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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Glass Ceiling for Best Job in Whole World

The Wall Street Journal

Turns Out Women Can Often Beat Men as Beer Tasters



MILWAUKEE—Rhonda Dannenberg, a suburban mother of three, stuck her nose in six glasses of beer at the MillerCoors brewery here and swished a bit of each in her mouth. Then she delivered the kind of frank verdict that's shaking up the mens-club world of beer tasting.

"I got a strong bruised fruit," Ms. Dannenberg, 36 years old, said of one of the Miller Lite batches, drawing a few nods from the three other women and two men at the table. "Slight cardboard taste. Oxidized. Unacceptable."

At many companies, the assembled panelists would have been men, typically brew masters and other technical types. And it makes sense. To judge from TV commercials, men like beer better than women do and sometimes even seem to like beer more than they like women.

But the British company SABMiller PLC decided several years ago to reach deeper into its employee pool to find adept tasters, inviting marketers, secretaries and others to try their hand. The company concluded that women were drinking men under the table.

"We have found that females often are more sensitive about the levels of flavor in beer," says Barry Axcell, SABMiller's chief brewer. Women trained as tasters outshine their male counterparts, he says.

If practice makes perfect, men should have the clear edge in beer tasting, since they account for 72.8% of the world's beer sales, according to market-research firm Datamonitor Group. But SABMiller, which makes Pilsner Urquell, Peroni and Grolsch in addition to Miller and Coors brands, says its empirical evidence shows that females are the superior sex when it comes to detecting such undesirable chemicals as 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, which makes beer "skunky."

Finding the very best tasters is crucial to the beer industry. Tasting panels ensure that the beer spilling out of the tanks each day conforms with the specific characteristics for each brand—such as the mild fruit flavor in Coors Light or the dry finish of Peroni. Tasters also help brewers decide how long their beers will stay fresh on store shelves, and what new products to introduce.

Today, 30% of SABMiller's 1,000 advanced-level tasters are female, Mr. Axcell says. The number of women tasters has roughly quadrupled in 10 years.

Ms. Dannenberg studied microbiology in college and worked at a cheese factory before landing a job here as a pilot brewer testing new styles. She's known for her colorful descriptions of beer flavors, like "fish tank." "We don't want that," she says.

"Sometimes guys will see red or brown and women will see shades in it," says Jason Pratt, 30, a yeast and fermentation scientist who serves on the panel with Ms. Dannenberg.

Last year, Mr. Pratt took home the Golden Nose, the trophy that goes each year to the top MillerCoors taster in Milwaukee. He says he has sought out female tasters as tutors, listening closely to the advice of such women as Sue Thompson, who runs the tasting panels for MillerCoors, which is co-owned by SABMiller and U.S.-Canadian Molson Coors Brewing Co.

"There's more of a camaraderie than a competition," he explains. "Let's be honest. We are getting paid to drink beer."

Still, he says, he would like the men to make a better showing in SABMiller's annual taster-of-the-year competition, in which its 2,000 panelists in blind tastings around the world identify beer types, aromas and the intensity of specific chemicals. Joanna Wasilewska, a 33-year-old former secretary at its brewery in Bialystok, Poland, has won both events held so far.

There are downsides to the job. "It's hard to be a social drinker sometimes," says Laura Dopkins, 28, a MillerCoors panelist, who has a master's degree in food science and used to taste cereal bars for Kellogg Co. "Other people don't find it fun to drink around you" when you refer to beer as "metallic."

Other brewers are reluctant to say whether women make better tasters. Carlsberg A/S, the Danish brewer, says a test of its tasting panelists this year showed its women outperforming the men. This "surprised us," says David Burgess, group quality director. Nonetheless, he says, "our view is there is no difference between men and women."

At the North American division of Belgium's Anheuser-Busch InBev, data on its beer tasters show no significant difference between the sexes, says Pete Kraemer, vice president of supply and a beer-tasting panelist himself.


