue for Facebook

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook Inc.’s expected settlement with the Federal Trade Commission is sending a strong message to Internet companies that regulators are getting serious about protecting the privacy of consumers.

The social networking giant could announce a deal with the FTC as early as today over charges that it violated users’ privacy when it changed default settings to make more of their information public.

The settlement taps into growing public concern over online privacy and signals more aggressive enforcement from regulators.

And it appears the message is coming through loud and clear in the corner offices of Silicon Valley and beyond — especially as Internet companies prepare for potentially lucrative initial public offerings.

“Privacy now has the potential to affect the bottom line, which has gotten the attention of CEOs,” said Lisa Sotto, head of the global privacy and information practice at the law firm of Hunton & Williams.

For years online privacy was a sleepy issue hashed out by anonymous lawyers in back rooms. But the explosion of Web usage — and the speed and volume with which data can be transmitted around the globe — has moved the public debate over online privacy to the forefront.

Lawmakers and regulators have responded with pledges to address how Internet companies collect personal information and what they do with it.

The FTC has called for a “do not track” system to make it easier for Internet surfers to keep companies from snooping on their Web activities. The Obama administration has asked for an online privacy bill of rights, while Congress has introduced more than a dozen privacy bills so far this year.

In the cross hairs is Facebook, the wildly popular social network with more than 800 million users that is preparing for a possible IPO that could value the company at up to $100 billion.

Changes to its privacy policies over the years have led to a flood of complaints from consumers concerned over how Facebook handles their personal information. Facebook is also under scrutiny in the European Union for possible breaches of personal data.

“Facebook has to expand its data collection practices to satisfy its largest advertisers to boost the IPO share price. But it also has to appease privacy regulators in the U.S. and the European Union, whose actions could derail Facebook’s pending financial bonanza,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the consumer groups that complained to the FTC. “It appears Facebook is poised to neutralize any threats to its future coming from U.S. regulators.”

The proposed settlement with the FTC would prohibit Facebook from making public information that a user originally shared privately without his or her explicit permission. It does not require Facebook to get consent from its users on new sharing features. As part of the settlement, Facebook would have to agree to 20 years of privacy audits.

The settlement stems from a complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center in December 2009, which asked the FTC to investigate whether consumers were harmed when Facebook changed its privacy settings to disclose more personal information without first getting their permission.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Electric car battery fire draws scrutiny

WASHINGTON — A Chevrolet Volt that caught fire three weeks after its lithium-ion battery was damaged in a government crash test has regulators taking a harder look at the safety of electric car batteries.

The car that caught fire was tested May 12 by a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contractor at a Wisconsin facility using a relatively new side-impact test intended to replicate crashing into a pole or a tree.

Three weeks later, while the car was parked at the test facility, it caught fire. A NHTSA investigation concluded the crash test damaged the battery, which later led to the fire.

Lithium-ion batteries, which are used in a vast array of consumer electronics, have a history of sometimes catching fire when damaged.

Other companies report no fires

Nissan Motor Co. ,which has more than 8,000 all-electric Leaf models on U.S. roads, and Tesla Motors Inc., with 2,000 cars sold worldwide, said their cars are extensively tested and have not started any fires after crashes.

General Motors spokesman Greg Martin said the test did not follow procedures developed by GM engineers for handling the Volt after a crash. The engineers tested the Volt’s battery pack for more than 300,000 hours to come up with the procedures, which include discharge and disposal of the battery pack, he said.

“Had those protocols been followed after this test, this incident would not have occurred,” he said.

The company had not told the government of its protocols at the time of the test, another GM spokesman said.

Martin said the Volt is safe. After the Volt fire, NHTSA and GM each replicated the crash test and waited three weeks, but in neither case did the cars catch fire, officials said. Nor were the cars’ batteries damaged in those tests, officials said.

NHTSA is also asking manufacturers who currently have electric cars on the market, or who plan to introduce electric vehicles in the near future, for information on what procedures they have established for discharging and handling batteries, including recommendations for reducing fire risks.

“NHTSA is focused on identifying the best ways to ensure that consumers and emergency responders are aware of any risks they may encounter in electric vehicles in post-crash situations,” the agency said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we hope the information we gather will lay the groundwork for detailed guidance for first-responders and tow truck operators for use in their work responding to incidents involving these vehicles,” the agency said.

Coolant leak

After the crash test, NHTSA found a coolant leak and moved the damaged Volt to a back lot, where it was exposed to the elements, said Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman who specializes in electric cars.

Exposure to the weather caused the coolant to crystalize, and that, combined with the remaining charge in the battery, were factors, he said.

NHTSA did not drain the battery of energy as called for under GM’s crash procedures. But at the time, GM had not told the agency of its protocols, Peterson said. NHTSA normally drains fuel from gasoline-powered cars after crash tests, he said.

In a real-world crash, GM would be notified through its OnStar safety communications system and would send a team out to remove the battery for research purposes, he said. The safety of the Volt, which earned a top five-star crash safety rating from NHTSA, “really isn’t being questioned,” Peterson said.

Lithium-ion batteries have been the subject of several recalls of consumer electronics. Millions of laptop batteries made by Sony Corp. for Apple Inc., Dell Inc., Lenovo Group Ltd. and other PC makers were recalled in 2006 and 2007.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rehab Practice Management makes acquisition in California

Rehab Practice Management LLC said it has acquired Desert Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine, which provides outpatient physical therapy services in Apple Valley, Calif.

Terms of the transaction weren’t disclosed.

With the acquisition of Desert Physical Therapy, Franklin-based Rehab Practice now has four locations in Southern California’s high desert area.

Earlier this year, the provider of rehabilitation management and therapy services acquired another provider of outpatient physical therapy services in Barstow, Calif.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Grease thieves cash in

ROCK HILL, MO. — Bobby Tessler’s temper sizzled just as much as his chicken wings as he stood over his deep fryers Tuesday and thought about the money that recently greased the pockets of thieves instead of his own.

Since he opened his business St. Louis Wing Co. in April, thieves have siphoned hundreds of pounds of grease from a container behind his business, depriving him of about $2,000 that a grease rendering company would have paid him.

“It’s a big deal. There’s a huge underground out there for this stuff,” he said.

Grease thefts have been on the rise since the introduction of biofuels to the market once dominated by animal feed and soap industries. Combating the thefts is difficult because the penalties are minimal despite environmental and financial concerns, said Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association.

“Others have said that this is like the new copper,” Cook said. “These thieves are getting more sophisticated. It’s a multimillion-dollar business for them.”

Empty container

Tessler knew something was amiss after he called his rendering company to ask why he had not been paid for the grease he had put in their container during the first six months he was open.

“They told us our container never had anything in it,” he said.

He called police, who then spotted three teenagers removing grease from Tessler’s restaurant and other restaurants in the early hours of Sept. 26. Rock Hill police have arrested one of those three, said Capt. Jorden Lewis.

The suspect, 19, has yet to be charged, but told police that he paid his 17- and 18-year-old accomplices to be lookouts and help keep him awake, Lewis said. He told officer Kevin Clinton that he was from the Springfield, Mo., area.

He also told police that he worked for a legitimate grease rendering company but had been stealing grease from businesses in Arkansas and the St. Louis area to make money on the side.

In a separate case, brothers Gary and Ryan Vaughn were charged with misdemeanor theft after stealing grease from a Chinese restaurant in the St. Louis area. The pair also said they were from Springfield, Mo. The owners of Hong Kong Express said St. Louis police caught the two on surveillance cameras stealing grease Nov. 2.

Nobody cares

News of the arrests and charges isn’t encouraging to local rendering companies, such as Belleville-based Kostelac Grease Service.

“It’s a crime that nobody really cares about,” said John Kostelac, who co-owns the business with his brother, Jim Kostelac. “When copper thieves get caught they are sent to prison, but when somebody gets caught stealing grease, they get a slap on the hand and are turned loose and are out stealing again.”

Tell-tale signs

Kostelac said his drivers can tell when a business has been hit because the thieves often leave a greasy mess behind. They usually have 1,000-gallon tanks on trucks and do not carry cleaning supplies with them in case of a spill, he said.

It’s also hard to estimate the value of the stolen grease. It is a commodity; the purer the product, the more it is worth, Kostelac said.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Electric car battery fire draws scrutiny

WASHINGTON — A Chevrolet Volt that caught fire three weeks after its lithium-ion battery was damaged in a government crash test has regulators taking a harder look at the safety of electric car batteries.

The car that caught fire was tested May 12 by a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contractor at a Wisconsin facility using a relatively new side-impact test intended to replicate crashing into a pole or a tree.

Three weeks later, while the car was parked at the test facility, it caught fire. A NHTSA investigation concluded the crash test damaged the battery, which later led to the fire.

Lithium-ion batteries, which are used in a vast array of consumer electronics, have a history of sometimes catching fire when damaged.

Other companies report no fires

Nissan Motor Co. ,which has more than 8,000 all-electric Leaf models on U.S. roads, and Tesla Motors Inc., with 2,000 cars sold worldwide, said their cars are extensively tested and have not started any fires after crashes.

General Motors spokesman Greg Martin said the test did not follow procedures developed by GM engineers for handling the Volt after a crash. The engineers tested the Volt’s battery pack for more than 300,000 hours to come up with the procedures, which include discharge and disposal of the battery pack, he said.

“Had those protocols been followed after this test, this incident would not have occurred,” he said.

The company had not told the government of its protocols at the time of the test, another GM spokesman said.

Martin said the Volt is safe. After the Volt fire, NHTSA and GM each replicated the crash test and waited three weeks, but in neither case did the cars catch fire, officials said. Nor were the cars’ batteries damaged in those tests, officials said.