Some male beer drinkers doubt that women are better, too. "It doesn't seem credible," said Carlos Lopez, 22, while sipping a glass of Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy one recent afternoon at Stocks and Blondes, a Chicago bar.

A female friend, Ashley Siapno, begged to differ. "I think we have a better sense of what tastes better in all aspects," she said. "Food, clothes, beer."

Only about one of every five people—male or female—who try out for tasting at breweries ascend to the level of corporate panelist, says Bill Simpson of Cara Technology Ltd. in the U.K., who consults companies on training and evaluating beer tasters. People with natural ability must go through at least several months of training and be able to recognize numerous flavors to qualify as an expert panelist, he adds.

Still, scientists say women may have a physiological edge. Research shows they have a better sense of smell, a critical part of identifying flavors in beer, says Marcia Pelchat, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in Philadelphia.

Ms. Wasilewska, the Polish beer taster, was working as a secretary and assistant to the board of the Bialystok brewery several years ago when she decided to attend a screening to see whether she might have an aptitude for tasting. The company soon realized she had an unusual knack for identifying extremely low levels of troublesome chemicals.

Now Ms. Wasilewska runs tasting panels as a sensory evaluation coordinator. She says she doesn't know why she is so good at beer-tasting but thinks it may have something to do with her long love affair with perfumes. "As a young girl, I tried to learn every single perfume by heart," she says. "I never dreamed that I might use my skills."

Nestle's $28.1 Billion Payday Gives It Google-Size Cash Pile for Purchase

Bloomberg

 
Nestle SA has a $28.1 billion question and investors have plenty of answers.

Europe’s largest company by market value could buy almost any publicly traded food asset with cash when it gets paid for its Alcon Inc. stake in the second half. Investors want the maker of KitKat bars and Haagen-Dazs ice cream to expand in emerging markets to catch up with Unilever, which gets about half of its sales in developing countries.

“The world is their oyster, but the pearls can’t be too expensive,” said Wendy Trevisani, a fund manager at Thornburg Investment Management in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which has more than $700 million invested in Nestle shares. “They’re clearly a laggard in emerging markets.”

Nestle will receive $28.1 billion from Novartis AG for its majority stake in Alcon, the maker of Opti-Free contact lens cleaners, giving it a cash pile exceeding the $26.5 billion that Google Inc. had on its books at the end of March. The Swiss company is starting a new 10 billion-franc buyback program, though Nestle would rather invest in its business or make acquisitions, Chief Financial Officer Jim Singh said June 22.

About 1 billion consumers in emerging markets will increase their incomes enough to be able to afford Nestle products within the next decade, the Vevey, Switzerland-based company estimates. The world’s largest food company gets about a third of its revenue from emerging economies and Chief Executive Officer Paul Bulcke aims to lift that to 45 percent within a decade.

Nestle’s sales in emerging markets rose 8.5 percent last year, double the rate of the total company’s revenue.

Bottled Water?

Shares in Nestle, which no analyst recommends selling according to 42 ratings tracked by Bloomberg, are up 5.3 percent this year. Unilever has risen 1.4 percent. Kraft Foods Inc., the world’s second-largest foodmaker, has gained 6.5 percent.

Nestle may purchase bottled water businesses in markets such as China, Frits van Dijk, head of Nestle’s Asian business, said June 22. Acquisitions would also be considered to expand its business selling nutrition products for athletes such as PowerBar, Nestle Nutrition CEO Richard Laube said.

Possible targets may include Synutra International Inc., the $950 million Chinese infant-formula company, according to Katherine Lu, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. Nestle should consider buying natural pet-food makers to better compete with Procter & Gamble Co., which agreed to buy Natura Pet Products Inc. on May 5, or enter new bottled water markets in India and Africa, said James Targett, an analyst at Consumer Equity Research. Nestle Waters CEOJohn Harris said June 18 the company has a list of five new markets it would like to enter.

Frozen Pizza

“The cash lets Nestle have the stomach to invest behind their existing businesses and markets,” said Thomas Russo, a partner at Gardner Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which holds more than $350 million of Nestle shares for clients. “They have the field pretty much to themselves at the moment.”

Nestle spokesman Ferhat Soygenis declined to comment.

Bulcke, 55, has made only one purchase of more than $1 billion since taking over as CEO in April 2008, the $3.7 billion purchase of Kraft’s North American frozen pizza business announced one day after the Alcon sale. The CEO has pledged to spend as much as 3 billion francs a year on acquisitions of smaller companies, and Nestle has said the company doesn’t need to make “transformational” purchases.

The cash due from Novartis is enough to buy any of Nestle’s rivals in food and non-alcoholic beverages save the six biggest. That includes adding a 22 percent average premium that Nestle paid for its acquisitions of listed companies since 2000.

Possible Targets


“They’re going to use the money to buy assets, at least a big chunk of it,” said David Hayes of Nomura. According to Hayes, Nestle may look at General Mills Inc., the maker of Betty Crocker cake mix, which has a market value of $24.8 billion.

The only listed food and non-alcoholic beverage companies with market capitalizations of more than $28.1 billion are Coca- Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Kraft and Groupe Danone SA.

H.J. Heinz Co. or Hershey Co. could also be targets for Nestle, Euromonitor said in a May 20 report. Heinz would allow scope for lower costs in culinary aids and baby food, and Hershey would strengthen Nestle in its weakest region for chocolate, the market research company said. Heinz has a market value of about $14 billion and Hershey is valued at $11 billion.

Nestle should avoid buying big companies that would make managers spend too much time selling assets to satisfy antitrust regulators, Thornburg’s Trevisani said.

“Ideally they find a few hidden gems like Nespresso out there that may not look great at first glance, but over time develop into really viable growth businesses,” Trevisani said.

Share Buybacks


Investors would also like to see share buybacks and dividends funded by the money it will receive for selling the stake, said Joerg de Vries-Hippen, who counted Nestle as the biggest stake in his Allianz RCM Swiss Fund at the end of 2009.

“The right thing is a mix,” said de Vries-Hippen, who helps manage 16 billion euros ($19.5 billion) at Allianz Global Investors in Frankfurt. “If you’d win the big jackpot, 30 million, and the first thing you do is buy a big house, 10 cars and maybe give your family a lot of money, in the end you will have lost all your money.”

Nestle needs to give investors more clarity on what it will do with the money, or else analysts might become less willing to recommend buying the stock, said S&P’s Short. He moved to “hold” from “strong buy” in October, partly on such concern.

“It becomes a bit of a problem, because if you’re telling someone to buy the stock, they can turn around and say ‘what am I really buying?’” Short said. “You could buy Nestle today and in six weeks time, it’s a completely different company.”

Adidas Aims to Keep Leadership in Golf Market With Radar Analysis of Swing

Bloomberg

 
Adidas AG, the maker of TaylorMade golf clubs, said it plans to maintain its newfound position as the sport’s biggest supplier with the help of computer images and radar systems that analyze players’ swings.

With golf revenue of 860 million euros ($1.05 billion) in the year through March, Adidas achieved global leadership of the $7.5 billion market, Mark King, head of the company’s golf business, said in an interview late yesterday.

To build on its No. 1 position, TaylorMade plans to open centers that allow players to purchase customized clubs after having their swing analyzed with highspeed cameras. The first one opened near Adidas headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany, last year and a second will follow in Wentworth, southern England, in September. Adidas also aims to expand its Ashworth apparel brand and seek acquisitions, King said.

“Customers respond to our innovativeness, which helped us to become the global market leader in golf,” King said after playing in a tournament along with Adidas Chief Executive Officer Herbert Hainer and Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia.

Adidas said its golf sales overtook Fortune Brands Inc. after the maker of Titleist balls sold its Cobra unit in April. First-quarter golf revenue rose 16 percent excluding currency swings to 223 million euros, the German company said.

At the Herzogenaurach golf center, six highspeed cameras follow a player’s movements to create a three-dimensional computer-animated swing image. In a second step, a Doppler-radar supported tool follows the golf ball’s flight and reports launch angle, spin rate and initial shot velocity.