NHTSA is also asking manufacturers who currently have electric cars on the market, or who plan to introduce electric vehicles in the near future, for information on what procedures they have established for discharging and handling batteries, including recommendations for reducing fire risks.

“NHTSA is focused on identifying the best ways to ensure that consumers and emergency responders are aware of any risks they may encounter in electric vehicles in post-crash situations,” the agency said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we hope the information we gather will lay the groundwork for detailed guidance for first-responders and tow truck operators for use in their work responding to incidents involving these vehicles,” the agency said.

Coolant leak

After the crash test, NHTSA found a coolant leak and moved the damaged Volt to a back lot, where it was exposed to the elements, said Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman who specializes in electric cars.

Exposure to the weather caused the coolant to crystalize, and that, combined with the remaining charge in the battery, were factors, he said.

NHTSA did not drain the battery of energy as called for under GM’s crash procedures. But at the time, GM had not told the agency of its protocols, Peterson said. NHTSA normally drains fuel from gasoline-powered cars after crash tests, he said.

In a real-world crash, GM would be notified through its OnStar safety communications system and would send a team out to remove the battery for research purposes, he said. The safety of the Volt, which earned a top five-star crash safety rating from NHTSA, “really isn’t being questioned,” Peterson said.

Lithium-ion batteries have been the subject of several recalls of consumer electronics. Millions of laptop batteries made by Sony Corp. for Apple Inc., Dell Inc., Lenovo Group Ltd. and other PC makers were recalled in 2006 and 2007.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Groupon shares soar 30 percent in public debut

NEW YORK — Groupon, the company that pioneered online group discounts, saw its stock rise about 30 percent in its public debut Friday, showing strong demand for an Internet company whose business model is considered unsustainable by some analysts.

Groupon’s stock initially jumped as high as $31.14 per share — or nearly56 percent — from its opening price of $20 a share before losing some steam.

Shares closed a little down from that, finishing its first session of Nasdaq trading at $26.11 per share on a day when the Dow Jones industrial average lost 0.5 percentage points and failed to crack the 12,000-point level.

Big fluctuations are common for fresh public companies, and Groupon’s first-day rise was largely expected. What happens next is the bigger question.

Analysts said this doesn’t ease worries about the risks concerning the company — especially as the stock price increases.

“Until investors see the full profit model unfold over time, expect this stock to be highly volatile with increasing risk as the market cap rises,” said Kathleen Shelton Smith, principal of Renaissance Capital, which operates “The first day of trading is typically more about supply and demand. Fundamentals will take over in the long run.”

Groupon has faced scrutiny about its high marketing expenses, enormous employee base and even the way it accounted for revenue until an SEC inquiry prompted a restatement.

Chicago-based Groupon Inc. sends out frequent emails to subscribers offering a chance to buy discount deals for anything from laser hair removal to weekend getaways. The company takes a cut of what people pay and gives the rest to the merchant.

Though it’s spawned many copycats after its 2008 launch, Groupon has the advantage of being first. This has meant brand recognition and investor demand, as evidenced by its sizzling public debut.

The stock is trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market under the symbol “GRPN.”

“This is not Facebook where they can do no wrong,” said longtime IPO analyst Scott Sweet, the owner of IPO Boutique. He called Groupon an “accident waiting to happen.”

Sweet is among analysts who question Groupon’s business model, its high marketing expenses and frantic hiring pace that has swelled its ranks to more than 10,000 employees.

Still, the sale of its 35 million shares means Groupon’s initial public offering of stock raised about $700 million, minus investment banking fees, etc.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Home prices in Nashville area slip

Single-family home sales in the Nashville area dropped 4.6 percent in October from their September levels, the second consecutive month-to-month dip after a sales sprint this summer.

There were 1,446 single-family homes sold in the nine-county Nashville market last month compared with 1,513 in September, the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors reported on Wednesday.

But compared with year-ago sales, October’s report showed single-family sales were up 12.6 percent.

Realtors called that a bullish sign and a more sensible comparison than month-to-month swings, which can be influenced by weather, holidays and other factors.

“This is very indicative of us having reached a floor and quite possibly a turnaround,” said Jim McCann, head of mortgage banking at Nashville-based Avenue Bank, noting that four straight months of year-over-year sales gains are encouraging. “If it’s sustained, then you’ll likely see a reversal in property values,” McCann said. “They’ll start to go up.”

At the moment, though, median prices are slipping lower and other analysts don’t expect much relief from that trend until the middle of next year here.

Supply drops

Home inventory decreased 12 percent from year-ago levels, with roughly an 8.5-month supply of homes up for sale as last month ended, compared with an 11-month supply a year earlier, according to GNAR’s figures. Those estimates are based on sales rates of homes at each point in time.

Some Realtors suggest that the shrinking inventory means more on-the-fence homebuyers are beginning to act and eat into supply. In healthy economic periods, a six-month supply of homes is considered normal.

“This shows that we’re willing to buy homes without a shot in the arm,” said broker Price Lechleiter of Zeitlin & Co., referring to federal incentives for first-time homebuyers that ended in July 2010.

Other real estate analysts say, however, that local home prices are likely to languish until next summer before showing renewed signs of life.

In the Nashville metropolitan area, average home prices are expected to fall an additional 0.1 percent by the summer of 2012, according to Fiserv Case-Shiller projections released this week.

The median home price for a single-family home in October was $162,000, the lowest since April and a decline of 6.6 percent compared with last fall here.

The 188 condominium units sold were nearly the same as the previous month. Condo sales are up 30 percent over year-ago sales volumes, though, with median prices much weaker.

The median condo price of $139,515 was the lowest since February and represents an 8.8 percent decline in price from October 2010.

According to Fiserv Case-Shiller, Nashville area home prices are expected to gather some momentum beginning with the second quarter of next year and then rise 3.7 percent by summer 2013.

“There’s still some foreclosures in the market, which can drag median prices down,” Lechleiter said. “I’m optimistic that those numbers will improve next year.”

“Newcomers seem pleased with buying opportunities — both in inventory and price — available to them here in the Middle Tennessee area,” GNAR President Alice Walker said in a statement. She said the Middle Tennessee region is “increasingly attractive to both corporations and families.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Social media consultants guide owners through Web marketing

DALLAS — Jerry Wright is a whiz when it comes to inventing protective face gear but considers himself a “social media idiot.” Nick Schaeffer is a master electrician, not a master of the virtual universe.

Yet both are finding marketing success on Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media.

They routinely post blogs, star in slick, newslike videos and continuously fine-tune their social media strategies to the ever-shifting online landscape — yet spend minimal time fixated on it.


They’re among the 200 small and midsize companies that have outsourced their social marketing to Splash Media LP in Addison, Texas, near Dallas, in the past year and a half.

Most clients pay $5,000 a month to get four blogs ghostwritten, one custom video, monitoring of social network chatter and monthly assessments of how well their strategies are working.

“We can’t just get people excited about social. It’s got to work,” said Chris Kraft, Splash Media’s co-founder and chief executive. “Our clients don’t have the luxury of throwing tens of thousands of dollars doing branding experiments. They have to have real customers come across the transom with every dollar they spend.”

Splash Media’s multi-million-dollar studio rivals those of major news organizations. It has a virtual backdrop to create custom sets, and its state-of-the-art technology can make even a small electrician look big time.

With 2011 revenue expected to reach $14 million, Splash employs 84 full-timers, including 40 account managers.

It also contracts with 130 blog ghostwriters (mostly former teachers and journalists), as well as a video production crew and on-air talent.

“When you look under the hood of social media, it’s really just the next iteration of Internet marketing,” said Paul Slack, co-founder and chief strategist. “We help clients find where their target audiences are. Then we help them fish in those ponds.”

There are more than 200 of those social ponds, but Splash Media focuses on the big lakes: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.

“We go to where the eyeballs are,” Kraft said. “We don’t claim to be experts. We’re learning every day.”

Displacing Twitter

Lately there’s rapid eye movement to Google+, which Kraft predicts will be the No. 2 social media platform behind Facebook, displacing Twitter in two years.

Splash Media is a combination of Kraft’s video production company and Slack’s Internet marketing company, WebDex Inc., following a merger in early 2010.

Both men are in their early 40s and have been entrepreneurs since their high school days in Dallas. Both dropped out of college their freshman year.

Kraft, who produced a No. 1 country music video early in his career, got into corporate video production in 1995.

“I got together with my filmmaking buddies and said, ‘Corporate videos suck. What if we skip the agencies and go direct to the companies’ marketing teams and tell them: ‘Look, we can bring all these filmmaking and storytelling abilities to your corporate videos.’ ”

In 2004, he shifted into the Internet, forming Splash Media with funding from Timbercreek Capital LP, owned by a former boss.

Kraft’s idea was to create corporate TV networks on the Internet.

“You didn’t have to be part of a health care network or an automotive network,” Kraft recalls thinking. “You could be McAfee network or Adobe TV with your own TV station. They could create their own information pipeline to communicate with both internal audiences and its customers.”

Adobe bought the concept in 2007. “They took their top product evangelists (a glorified euphemism for top salespeople) into our studio and created dynamic training and educational pieces, which were really marketing pieces.”

McAfee Inc., which is still a client, signed on the next year.

Slack, in a parallel universe, began his Internet journey working for an e-commerce company that went bust.