Customized Clubs

“After some 120 shots the computer proposes a perfectly customized club,” said Ryan Lauder, TaylorMade marketing chief for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. Technicians then build a customized set of clubs for the customer within two hours, choosing from 3,000 club shafts and 2,000 heads.

There is currently a six-week waiting list for the analysis, which costs 250 euros, Lauder said. The first center will become profitable within the next three years, he said.

“The major trend in golf is customization, that’s what it’s all about,” King said. About 8 percent of Adidas’s revenue is derived from the sport.

Adidas says it outfits more players than any rival on the world’s top seven professional tours, including the PGA Tour.

“There is an evident relation between the number of outfitted golf professionals and the companies’ sales,” said Peter Steiner, an amateur player and analyst at BHF Bank in Frankfurt. He has a “reduce” rating on Adidas.

Nike, Callaway

Nike Inc.’s golf revenue for the fiscal year ended May 31 was $638 million, a 2 percent decline from the previous year. Callaway Golf Co., the maker of Big Bertha clubs, reported a 15 percent decline in 2009 revenue to $951 million.

Adidas plans to boost sales of its Ashworth apparel brand, which was acquired in 2008, to as much as $250 million from about $60 million within the next six years, King said.

“We have to break traditions in golf, we have to make the sport cooler, we have to make our brand cool,” he said.

TaylorMade’s revenue will be little changed this year, King said, reiterating an earlier forecast. The unit is considering acquisitions, without having specific plans, and is targeting competitors who are strong in the women’s, seniors’ and lifestyle areas, according to King.

“The golf market is a very fragmented one where we may see more acquisitions in the future,” BHF Bank’s Steiner said.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

House Fails to Pass Jobs Bill, Unemployment Extension

Reuters


Republicans in the House of Representatives on Tuesday blocked a Democratic effort to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Democrats brought up the measure under special rules that require a two-thirds majority for passage. But they failed to win sufficient support from Republicans, who expressed concern about the measure's $33 billion cost to the federal treasury.

The bill would help as many as 1.7 million people whose unemployment insurance benefits have run out. It would extend an emergency unemployment compensation program through November 30.

Democrats said the spending was justified to help the unemployed pay their bills and to boost the economy.

"When you provide unemployment insurance to people, they spend it," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin said. "If Republicans are worried about growth and consumer demand, they should work to put money in the pockets of people who are desperate, who are out of work, who are looking for work."

The U.S. unemployment rate, currently 9.7 percent, has remained stubbornly high even as the economy has begun to recover from deep recession sparked by the financial crisis.

The government is due on Friday to report the jobless rate for June. Analysts are expecting a slight increase due to temporary U.S. government census workers being laid off.

But Republicans said the $33 billion price tag was too much to add to an already bloated federal deficit.

"Look around the world. Countries are sinking in debt," said Representative Dave Camp, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, adding that "this reckless spending cannot go on forever."

The $1.4 trillion deficit and $13 trillion debt are becoming issues in the run-up to the November U.S. congressional elections in which Republicans hope to make substantial gains against the Democrats, who control Congress.

The extension of jobless aid for the long-term unemployed has run into solid Republican opposition in the Senate as well. A measure was attached to a bill that would extend popular business tax breaks, which stalled last week over Republican concerns about deficit spending.

Masked Protesters Clash with Greek Police

Associated Press

 
Dozens of masked youths clashed with police at a union protest Tuesday in Athens during the country's fifth general strike this year against the cash-strapped government's planned pension and labor reforms.

Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse troublemakers who threw chunks of marble smashed off metro station entrances and set rubbish bins on fire. Running clashes continued along a major avenue - lined with shuttered shops and banks - as rioters armed with wooden clubs made repeated sallies against police.

However, Tuesday's clashes were far more muted than the riots that erupted during a previous general strike on May 5, when three people died after becoming trapped in a bank torched by rioters.

Riot police chased demonstrators into a main subway station. An AP photographer saw police detain one young man in a metro carriage, spraying him with pepper spray.

The demonstration ended soon after, and rioters melted away towards the central Exarcheia district - a traditional anarchist hangout.

No arrests were immediately reported, but AP reporters saw at least six people being detained. One motorcycle policeman was injured by a chunk of marble thrown at him, while rioters smashed bus stops and phone booths.

The violence came as some 10,000 people took part in a demonstration organized by the country's two main labor unions and fringe left-wing groups. An earlier separate march by some 6,000 members of the Communist Party-backed PAME union ended peacefully.

Tuesday's strike shut down public services, disrupted transport, left hospitals operating on emergency staff and pulled all news broadcasts off the air. The country's airports, however, remained open, and international flights were operating normally although nearly 100 domestic flights were canceled.

Unions fiercely oppose draft legislation submitted to parliament last week that would increase retirement ages and make it cheaper for companies to fire workers. The measures - which include raising women's retirement age to 65 to match those of men and require 40 years of social security contributions for a full pension - are aimed at fixing the country's debt crisis, which has shaken the entire euro zone.

"They've declared war on you, fight back!" PAME demonstrators chanted as they walked down a major avenue in the center of the capital.

Greece is caught in a major debt and deficit crisis; it avoided bankruptcy last month only after receiving the first installment of a €110 billion ($136 billion) emergency loan package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

In return, Athens passed painful austerity measures, cutting pensions and salaries and raising consumer taxes, and is now pushing through labor and social security reforms.

Parliament is to start discussing the proposed reforms Tuesday, in a debate expected to last more than a week. Despite opposition from several of its own lawmakers, the center-left government - which holds a seven-seat majority in the 300-member house - is expected to win the final vote.

Tension mounted once more in the country's main port of Piraeus early Tuesday morning, where hundreds of PAME demonstrators attempted to prevent tourists and locals from boarding ferries to Aegean islands, even though a court had declared seamen's participation in the strike illegal.

"They want to put us in a straitjacket so we work for free all our lives so that some can have their wealth and get very rich at our expense," said Sotiris Poulikogiannis, a protester in Piraeus. "We don't accept this. Day by day we'll grow stronger and more aware of how to overturn this situation."

The Civil Protection Ministry said all ships scheduled to leave in the morning did set sail, with about 350 passengers. However, about 50-100 people didn't manage to board their ferries as strikers prevented them from entering the port. Authorities said their tickets would also be valid Wednesday.

Another four ships that were to sail for Crete and the Cycladic islands in the early afternoon had informed passengers that they would depart at midnight, the ministry said.

A similar strike by two seamen's unions last week - which was also declared illegal - left thousands of travelers stranded in Piraeus for a day. Shipping companies and officials in Greece's vital tourism industry strongly criticized the government for not taking action to stop the strikers.

Monday, June 28, 2010

For Many, Recovery Means Lowered Expectations

Associated Press

In this photo taken April 9, 2010 photo, Paul Lechner looks on at his home in Holly Springs, N.C. Lechner, who lost his job in advertising, works at Target while continuing to search for work he is more qualified for. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
 
 
PROSPER, Texas — Advised by a Walgreens superior that a promotion was "very highly likely" if he transferred to the drugstore chain's Dallas division, Chris Cummings uprooted his family and bought a spacious house in this hopefully named suburb.

"The sky's the limit," he was told.

But instead of a promotion, the company for which Cummings had been an assistant manager three and a half years cut his hours so drastically that he had to take a second job. In March, he was laid off, and his part-time second job became full-time.

And so that is how a 40-year-old father of four with a master's in business administration from the University of Notre Dame finds himself bagging groceries at Sprouts, a local health-food store.

"I never thought I'd be here with the education that I have and that I'd worked hard on," Cummings said before a recent shift in the checkout lane at the Sprouts in nearby Frisco. "Probably where the frustration comes most is when I get the alumni magazine and I see what my classmates are doing. And that's not a good feeling."