In the fall of 2000, Slack took about $10,000 that he had left to start WebDex, which helped businesses attain visibility on search engines and generate sales leads. “Everyone was thinking: ‘Plug a shopping cart on the end of your website, and you’ll make a bazillion dollars,’” Slack laughs. “Nobody was thinking: ‘How are you going to get people to your Internet store?’ ”

Clients paid Slack a monthly retainer of $2,000 to $3,000. He wanted to offer videos for an additional $500 a month. Kraft thought $15,000 a video was more like it. In late 2009, they came up with an answer. They combined Slack’s expertise with Kraft’s content creation for a monthly fixed rate.

Route can get bumpy

It’s turned into an avenue for success, but one fraught with potholes.

“Two companies coming together,” began Slack. “Two cultures coming together. And we immediately launched a new product that nobody had ever delivered before. There were definitely growing pains.

“But at least we didn’t kill each other.”

The highest-paying client, a marketing company in the Washington area, has a $30,000 monthly tab. “That’s an outlier,” Kraft said. “Eighty percent of our clients pay $5,000. On the low end, we have an electrician with five trucks bopping around the metroplex. That’s a big investment for a smaller company.”

Kraft is talking about Schaeffer, whose knees knocked the first time he stared into the camera and read his script.

Now that he’s made a dozen information videos, the 44-year-old owner of ElectricMan Inc. in Dallas has found his groove.

“I’m able to release the passion that I have, and they capture it,” said Schaeffer, whose video topics include lighting tips when remodeling a home, how to protect a home from power surges and how to check the wiring when buying an older home.

He pays Splash about $3,000 a month — his most expensive and most effective advertising expense. “I’m getting a more intelligent customer who is more informed about what they want.”

Renay San Miguel, former television reporter and anchor for CNBC and CNN Headline News, is Splash Media’s chief content officer, helping write scripts and doing on-camera interviews.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Retailers gear up for holiday season with cautious shoppers

NEW YORK — Americans were shopping in October, but they were spending at a slower clip than expected as they faced a barrage of bad economic news.

October revenue at stores open at least a year — an indicator of a retailer’s health — rose3.7 percent from the same month a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers’ tally of 25 retailers.

But October’s increase is weaker than the 5.5 percent revenue gain in the prior month. And 13 of 19 retailers missed Wall Street estimates for October revenue, according to Thomson Reuters, including big merchants such as Macy’s, Saks and Target.

The results reflect Americans’ cautious spending habits. Consumers continue to worry about the challenges of the weak economy, including high unemployment and a weak housing market.

At the same time, those who have jobs have paid down their debt since the recession and are starting to feel more comfortable about spending. Retailers hope they’ll continue to do so during the holiday shopping season, but consumers aren’t giving them a clear sign they will.

“The softer trend in my mind raises questions of whether this is a new trend or a temporary respite before it gets back to stronger spending,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Uncertainty over jobs was underscored by a massive crowd that turned out in Murfreesboro, Tenn., this week as auto industry job applications were taken at a local hotel.

Robert Darnell of Columbia, Tenn., had lost his job at a pencil plant more than two years ago. Since then, he has been searching for work every week.

This week — with his unemployment checks about to run out — he was one of an estimated 5,000 people who stood in a line that wrapped around Embassy Suites in Murfreesboro for a job fair held by Yates Services, a maintenance contractor for the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., where the Asian automaker has an assembly plant.

“I think I’ve got two checks left,” said Darnell, 42, who said his job was shipped to Mexico.

Yates Services plans to hire 1,600 full-time workers for Nissan for part-sorting, production line and forklift positions. The jobs will pay an average of $12.50 an hour with benefits starting after 90 days.

Mixed forecasts ahead for holidays

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, predicts revenue in November and December will rise 2.8 percent to $465.6 billion this year. That would be smaller than the 5.2 percent increase last year, but higher than the average over the last 10 years.

“Consumers are regrouping and retrenching and saving their pennies for the holiday season,” said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, a research firm.

But stores likely will have to work hard to get people to part with their money during the season.

Many retailers already are beginning to offer holiday discounts to draw shoppers in early. launched a sale this week that included such deals as 10-carat white gold diamond-studded earrings marked down to $270 from $1,199.99.

“This is an effort to stimulate the holiday season to be longer and longer,” said Janet Hoffman, managing director of Accenture’s global retailing practice.

Retailers are doing more than discounting. Some, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are offering to match the cheaper prices consumers find at competitors. And other stores, including Target and Macy’s, this week have announced expanded hours on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the official kickoff to the holiday season.

Retailers have some reason to be optimistic that the incentives will work.

Although October results weren’t as promising as retailers had hoped, revenue was affected by unseasonably warm weather during the beginning of the month and then a snowstorm at the end of the month in a portion of the country. And most merchants reported revenue that was only slightly off from Wall Street estimates.

Wholesale club operator Costco Wholesale Corp.’s revenue at stores open at least a year actually climbed 9 percent in October, slightly lower than the 9.2 percent increase analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had predicted. And Limited Brands said revenue at stores open at least a year rose 6 percent in October, down from analysts’ estimates of 6.2 percent.

A few merchants reported much more disappointing results. Target’s 3.3 percent increase was below the 4.2 percent gain expected by Wall Street.

Macy’s Inc. posted a 2.2 percent increase in revenue at stores opened at least a year, which fell short of the 3.6 percent increase that Wall Street analysts had anticipated.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What you get for $200,000

Rutherford County

118 Silverstone Drive, Murfreesboro 37130

Year built: 1998

Square feet: 1,960

Description: This three-bedroom, 2½-bath home is on a large, treed lot on a cul de sac. The home features a vaulted ceiling in the great room, built-in bookcases and a fireplace. It has new paint. There is room for an office or a fourth bedroom in the loft area on second level. The master suite is on the main level.

More information: Re/Max Choice Properties, 615-227-1514

More photos:

Williamson County

1001 Watauga Court, Thompsons Station 37179

Year built: 2003

Square feet: 2,364

Description: This three-bedroom, 2½-bath home is on a corner lot in the Newport Crossings neighborhood. It features an updated kitchen, upstairs bedrooms, a half-bath downstairs, formal dining room and a large bonus room. The back yard backs to a common area with a gazebo.

More information: Keller Williams Realty, 615-302-4242

More photos:

Sumner County

1009 Washington Drive, Cottontown 37048

Year built: 2003

Square feet: 1,970

Description: This three-bedroom, two-bath home is on an acre lot minutes from I-65. It features an above-ground pool, a 12-by-30 building with electric and cable, and a screened back porch, deck and patio. Outside, three sides of the house are brick. The back yard is fenced. Interior features include a large bonus room.

More information: White House Realtors, 615-672-0302

More photos:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pinnacle Airlines points to better years

MEMPHIS — Pinnacle Airlines Corp. figures to remain in rebuilding mode for much of next year.

Executives of the Memphis-based owner of Pinnacle, Mesaba and Colgan airlines wouldn’t say how soon they expect to turn a profit within the next year or so, but they pointed to a brighter revenue picture by 2013 after reporting a multimillion-dollar loss for the most recent quarter.

The company reported modest losses for the third quarter after having braced investors for disappointing results in a pre-release last week.

Read the full report: Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines reports quarterly loss, in 'rebuilding' mode at The Commercial Appeal.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Jim Reeves' musical legacy goes on trial in January

More than 40 years after the death of country singer “Gentleman” Jim Reeves, a Nashville court will determine the fate of his musical legacy – and the ownership of his considerable posthumous royalties.

Reeves heirs – chiefly his nieces – and the surviving second husband of his widow Mary Reeves Davis will return to Davidson Country Probate court January 23.

The two-day trial will determine how big a stake Terry Davis, the second husband, has in Mary Reeves Estate, which owns Jim Reeves’ music royalties. Those royalties have ranged from $100,000 to $400,000 per year, according to court records.

Jim Reeves was a country crooner and ambassador of the “Nashville Sound” of the 1950s and 1960s. One of his best-known songs, "He’ll Have to Go," includes the lyrics “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.” He died in a Brentwood plane crash in 1964 at the age of 39.

His widow Mary Reeves Davis managed his posthumous career, which included songs her husband recorded before his death that went on to become hits during the 1970s and 1980s.

She died in 1999, suffering from Alzheimer's, and the case has continued unresolved since then. The case has taken some strange turns, with allegations Terry Davis, a former Baptist minister, kept Mary Reeves Davis in filthy conditions even as she struggled with dementia. Authorities found 114 dead cats in the freezer of their rural Tennessee home, before Mary was taken to a nursing facility. A multi-million dollar sale Terry Davis helped broker that would have transferred all of Jim Reeves’ musical catalog from Mary Reeves Davis to a carnival operator later convicted of bank fraud was invalidated by a federal court.

Davis is suing for a bigger share of his late wife’s estate than her 1976 will specified. The will said Terry Davis would get $100,000 and some properties. He is petitioning for a percentage of the overall estate.

The trial was originally scheduled for October.

Friday, November 4, 2011

No-fee banks cash in

When several major banks announced plans to impose new debit card fees on their customers earlier this fall, Avenue Bank’s marketing manager, Lisa Meiers, handled a daily barrage of questions from customers about the bank’s own fees.

So, Avenue Bank launched a print and online campaign to make the message plain: The bank does not charge swipe fees — a fee of up to several dollars a month for using a debit card to make purchases.

Avenue Bank’s weekly account openings have tripled from normal levels since those ads started appearing, riding a wave of consumer anger over big-bank practices. “In my 14 years in the banking industry, I have never seen a customer response like this one,” Meiers said.

Avenue is among a crop of local community banks and credit unions that are winning new business as once-loyal customers of other institutions close accounts in response to new fees.

A number of institutions are making loud and widespread no-fee advertising messages to lure unhappy customers while local credit unions just try to keep pace with scores of new members knocking on their doors.

“This is prime time for small banks to strike,” said Tim Chen of, a website focused on credit card deals. “And customers should expect new fees down the pike next year, so this behavior will probably continue.”

Banks that, together, command more than half of the market share in the Nashville area have decided to charge depositors as much as a $5-per-month debit card fee and other types of service fees to recapture expected profit losses due to rules under the federal Dodd-Frank financial overhaul.

Regions Banks, Bank of America, SunTrust and First Tennessee Bank comprise 51.5 percent of Nashville’s market share based on deposits, according to the latest reports from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

All four banks have started collecting or pledged to impose monthly debit card swipe fees of varying amounts. A few other big banks, Chase and Wells Fargo among them, have recently backed away from the idea of monthly fees on customers’ debit card purchases after a wave of complaints.

How big of an impact customer flight to smaller rivals will have on larger banks’ core customers isn’t yet clear, said Geoff Knapp, vice president of online banking for Fiserv, which develops Internet bill-paying systems. Many customers, for example, who use bill pay services or who have direct deposit find it inconvenient to unravel themselves from the ties that bind them to their existing bank accounts, he said.

“I suspect there will be some churn from the new fees,” Knapp said. “But if you’re a deep, deep user of online services, you’re probably highly satisfied with the bank.”

Still, a rival marketing strategy to capture frustrated big-bank customers seems to be taking root.

Consider CapStar Bank, where the message of the bank’s recent newsletter highlighted its no-new-fee philosophy. “We’ve definitely had more interest expressed and more frustration about fees referenced to us,” the bank’s president, Claire Tucker, says.

Credit unions also may be seeing a rush of interest. Nashville-based Cornerstone Financial — owned and operated by its members — has seen a spike in interest from potential customers hoping to learn how credit unions work, Cornerstone spokesman Will Frye said.

Cornerstone hasn’t had to spend more money to entice new customers. It has happened naturally, Frye said.

“We’re seeing a mass exodus out of major banks,” Frye said. “The word is spreading so fast that we haven’t had to spend a lot of money in advertising. We’re pushing our services lightly, and still, the reaction is more than we expected.”

New customer accounts at Cornerstone have doubled year over year, according to Hank Flurry, Cornerstone CEO.

Nationally, Web traffic at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions’ credit union locator site has grown more than 350 percent in the past week, spokeswoman Patty Briotta said.

In turn, some banks that have introduced monthly debit card fees in Middle Tennessee — such as Regions Bank — are using customers’ vocal concerns as an opportunity to reach out to customers, said Jim Schmitz, the bank’s regional president.

After Region’s revamped fees were announced, the bank called hundreds of customers to explain the shift in the financial industry and to stress the importance of a strong banking relationship.

“Are our branch teams working a little harder now? Yes. But we did prepare for it, and we stay engaged with customers in a conversation about it,” Schmitz said.

Many explore options on Internet

Other disenchanted bank customers have turned to the Internet for banking alternatives.

For instance, Steven Moore, 36, of Nashville found an online bank that he considers not just fee-friendly, but one through which he can even earn a buck.

Moore opened an account with Delaware-based online bank PerkStreet. The bank gives debit card customers up to 2 percent back on purchases for the first three months. “I wouldn’t set up a new account at a bank if I knew there would be debit card or other fees,” Moore said.

A PerkStreet spokesman said Nashville is the bank’s 10th most popular market in the nation, adding that after Bank of America announced its monthly debit card fees last month, the company’s new accounts doubled from the previous daily record.

In the meantime, some customers are rallying around an online movement to switch to credit unions on Nov. 5, in an event dubbed in social media come-ons as Bank Transfer Day. It has gained more than 38,000 supporters on Facebook.

But no one can be sure if small banks and credit unions will be able to continue free services in the coming years, said Greg McBride, Bankrate’s senior analyst.

“The economics of banking are changing. It’s an open-ended question as to how they will be able to maintain free checking account services,” McBride said. “I suspect that some will, some won’t.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Solar loans get scrutiny

WASHINGTON — On the defensive over a half-billion-dollar loan to a now-bankrupt solar company, the White House on Friday ordered an independent review of similar loans made by the Energy Department, its latest response to rising criticism over Solyndra Inc.

The announcement came as House Republicans prepared for a possible vote next week to subpoena White House documents related to the defunct California company.

White House officials said the review would assess the health of more than two dozen other loans and loan guarantees made by the Energy Department program that supported Solyndra. Congressional Republicans have been investigating the company’s bankruptcy amid embarrassing revelations that federal officials were warned it had problems but nonetheless continued to support it, and sent President Barack Obama to visit the company and praise it publicly.

Guarding tax dollars

“Today we are directing that an independent analysis be conducted of the current state of the Department of Energy loan portfolio, focusing on future loan monitoring and management,” White House chief of staff Bill Daley said. “While we continue to take steps to make sure the United States remains competitive in the 21st century energy economy, we must also ensure that we are strong stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Daley said the review would be conducted by former Treasury official Herb Allison, who oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program, part of the 2008 Wall Street bailout. The review would not look at the Solyndra case but would evaluate other loans worth tens of billions of dollars and recommend steps to stabilize them if they appear to have problems like the loan to Solyndra.

The White House has already refused a request by the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee for all its internal communications about Solyndra, which closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, costing 1,100 jobs.

GOP questions

GOP Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Cliff Stearns of Florida said the subpoena was necessary because the White House has denied its requests for documents. Upton chairs the Energy and Commerce panel, while Stearns leads a subcommittee on investigations. Recently released documents show that White House officials participated in decisions regarding the Solyndra loan.

“What is the White House trying to hide from the American public?” Stearns and Upton asked in a joint statement.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More banks abandon debit card fees

Add First Tennessee Bank and Bank of America to the growing list of financial institutions scrapping monthly fees for making debit card purchases — a development being hailed by consumer advocates as a victory for customers.

First Tennessee Bank will not be charging customers to use debit cards, becoming the latest bank based in Tennessee to turn back from its plans to impose monthly debit card fees. The bank’s proposed fee of 4 cents per debit card transaction up to $3 a month was slated to start later this month.

Meanwhile Bank of America dropped plans for a $5 per month fee when customers use debit cards to make any purchases in a given month.

The twin announcements follow news that Regions Bank, SunTrust, Wells Fargo & Co. and JP Morgan Chase will be scrapping their planned or existing debit card swipe fees.

The about-face comes as customers petitioned many of the banks, and mobilized to close their accounts in some cases and take business elsewhere.

First Tennessee contended its customers weren’t upset by its fee structure, but the bank abandoned debit card monthly charges to stay competitive with other institutions, said Dave Miller, head of consumer banking.

Anne Pace, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, declined to say whether the company experienced a spike in account closures since announcing plans for its debit card fee in September.

But in a statement Tuesday, Bank of America’s co-Chief Operating Officer David Darnell said the decision was based on customer feedback. “Our customers’ voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so,” he said.

Pace added that a “changing competitive marketplace” also played a role.

The retreat by the banking industry on debit fees comes amid growing public anger over higher bank fees.

“When I heard about the fee, it was the last straw for me,” said Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old nanny who started the online petition urging Bank of America to drop the debit fee. “I’m living paycheck to paycheck and one more fee was just too much.”

Katchpole said it was exciting that customers were able to sway a big corporation to rethink its decision. But she already closed her account a few weeks ago and said the bank’s decision won’t win her back.

She plans to stay with her new community bank in Washington, D.C.

Other customers may be more forgiving.

Diane Abela, a 38-year-old Manhattan resident, said she had been waiting to see if Bank of America would back down on its plan before closing her account. “I had a feeling if there was big outcry, they wouldn’t go through with it,” said Abela. “I’m unemployed and $5 makes a big difference. When you’re working on a budget every week, it’s the last thing you need.”

The wave of fee hikes had come into play as the industry adjusted to new federal regulations. In particular, banks in the past year have blamed their fee hikes on a new federal regulation championed by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Banks begin to open up loan spigot

Franchise owners Ted Bertuca Sr. and his son had no trouble securing a commercial loan for a McDonald’s location planned for Mt. Juliet later this year, pointing to what may be a long-awaited thaw in some sectors of local business lending.

“The timing is right to do this,” said Bertuca, who operates 21 McDonald’s restaurants in the Nashville area. “And the bank has been there to support us.”

As many regional and national banks horde cash amid lingering economic uncertainties, the lending needle may be starting to move in a positive way in Middle Tennessee, most strikingly in commercial financing.

Banks with a major presence in Middle Tennessee have posted greater year-over-year loan volumes in the third quarter and have seen loan portfolios rally with double-digit percentage gains for commercial projects and business borrowers.

Though loan growth is rather modest, banking analysts say it’s among the first encouraging indicators that the tight-fisted lending environment of the past three years has started to ease and market confidence has begun to rebound.

“Banks have been a little more proactive,” said bank analyst Chris Marinac, with Atlanta-based FIG Partners. “Banks are fed up with holding onto cash. And so they’re pushing a little harder to find some loans they can close.”

At Birmingham, Ala.-based Regions Bank, the Nashville market’s largest bank by deposits, commercial and industrial lending grew in the third quarter by nearly 13 percent and loan commitments in the commercial sector grew $700 million from last quarter.

“Everybody is out there putting money to work,” said Jim Schmitz, the bank’s local president.

Pinnacle Bank’s overall loan volume ramped up in the third quarter by 4.2 percent from the same period last year. The bank showed the strongest loan improvements with commercial and industrial projects, with lending expanding 12.4 percent over the prior-year period.