The federal government says the "Great Recession" is over — has been for months now — and that we're well into the recovery. But don't tell that to Cummings, who has seen his income cut by three-quarters and can't afford health insurance for his family.

Or Af Shirinzadeh, who went from a $100-an-hour chiropractic job to part-time work as a docent in an Atlanta museum that features plasticized human cadavers.

Or welder Mark Sepeda, who had to move his family of six from a spacious home in Nevada's lush Carson Valley to a two-bedroom apartment when the Las Vegas building boom came to a screeching halt.

Or Paul Lechner, who, with a mixture of gratitude and dejection, accepted a job stocking shelves at a Super Target after two years and hundreds of applications failed to land him a position in advertising, the field for which he trained.

Yes, the stock markets have largely rebounded. Housing and car sales are back up. And though job creation can't quite keep up with new unemployment claims, the economy is growing again.

But, if "recovery" means getting back to where you were before things fell apart, many aren't even close. To people like Lechner, 43, who came to North Carolina's Research Triangle full of hope for a bountiful future, it's meant resigning himself to lower expectations:

That any mental stimulation he gets will come from crossword puzzles, conversations with his wife or the weekly pub trivia nights with the guys — not from his work. That if he ever manages to get another job in advertising, it'll probably be too late for any awards or recognition. And that his 4-year-old son, Jerry, will likely be his only child.

"An optimist sees the glass as half full. A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. I see the glass as twice as big as it needs to be," Lechner says.

The American landscape is littered with huge and half-empty glasses, and men and women like Paul Lechner.

___

Af Shirinzadeh holds out a preserved human lung and smiles as two young women make grossed-out faces.

"Step on up," he says. "There is no teeth on this one. It doesn't bite."

The joke draws the women in, and within seconds they are holding actual human organs while Shirinzadeh talks to them about the science behind what they are feeling. He beams.

As a docent in the "touch booth" at "Bodies ... The Exhibition," Shirinzadeh gets to lay his hands on human bodies, albeit dead ones.

"I'm so grateful for this job," says the 38-year-old suburban Atlanta man, who was laid off last year from his job as a chiropractor and spent six months on unemployment looking for any kind of work. "I'm able to educate others, and share my knowledge, and keep myself sharp."

The job pays a tenth of what Shirinzadeh made as a chiropractor, and it's only three or four days a week. The layoff has forced him to rethink his plans for the future — and re-evaluate his past choices.

Shirinzadeh's wife, an elementary school teacher, has gone back to graduate school to get a credential that will give her a bump in pay. Shirinzadeh would do the same, if he wasn't already saddled with considerable college debt — and if the couple could afford regular day care for their 2-year-old son.

His father had wanted him to become a medical doctor. The son wonders if he made the right choice in becoming a chiropractor.

"I didn't think it was going to be like this," he says. "I thought, `I'll be a doctor of chiropractic. I'll work hard, save up a bunch of money, maybe retire early.' Now it's like, work until you die."

___

When the economy was up, so was Mark Sepeda.

The 50-year-old welder walked the iron atop some of Sin City's newest skyscrapers. The Encore Las Vegas Casino and the Mandarin Oriental hotel at the massive $8.5 billion CityCenter are among the more recent pleasure palaces he's helped to soar.

These days, Sepeda's view on the world is strictly earthbound.

Since being laid off in January 2009, Sepeda has been reduced to soliciting freelance auto mechanic work through online classifieds and word-of-mouth referrals. His family's tiny apartment is just east of the Las Vegas Strip, within sight of the skyscrapers he helped build.

They used to live in a house in Gardnerville, a Carson Valley town not far from the 24/7 casinos of Reno and the serene beauty of Lake Tahoe. "We had a huge backyard over there, too," he says. "You could park your boat and your RV back there and still be able to drive your vehicle around it."

Now, the kids sleep two to a room (two of Sepeda's daughters share a bed with the family pit bull, Milo). At night, Sepeda and his wife, Sue, bunk on the living-room floor.

When Sepeda was working iron, it was a matter of pride that his wife could stay at home and focus on the kids. She recently took a job at a car wash that pays $15 an hour.