Commercial lending at Fifth Third Bank jumped almost 10 percent in the third quarter, too.

Guggenheim Securities analyst Marty Mosby said of commercial and industrial lending, “the economy is actually working the way it’s supposed to” as companies borrow to finance new machinery and expand to bolster productivity.

“Given where interest rates are, it’s a great time to invest,” Mosby said. “People don’t want to put money in stocks, so you’re going to see more deposit growth and commercial loan growth.”

Obstacles remain

For individuals and small businesses, however, lending improvements don’t indicate a return to pre-recession volumes.

Most regional banks in Middle Tennessee reported single-digit progress for consumer and small business loans — falling far short of the gains made in the larger commercial sector. Weak demand and still-stringent underwriting standards endure as prime obstacles for many borrowers.

The Federal Reserve’s most recent loan officer survey shows that banks are starting to relax underwriting requirements overall. But only about 10 percent of lenders have eased standards for residential loans and small businesses.

In addition, Pepperdine University surveyed 1,667 small businesses recently and found that among small businesses that sought loans in the past year, nearly half were denied.

Part of the explanation is that small firms tend to be riskier as borrowers. Plus, small-business lending usually recovers more slowly than the broader commercial sector, said Gerard Cassidy, a banking analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

“Banks’ primary product is loans. It makes logical sense that banks want to lend,” Cassidy said. “The problem now becomes: ‘How do you find more qualified borrowers?’ To qualify for a loan in 2011 is meaningfully different than it was in 2006,” he said.

Nevertheless, improved commercial lending will not soon boost banks’ profit margins drastically, Cassidy said, because a new raft of bank regulations and stubbornly weak consumer demand are pulling on every potential gain.

“The Golden Age of banking is over. The economic downturn really killed banks’ glory days,” he said. “We’re not going to see that kind of profitability again for decades.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Home prices show gains

WASHINGTON — Home prices rose in August in half of major cities measured by a private survey, a sign that prices are stabilizing in some hard-hit portions of the country.

The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index showed Tuesday that prices increased in August from July in 10 of the 20 cities tracked. That marked the fifth straight month that at least half of the cities in the survey showed monthly gains.

The biggest price increases were in Washington, Chicago and Detroit. The greatest declines were in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The August data provides a “modest glimmer of hope” that some areas may have bottomed out and could be turning around, said David M. Blitzer, chairman of S&P’s index committee.

He noted that cities in the Midwest — Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis — have shown some strength since May.

In Detroit, the recovering auto industry has helped lead a small rebound in the housing market. Home prices have risen 2.7 percent since August 2010, making it one of only two cities to show a year-over-year gain in that time. The other was Washington.

In Minneapolis and Chicago, fewer homes are being put up for sale, leading to higher prices and better sales figures. That’s likely due to fewer foreclosures in those cities. September’s drop in homes for sale in the Twin Cities was the largest decline in inventory in more than seven years, according to the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors.

Still, Robert Shiller, the co-founder of the index and a Yale economics professor, said in an interview on CNBC that overall home prices were “flat” and a recovery in the struggling housing market was not on the horizon.

The index, which covers half of all U.S. homes, measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The August data are the latest available nationally.

But more recent numbers are available for Middle Tennessee from the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors. In a nine-county swath in and nearby Nashville, September’s single-family median home price dropped 5.1 percent from the same period last year, the second consecutive month that prices have ticked lower after rallying this summer. The median price of $163,000 was a drop of more than $8,800 year-over-year, the GNAR data found.

More drops likely

Prices are certain to fall again once banks resume millions of foreclosures. They have been delayed because of a yearlong government investigation into mortgage lending practices.

“We certainly believe the bulk of the decline in housing is behind us and indeed, one might even say that ‘housing’ is more likely to improve from here,” said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist for BTIG. “But given the overwhelming level of inventory that remains on the market … further price declines seem almost assured to help clear the market.”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

In book, Steve Jobs hints at plan for Apple to reinvent TV

LOS ANGELES — Now that Apple Inc.’s chief visionary is gone, the company is facing a billion-dollar question: Will it be able to conjure another pioneering product without Steve Jobs?

Perhaps fittingly, a possible answer came posthumously from Jobs himself.

The television set, the quintessential squawk box of the 20th century, is ripe for a reinvention, the Apple co-founder said before he died Oct. 5.

“I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson in the new book Steve Jobs, which hit shelves this week. “It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and … will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

His remarks in the book have set off a flurry of speculation that Apple will roll out a television set that could remake the $100 billion industry, much as the company altered personal computers, music players and cellphones.

Emphasis is on simplicity

Apple and Jobs have a record of taking existing technologies and redesigning them with an emphasis on visual simplicity, allowing users to play songs, open applications and make calls with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger — with little technical knowledge required.

But in the past decade, television systems have gone in the other direction, with remote controls sprouting dozens of buttons, many for obscure functions that consumers don’t use. Meanwhile, cable TVs grid of hundreds of shows and channels has become overgrown and difficult to navigate.

“My parents come to my house, and there are three remotes to work the TV,” said Peter Misek, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. “I literally have to change the station for them because they’re freaked out to try it themselves. That’s a disaster.”

For some analysts, Jobs’ declaration to Isaacson has confirmed what they already suspected. Brian White of Ticonderoga Securities wrote to investors Tuesday that he had seen “concrete evidence that an Apple Smart TV was already flowing through factories over in China in early stage pilot and prototype production.”

What's new

Apple has been able to build highly profitable businesses with its iPhone and Mac computers which have been priced at the high end of the market.

Industry watchers believe that Apple has been laying the groundwork for a television set for years, intensifying its focus recently on developing high-resolution, TV-like screen technology for its iPhones and iPad tablet computers, and on software that works across all of its devices and allows users to manage and store broad swaths of their digital lives.

Apple this month also introduced a sophisticated voice-control system for the new model of its iPhone. Called Siri, the software is able to understand free-form spoken commands, including scheduling meetings, writing emails, checking the weather and finding restaurants.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

European debt deal lifts Dow by almost 340 points

NEW YORK — An agreement to contain the European debt crisis electrified the stock market Thursday, driving the Dow Jones industrial average up nearly 340 points and putting the Standard & Poor’s 500 index on track for its best month since 1974.

Investors were relieved after European leaders crafted a deal to slash Greece’s debt load and prevent the crisis there from engulfing larger countries like Italy. The package is aimed at preventing another financial disaster like the one that happened in September 2008 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

But some analysts cautioned that Europe’s problems remain unsolved.

“The market keeps on thinking that it’s put Europe’s problems to bed, but it’s like putting a 3-year-old to bed: You might put it there, but it won’t stay there,” said David Kelly, chief market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds.

Kelly said Europe’s debt problems will remain an issue until the economies of struggling nations like Greece and Portugal grow again.

Still, the Dow Jones industrial average soared 339.51 points, or 2.9 percent, to close at 12,208.55. That was its largest jump since Aug. 11, when it rose 423 points.

All 30 stocks in the Dow rose, led by Bank of America with a9.6 percent gain. It was the first time the Dow closed above 12,000 since Aug. 1.

“This seems to set aside the worries that there would be a massive contagion over there that would have brought everything down with it,” said Mark Lamkin, head of Lamkin Wealth Management.

Even with Thursday’s gains, the Dow remains 4.7 percent below the high for the year it reached on April 29. The Dow has fallen every month since then due to a combination of a slowdown in the U.S. economy, a worldwide parts shortage after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and concerns about the European debt crisis.

The Dow is now at approximately the same level it traded at on July 28.

But anticipation of a solution to Europe’s debt problems and signs that the U.S. economy is not in another recession have lifted stocks higher throughout October.

Middle Tenn. shows signs of stability

In the Nashville area, there were some modest signs of economic stability as well. The Middle Tennessee unemployment rate for 13 counties in the Nashville-Murfreesboro region held steady for September at 8.5 percent, the same rate as August’s revised data, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development said. Davidson County saw its jobless rate ease lower by 0.2 percentage points compared with a year earlier.

The Dow is up 11.9 percent for the month so far. With only two full days of trading left in October, the Dow could have its biggest monthly gain since January 1987.

The S&P 500 rose 3.7 percent, to 1,284.59. That index is up 13.5 percent for the month, its best performance since a 16.3 percent gain in October 1974.

Small-company stocks rose more than the broader market. The Russell 2000 index jumped 5.3 percent.

European leaders still have to finalize the details of their latest plan. French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke with Chinese President Hu Jintao amid hopes that countries with lots of cash, like China, can contribute to the European rescue.

Past attempts to contain Europe’s two-year debt crisis have proved insufficient. Greece has been surviving on rescue loans since May 2010. In July, creditors agreed to take some losses on their Greek bonds, but that wasn’t enough to fix the problem.

Worries about Europe’s debt crisis and a weak U.S. economy dragged the S&P 500 down19.4 percent between April 29 and Oct. 3. That put it on the cusp of what’s called a bear market, which is a 20 percent decline.

Since then, there have been a number of more encouraging signs in the U.S. economy. Despite the jitters over Europe, many large American companies have been reporting strong profit growth in the third quarter, including Dow Chemical.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Will Nissan's Smyrna plant go global?

Nissan’s two U.S. plants, including the one in Smyrna, could soon go global and begin making vehicles for export overseas, moving beyond their current role of assembling cars and trucks only for buyers in North America.

The move could lead to significant expansion of the automaker’s U.S. production facilities, including its other vehicle-assembly plant, in Canton, Miss., and the engine plant in Decherd, Tenn., analysts say. And any significant expansion could also bring an increase in jobs for American workers.

Building cars here for export is a move that Nissan’s Japanese leaders have said might be necessary because of the increasingly high costs of production in Japan, fueled in large part by the high value of the Japanese yen versus the U.S. dollar and other world currencies.

“As far as trying to keep production in Japan, all bets are off,” said Rebecca Lindland, director of auto-industry research for IHS Global Insight. “The yen is definitely wreaking havoc not only for Nissan, but for Honda and Toyota as well.

“It’s incredibly difficult to make a profit when you aren’t building where you sell, but it’s also important to find stable currency opportunities, or your products are going to be more expensive and the price tags uncompetitive, particularly in developing countries,” she said. “It’s especially important now that the Detroit 3 (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) are doing so well.”

Franklin-based Nissan Americas officials wouldn’t comment about the possibility of using their U.S. plants to assemble any vehicles for export as far away as numerous markets in Asia. But Japanese media recently reported that Yokohama, Japan-based Nissan Corp. plans to move some production of its Teana premium midsize sedan to the Smyrna plant near Nashville.

Although it’s not sold in North America, the Teana is available in South America, Asia and other parts of the world. Adding it to the product mix in Smyrna wouldn’t be difficult, analysts say, because the car uses the same basic architecture as the Maxima sedan, one of the key products at the Middle Tennessee plant.

If that occurs, the Teana would be the first Nissan vehicle built in Smyrna strictly for export elsewhere, but the volume of shipments would be relatively small, auto analysts said. The car’s annual sales are well below those of such popular Smyrna products as the midsize Altima sedan, which recently has been out-selling the one time market-leading Honda Accord.

Other exports

But exports from Tennessee could go well beyond the Teana, and include the all-electric Leaf, as well as other electric vehicles and even a new plug-in hybrid that Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn mentioned as he unveiled the automaker’s six-year “Nissan Green Program” this week in Yokohama, Japan.

The new models are expected to arrive by 2015, including the plug-in hybrid, which would be similar in concept to the Chevrolet Volt and the new 2012 Toyota Prius plug-in model.

While there was no word given on where any of the new Nissan “green” vehicles, including three more all-electric models, would be produced, Smyrna is a good bet to get at least some of them, and could produce significant numbers for export, Lindland said.

“There’s a strong possibility they would produce these new electric vehicles in the United States,” she said. “The yen is not getting any better. They will have to start making decisions now because the situation is not likely to change anytime soon.”

Nissan is now expanding the Smyrna facility to begin assembling the Leaf in early 2013, and also is building a $1 billion lithium-ion battery plant at the same site to make up to 200,000 battery packs annually for the Leaf both for local production and export. The Smyrna plant will initially have the capacity to assemble 150,000 of the Leaf cars annually.

“I’m sure they are looking at the feasibility of exporting the Leaf, particularly since they’re going to have excess capacity at least at the start,” Lindland said. “It’s too soon to say what the real demand will be for the Leaf because they still have infrastructure and supply-chain issues.”

Moving production of some models here from Japan for eventual export probably would be a good idea, said Jim Hall, owner of the automotive consulting firm 2953 Analytics in suburban Detroit.

“It makes sense,” Hall said. “But whether they do it depends on more than the value of the yen. They have to be vehicles whose engines are built here, as well. If you have to bring engines over (from Asia), the transportation costs can be prohibitive.”

Sales of the Leaf, which went on sale in limited areas last December, have been sluggish so far. The only plant now building the Leaf is in Japan, but the vehicle in on sale in North America, Asia and Europe. A plant is also planned for England, but it’s not online yet.

Capacity available

Nissan has significant unused capacity at both Smyrna and Canton now. As currently configured, Smyrna can build 550,000 vehicles a year, but turned out just 282,500 in 2010; Canton can assemble 400,000, but produced only 230,000 last year.

Canton already has a new product this year, though — the 2012 NV commercial van, which began shipping to U.S. dealers in February. They are full-size cargo vans about the size of Nissan’s Titan pickup, and are the automaker’s first foray into the U.S. commercial-vehicle market that has been dominated by Ford and General Motors.

The Canton plant, which has three assembly lines, already is working one of them on three shifts, building the Altima midsize sedan. But the second line, which builds the Titan full-size pickup and Armada full-size SUV, runs just one shift daily. The third line began producing the commercial vans in mid-January.

Before getting any vehicles to build and then export overseas, though, Smyrna and Canton may see more models for the North American market that are now built in Japan. One is already slated to move to Smyrna from Japan in early 2013 — the Nissan Rogue compact crossover utility vehicle.

Smyrna would seem to be the most logical place to expand production, adds George Peterson, president of the industry research firm AutoPacific.

“Smyrna is huge and very flexible,” he said. “It’s already the largest auto plant in the country, and from that standpoint, it can absorb a lot of capacity.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

BMI board sets two firsts with new leader

BMI’s board of directors has a new face at the helm, and it’s the first time the title has been given to a woman and an African-American.

Susan Davenport Austin, an Ivy League-educated woman from Pittsburgh whose family has a long history in radio and who previously spent 10 years in investment banking, will be music rights group BMI’s next chairwoman of the board, the company said Wednesday.

Austin, 44, who is based in New York, was the board’s vice chairwoman before her appointment and will succeed Jack Sander, who will serve as the company’s presiding director.

“The music business has been changing and evolving, but we will continue to make certain that our songwriters are getting paid,” Austin said, referring to BMI’s watchdog duty as overseer of royalty payments, as well as promoting growth within the music industry.

Austin remains chief financial officer of Sheridan Broadcasting Corp., a Pittsburgh-based network of stations, which includes gospel programming. Austin’s family founded the company in 1972.

BMI recently unveiled mobile applications in which songwriters can upload set lists and concert venues to be considered for royalty payments.

Austin sees her tenure on the board’s top post as a way to continue on this path.

BMI last month reported $931 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30.

“This historic high in revenues continues an unbroken record of year-over-year increases stretching back more than 20 years,” a BMI press release noted.

BMI distributed $796 million in royalties this year. The company represents songwriters, composers and music publishers.

Austin said her new role will play to her strengths, some of which she employed on Wall Street.

“In investment banking, I used to tell people my job was to raise money and buy and sell companies. But I was really helping a company with strategic thinking,” said Austin, who said the same approach applies to her duties on the BMI board.

Austin went to Harvard University, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She also holds a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University. Before joining her family’s broadcasting company, Austin worked in communications for Goldman Sachs and also at Bear, Stearns & Co.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

First Horizon CEO elected to chairman of the board

Bryan Jordan, CEO of First Horizon National Corp., has been elected to succeed Mike Rose as chairman of the bank holding company’s board as of Jan. 1.

Scott M. Niswonger, chair and founder of Landair Transport, also has been elected to the First Horizon board. Memphis-based First Horizon is the parent of First Tennessee Bank.

Rose, 69, will retire from the First Horizon board in April, just after he reaches the board’s mandatory retirement age of 70. Rose has served as a director since 1984 and as chairman since January 2007. Jordan called Rose “a thoughtful guiding force.”

The 49-year-old Jordan, who was recruited to the bank by Rose, joined First Horizon as chief financial officer in May 2007 and was named CEO less than a year and a half later.

Meanwhile, Niswonger also is chairman emeritus and former CEO of Forward Air Inc. After completing his aviation studies at Purdue University, he moved to Greeneville, Tenn., as a corporate pilot for The Magnavox Co. He began his first transportation company in 1973. He is president and founder of the Niswonger Foundation, an educational operating foundation, and a member of the executive council for the Niswonger Children’s Hospital, an affiliate of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

— Randy McClain

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Global law firm chooses Nashville for facility

An international law firm said Tuesday it will consolidate back-office functions in a new Nashville facility, the latest shared-services center to come to the region.

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLC said its planned center will provide human resource, information technology, finance and other non-legal professional services for its 14 offices worldwide, including its New York headquarters.

The center is expected to open in fall 2012 and eventually have as many as 150 employees, who probably will be a mix of relocations and local hires.

The firm wants to lease about 30,000 to 40,000 square feet of office space and is scouting several possible locations for the center, but has no timetable for making a decision, said Sean Whelan, the firm’s chief financial officer.

Whelan declined to say what geographical areas the firm is considering, but a local official said the firm is focusing its search on Davidson County.

“We’re excited,” said Jeff Hite, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s business recruitment director. “It’s a good win for Nashville.”

Local officials had been talking with the firm and its site selection consultant for six months, he said. Those talks included economic incentives offered by Metro, the state and the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hite said. The amount and type of incentives the project could receive have not been determined, local and state officials said.

Nashville wins out

Pillsbury Winthrop began its search with 300 U.S. cities, then narrowed that to a dozen for additional study, Whelan said. From there, the firm picked four finalists for site visits before ultimately choosing Nashville.

Affordable housing, a concentration of educational institutions here, cultural amenities and favorable tax rates were key factors in the decision, Whelan said.

“We really wanted to find a place that was attractive to our employees,” he said, noting Nashville was the top choice of a focus group of Pillsbury Winthrop employees.

That helped push Nashville ahead of other places that offered lower startup and operating costs, said Jim Rishwain, the firm’s chairman.

The firm announced plans for the center a year ahead of its anticipated opening to give employees enough time to consider and prepare for relocation, Whelan said. He, along with the firm’s chief information officer, will move to Nashville to oversee the center’s startup and operations.

Last year, Loews Hotels opened a 40,000-square-foot shared-services center here. As part of its search, Pillsbury Winthrop talked with Loews and others who have opened similar centers in the area, Whelan said.

Pillsbury Winthrop focuses on the energy, financial services, real estate and technology sectors. It has 11 U.S. offices, plus one each in London, Shanghai and Tokyo and an affiliate in Abu Dhabi, according to its website. This will be its first location in Tennessee.

Monday, October 24, 2011

For investors, playing it 'safe' can still be risky

CHICAGO — Investors remain anxious to find safety even as the stock market moves back toward positive territory for the year.

They’re on pace to yank more than $20 billion out of stock funds this month, the fourth time in the last five months, scarred by the volatility over everything from the sluggish economy to Europe’s debt crisis to the threat of another global recession.

Despite the recent market uptick, there’s still plenty to worry about.

Fears remain that the Greek government may fail to pay its massive debts, which would wreak widespread financial havoc. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke hasn’t backed off from his statement early this month that the economic recovery “is close to faltering.” And investors aren’t fully convinced that the selloff that pushed the Standard & Poor’s 500 index down 14 percent in the third quarter has run its course.

All the added uncertainty fuels any temptation to abandon stocks, as many already have done.

But “playing it safe” comes at a cost. Over the long run, fleeing to cash or buying Treasurys may be even more dangerous in this era of low interest rates as well as low returns. It can do permanent damage to your money’s buying power and your retirement prospects.

That’s the message financial advisers have been hammering home to clients who want to abandon the stock market, fearing a repeat of the 2008 meltdown or who are simply fed up with all the plunges.

Illusion of safety

Disillusioned investors, too, risk chasing an illusion of safety. So-called safe havens aren’t all that safe anymore.

“This is what I say to clients: ‘There is no safety’,” says Femi Shote, an investment adviser with Asset Harvest Group in McLean, Va. “What I preach is resilience, not safety.”

Hints of improvement in the latest corporate results hold out hope for investors, while highlighting the risk of being on the sidelines. Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, says the stock market is “pretty cheap” after all the selling and could come back quickly.

“All this volatility doesn’t engender a lot of confidence,” LaVorgna says. “But some good news can quickly restore it. If it looks like the economy is still growing and there’s some resolution in Europe, we could have the tonic for a powerful rally.”

Whether that occurs soon or not, here’s a look at the numbers confirms the meager payoffs of playing it safe.

Cash: Although it can provide a sense of security, cash doesn’t hold its value well over time. The average yield on a money-market account is just 0.54 percent, according to Even the best-paying online savings accounts pay 1 percent or less. As recently as the summer of 2008, just before the financial crisis hit full-force, you could earn 5 percent on such accounts.

Certificates of deposit also pay poorly. The highest rates available are 1.15 percent on a one-year CD and 2.2 percent on a five-year CD.

U.S. Treasury notes: The safety of bonds is less rewarding than it used to be. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury fell to a record-low 1.71 percent last month and remains near 2 percent.

Gold: It is far too speculative to be used wisely as protection against a falling stock market. But gold has been embraced by investors worried about rising U.S. debt, the possibility of inflation and a spreading European debt crisis. More and more piled in as the price nearly tripled in four years, reaching a record $1,891.90 on Aug. 22.

Since then, it has tumbled all the way back near $1,600.

Aside from gold’s recent slide, a market-weary investor might reason that at least cash and other options offer less downside risk than stocks and the most protection for their accounts. Investment experts, however, consider that thinking short-sighted. If you’re too conservative, they note, you can outlive your money.

Inflation historically averages about 3 percent, so putting money aside that earns less than 1 percent means its value is eroding over time. Keeping money in the stock market is the likeliest way to stay ahead of inflation.

Even in a period that included two sharp declines in the market, the S&P 500 index had an average annual return of 7 percent for the 15 years from mid-1996 through June 30. That’s hard to match elsewhere.

Investors who ditch stocks are removing future growth from their portfolios and need to compensate elsewhere.

“When you sell, you need to simultaneously increase the amount you’re contributing to that account,” says Stuart Ritter, a certified financial planner for T. Rowe Price in Baltimore. “Or if you’re in retirement, you need to withdraw less. Otherwise you have no chance to keep up with inflation.”

Opportunity cost

Then there’s what economists call the opportunity cost — what you miss out in the long haul by leaving.

Over the longer term, the case for staying in stocks is even more compelling. History says the market is highly unlikely to decline over any 10-year period, recent times notwithstanding. On a rolling basis, the S&P 500 has produced losses in only four out of 76 different 10-year periods since 1926, according to a T. Rowe Price analysis.

Those who want to keep their cash on the sidelines until the market calms down, even for a few days, do so at risk of missing a comeback. An investment that excluded the best 10 days of the S&P 500 in the past decade would have posted an annual loss of 1.5 percent rather than a gain of 5.3 percent.

Investors who sat out even part of the 2009-11 bull market learned the hard way.

When panicked clients call Joe Adkins of Financial Advisors International with a request to sell after seeing the Dow drop hundreds of points, the Orlando, Fla., money manager offers a ready reminder. Had they sold stocks in March 2009 when the market bottomed and bought back in in December 2009, he tells them, they would have missed a 4,000-point gain in the Dow — nearly two-thirds of the two-year bull-market rally.

“You shouldn’t manage your money based on the headlines,” his advice goes. “Just weather the storm, because if you go to cash you risk running out of money.”

Besides telling clients to stick with the market, many advisers are steering them toward large, stable, blue chip stocks with a history of paying annual dividends of 3 percent or more.

Others recommend sinking a small percentage into alternative investments — a catch-all term for such instruments as hedge funds. Alternative investments can be used as a tool to reduce overall risk through diversification. But the complexity, cost and lack of liquidity typically don’t make those the safest of investments, either.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Newcomer musicians open their wallets to avoid paying dues

Musician and Detroit native John Maison is willing to pay his dues to make it in the music business — but he’s also willing to pay in cash.

So the 20-something former commercial loan officer decided to hire Nashville songwriting consultant Marc-Alan Barnette to help him speed along the traditional years-long, dues-paying, school-of-hard-knocks route to Nashville songwriter success.

For a fee, Barnette agreed to impart to Maison some of the music industry wisdom he had learned from nearly a quarter-century as a songwriter, including introducing Maison to the right publishers, booking him in the best songwriter showcase events and serving as a co-writer on some of Maison’s original songs.

“Nashville is a 10-year town,” Maison said. “That’s how long it takes to establish all the relationships and filter through all the garbage of empty promises. But the idea is if you hire someone like Marc you can get your chops down and pay your dues so much faster.”

Barnette is among a growing number of “songwriter service” providers who are making a living by offering aspiring songwriters and singers entrĂ©e into the world of Nashville music.

The practice is controversial because it upends the mutual self-help culture that singers and songwriters say has long defined the local music scene — where musicians and writers have moved to town, made friends and been able to navigate the often-complicated music business with informal advice freely traded among fellow artists.

The practice also has drawn outright scam artists, who promise wildly extravagant results — fame, record deals, hit songs — they can’t deliver in return for hefty fees, industry observers say.

But Barnette, who in the past has opened for Charlie Daniels, Garth Brooks and Patty Loveless, is among the consultants who staff at institutions like the Nashville Songwriters Association International recommend.

The music business' shifting landscape

Two seismic shifts in the music industry in the past decade — one cultural, one economic — have driven the phenomenon of songwriting consultant services, said Bart Herbison, NSAI’s executive director.

The first is the economics of the music business. Longtime songwriters are turning to consulting to make a living because their own options for making money have narrowed. Publishers are retaining fewer professional songwriters on staff as well.

What used to be a comfortable middle-class living, even for songwriters without huge hits, has all but evaporated, leading songwriters like Barnette into more entrepreneurial roles.

The second shift is the “American Idol phenomena,” Herbison said. “Everyone wants to be a star overnight. It’s just that moment in our culture. You’ve got the demand for that kind of help.”

Barnette said he also sees a third phenomenon at work: The songwriting community in the digital age is a lot more complicated than it used to be. While there are fewer opportunities to becoming successful, there are many more ways to access them than in the past. He sees his role as a “personal trainer for songwriters and artists.”

Yes, he is charging for a service that teaches people what they can learn on their own, “but you can send someone to downtown New York City and have them figure out how to drive around without a map,” he said. “I provide the map.”

The songwriting scene

Nashville’s songwriting scene includes longstanding institutions that have staff designated specifically to help newcomers. Performing rights organizations such as BMI, ASCAP and SESAC, which collect royalties for songwriters, offer walk-in, free appointments for aspiring songwriters to ask questions or play their music and get constructive feedback.

The Nashville Songwriters Association International offers seminars and workshops — some free and some paid — that attract songwriters from around the world.

It hosts events such as “Pitch to Publishers” nights that give aspiring singer-songwriters an audience with song publishers; or there’s SongPosium, which provides an intense three-day campus-style education in all things one needs to know about the music industry.

Joining the organization for a $150 annual fee gives songwriters access to a host of other events as well as access to songwriting rooms and the comfortable, clubby headquarters.

Increasingly, however, NSAI has had to adapt to different demands by aspiring songwriters looking for quicker payoffs, Herbison said.

The association used to provide five song camps a year that lasted five days. Now they have two, but have added a series of short hourlong seminars.

It’s a sign of the times for songwriters who, because of their desire for quick success or because they can’t financially afford to invest the time, want quicker payoffs for their time, Herbison said.

Lorna Flowers became a songwriting consultant in March after a publishing deal ended.

The longtime pop and country songwriter, who moved to Nashville from Great Britain in 2004, has had three No. 1 hits on the European charts and, in the beginning, was making a comfortable living as a songwriter. Now, she offers consulting services to out-of-towners, many from overseas, as well as booking songwriter nights at two clubs and operating a production company.

“You have to have six jobs to make a living in Nashville at the minute,” Flowers said.

Flowers commuted from England for many years and said she learned the hard way how difficult it was for out-of-towners to navigate the Nashville music landscape. She’d arrive in Nashville, wait around for callbacks and then have to leave before she could accomplish anything.

“I know what it’s like to sit in a Nashville hotel room and try and figure all this out,” Flowers said. “This town runs on rescheduling. It’s hard not to take it personally, and it’s almost impossible to figure things out without someone to give you a hand.”

Flowers’ services range from performance voice coaching to arranging for meetings with publishers, or trips to industry networking events.

Flowers also offers to co-write with her clients or set them up with other co-writers for a fee that ranges between $100 to $500 per session.

Charging for co-writing — something Flowers calls “coach writing” — is among the most controversial practices among music consultants. Songwriters who write together have a longstanding tradition of agreeing to split future royalties, with money only changing hands if the song earns any.

“It is controversial, and I understand that,” Flowers said. “But the truth is that I can help people do their best and I can find other songwriters who will improve their chances of writing a quality song.”

Music industry insiders say the other upside to legitimate consultants is their ability to steer aspiring songwriters and artists away from scams.

Ripoff stories in the Nashville music business are legion, with newcomers paying thousands of dollars for demos that should cost hundreds, high-priced headshots, and CD replication services that return low-quality cuts.

“You see Harvard graduates come to town who lose any business sense,” Barnette said.

Legitimate songwriting consultants, who themselves have learned the hard way who to avoid working with, can steer clients away from bad actors to legitimate service providers.

When does it pay off?

Maison, the Detroit songwriter, said that hiring Barnette as a consultant seems to be paying off.

In the three years since he began working with Barnette, Maison has been able to quit his day job and make a living off music. He was just picked up on an independent label, Big High Five Records. And he plans to keep using Barnette, despite some initial skepticism.

“When I first heard about people charging for this, to be honest I was like, ‘What a joke. That’s a scam. No way,’ ” he said.

“But the music business is like anything else. You get what you pay for.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No longer made in China: U.S. companies start re-importing some jobs

Four years ago, La Vergne-based Pro Charging Systems LLC outsourced manufacturing of several key components of its new line of battery chargers to China.

The idea was to take advantage of lower labor costs and other advantages the company was counting on as it made charger parts there that would end up in hunting vehicles and golf carts sold in the United States.

Over the past year, though, Pro Charging has shifted that work and some other assignments back to U.S.-based suppliers.

The La Vergne company illustrates a surprising trend — call it a trickle — in which some manufacturers are bringing jobs back to America from Asia. With U.S. jobless rates stubbornly high, it’s part of a welcome reversal fueled by the Chinese economy starting to lose its cost advantages for many products made abroad but bound for final assembly and sale here.

Pro Charging’s changing strategy has been a plus for Pine Hill Plastics Inc., a small manufacturer in McMinnville, Tenn. Pine Hill makes a battery cover for Pro Charging that used to be made overseas.

Jeff Wolaver, Pine Hill’s president, said his company has signed contracts with two other U.S. companies in recent months to bring their production home from China or other Asian outposts.

That has allowed the plastic injection molding company to add roughly 10 employees this year, Wolaver said.

“Anytime we can increase sales with an existing client, it’s a bonus to us … just further developing a relationship,” he said, referring to Pro Charging and another company. “My employees (also) see that we’re able to compete in the global marketplace, and that gives them a lot of confidence. It boosts morale.”

As labor costs rise in China — along with steep fuel and transportation costs to ship merchandise back home — the idea of making goods in the U.S.A. starts to look better to American companies, a recent study by The Boston Consulting Group found. U.S. suppliers also are closing the gap in relative costs by operating more efficiently here.

“We’re not saying that factories in China will close,” said Mike Zinser, a partner who leads Boston Consulting Group’s manufacturing work in the Americas. “There will still be huge demand for serving the Chinese market and the rest of Asia. But in terms of supplying North America, China will no longer be the default option.”

The once-enormous gap in labor costs between China’s coastal provinces and lower-wage Southern states like Tennessee should shrink even more by 2015 as wages rise in China, according to Boston Consulting’s analysis. Some production shifting away from China could go to Mexico where labor costs will stay extremely cheap, but not as much as some might think, the group’s report adds.

“The tide has turned and will continue to turn at a quicker pace in years to follow,” said Pro Charging Chairman and Chief Executive Timothy J. Knox. “We can never forget we’re a manufacturing culture. That’s our heritage. We’re very good at it.”

In addition to hunting vehicle and golf cart accessories, Knox’s company makes battery chargers for floor scrubbers and some other equipment.

U.S. manufacturing advantages include a better-skilled workforce, ease of security and other logistical advantages “that will make the U.S. a better option for many companies,” wrote Justin Rose, co-author of the Boston Consulting study. It lists transportation goods, including vehicles and auto parts, household appliances, and furniture among seven sectors that could return up to 3 million manufacturing jobs to the U.S.

The analysis, however, acknowledges that some other manufacturing sectors, including footwear and textiles, probably won’t come back to these shores.

China remains key partner

China remains Tennessee’s No. 1 source of imports and the third-biggest export destination for the Volunteer State behind Canada and Mexico.

Last year, $16.4 billion worth of products — including toys, electronics, appliances and machinery —were imported into Tennessee from China, up 24 percent from 2009, according to U.S. Commerce Department data.

Meanwhile, this state’s exports to China grew 38 percent to $1.8 billion last year — and through August of this year they’re running 17 percent above the year-earlier pace.

Nationally, for all of 2011, though, the U.S. has run up a trade deficit of $189.3 billion with China, highlighting what The Economic Policy Institute think tank says has been the loss of 2.8 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2010.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill aimed at curbing cheap imports from China by pressuring that country to revalue its currency. In the House, the bill faces stiff opposition from Republican leaders wary of a trade war that could harm U.S. business interests in China.

Pro Charging’s decision to bring back production of components — including plastic covers for its chargers — was driven in part by patriotism and to help the U.S. economy recover momentum, CEO Knox said.

The shift has taken more than a year, beginning with Pro Charging doing research on potential U.S. suppliers and working with them to ensure that the products were made in a cost-effective way, Knox said. “We were able to remain competitive from a price-point standpoint, while we improved our quality and shortened our delivery time.”

The first production that Pro Charging brought back from China went to SAPA Extruder Inc.’s aluminum extrusion plant in Mountain Top, Pa.

Bill Peterson, the plant’s sales manager, said the work contributes to keeping its workforce busy. Using a punch press as part of the process of creating the aluminum components for Pro Charging helps to reduce costs, Peterson added.

“We’re excited about the business and opportunity to grow with Pro Charging,” he said.

Elsewhere, automotive supplier O-Flex Automotive Inc. of Murfreesboro will soon begin handling putting a black or silver coating on the body of Pro Charging’s battery chargers to guard against aluminum corrosion.

“They have an agressive program for growth, and we like the fact this helps us diversify,” Scott Powell, sales engineer at O-Flex Automotive, said of the new work.

Gap is narrowing

Jeremy A. Leonard, an economic consultant with the Washington-based Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, says U.S. companies that moved production to China only because of low labor costs are finding there’s more to consider than wages.

For instance, rising oil prices have made overseas transportation costs more expensive in recent years, plus shipping times are often a key factor with customers.

“If you’re in a market where speed to market is important, (moving products) by ship … is going to take longer than if you’re producing close to your customer,” Leonard said.

Wages in China, meanwhile, are growing 15 percent to 20 percent a year, according to Boston Consulting’s study. And stagnant wages in the U.S. manufacturing sector have helped narrow the relative cost advantages that China long enjoyed, said John Butler, project manager with the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.

Political debates over foreign competition come down to one thing most often, though: jobs.

The U.S. jobless rate remains above 9 percent, and Tennessee’s rate was 9.7 percent in late summer.

Last week, one federal program that has paid for job training and other aid for more than 35,000 unemployed Tennesseans (and many more workers in other states) since 2002 was extended for at least two more years.

Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration made renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program a precondition for voting on trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Lawmakers approved the renewal and the three trade pacts last week.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance plan will get $575 million over two years for training, relocation aid, health insurance tax credits, job-search allowances and other benefits to workers who lose jobs as a result of foreign trade.

Tennessee manufacturing employees have been a major beneficiary of the program in recent years.

It provided $20.5 million in benefits to newly unemployed Tennesseans in fiscal 2010 alone. More than 8,400 Tennessee workers from 67 companies received trade adjustment aid for the first time in 2010, the 12th-highest number in the nation. Most states that topped that number were Midwestern states hit by losses in the auto industry or states with larger populations such as California, Texas and New York.

An analysis last year by Middle Tennessee State University economist Steven Livingston found the state generates almost twice the number of requests for trade adjustment aid than one would expect based on the number of manufacturing businesses.

Livingston attributed that to two factors. First, many of Tennessee’s manufacturing plants are branches owned by out-of-state companies, and Tennessee plants are more likely to be located in rural areas. Such sites are often among the first to be closed when the economy plummets.

Dr. Ming Wang, president of the Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce, sees other promising economic factors at work.

Rising wages in China, for instance, will boost demand for U.S. products, Wang said. And Chinese companies seeking new markets will add manufacturing plants here to be closer to domestic consumers they hope to target.

“This year, when the world’s largest manufacturer is on the brink of becoming the world’s largest consumer, that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of our businesses here,” Wang said.