"Now is when the wife and the kids step up to help me, because I can't do it all by myself no more, like I used to," he says. "They used to want for nothing."

When Sepeda isn't working on cars, he spends his days training for other hands-on jobs and trying to find steady work anywhere he can.

He's been close to getting hired as an apartment maintenance person at a couple of complexes, but needs certification in pool maintenance. And after some night school, he's seeking to become a card-carrying smog technician.

"I've learned this town is about cards," he says. Another thing he's learned: In this economy, you make your own luck.

___

Joe Lechner was a plumber, Betty Lechner was a secretary, and they drilled a simple truth into their elder son's head: A college degree was the key to success. It had taken him 16 years and three different schools, but Paul Lechner finally got it — a bachelor's degree in advertising, with a concentration in copywriting and minor in marketing.

Lechner had a half-dozen good years in his chosen field before he was laid off in 2006. His wife, Julie, had just given birth to their son, and it seemed a perfect time to move closer to the grandparents, to start anew.

After much scouting, they decided on Holly Springs, N.C. — a Research Triangle bedroom community halfway between his parents' home in upstate New York and their winter retreat in Florida.

"Looking back on it, ... the horizons were WIDE open," he says. "There was a lot of promise and prospect. We bought a very nice house in a really nice neighborhood in a great section of town."

They landed just as the boom was going bust. Agencies were downsizing, not hiring; the freelance work that had kept him afloat slowed to a trickle, then dried up completely.

Finally, after two years of fruitless searching, Lechner took a job stocking shelves at a Super Target, because it offered affordable health insurance for Julie and Jerry.

"It was intended to be something that was a way to stop the bleeding," he says.

If his father didn't hold the mortgage on their house, Lechner says, "we'd have been living in a cardboard box six months ago." The last movie he and his wife saw at the theater was "The Dark Knight" — two summers ago.

The trivia nights at Woody's Sports Tavern in nearby Cary are Lechner's only "extravagance." He doesn't just enjoy them — he needs them.

When the waitresses come around for beer orders, they know not to bother asking Lechner. He always has iced tea — not because he's a teetotaler, but because the refills are free.

Two hours and several baskets of Buffalo wings later, Lechner and team "Vernon T. Money" have scored their second straight victory. The $50 pot goes onto the table to help cover the tab.

"It's $14, $15 that I don't need to spend, but the effects, psychologically, are immeasurable," Lechner says. "It just FEELS good ... an opportunity for me to feel like I'm actually contributing to something."

___

As head of human resources for Nationwide Auction Systems, it was Wivory Bell's job to travel around California in late 2008 and tell people they were being let go. By last April, there were so few humans left, her own services were no longer required.

The 43-year-old single mother threw herself into the job search. But she didn't just sit around the house waiting for the offers to come rolling in.

Bell volunteered with the career renewal ministry at Huntington Beach's St. Simon and St. Jude Catholic Church.

She led a 2 1/2-hour Advanced Career Strategies class at the church every Thursday, and taught Step 3 — managing your online profile — of the "Eight Steps to Career Renewal."

Bell began coaching two unemployed people each week, going over "power stories" and "elevator pitches," refining resumes and practicing job interview questions.

She also managed to boost her own resume, using her "free" time to earn her Global Professional Human Resources certification, her Corporate Wellness certification and her coaching certification. She even started classes to get her master's degree in business administration.

After hundreds of applications and 20 face-to-face interviews, the hard work paid off. On May 6, a year and a week after her layoff, the Orange County woman started a full-time human resources job at an assisted living facility just down the road from her Aliso Viejo home.

It's just a contract job, so there are no benefits. But there's a chance it could become permanent, and Bell is over the moon about having a paycheck again.

Bell — whose e-mails end with the phrase, "Make It A Results-Driven Day" — says her 14-year-old daughter, Rian, is her inspiration and biggest cheerleader. Each morning before she leaves for school, Rian tells her mother, "Make me proud today."

"If nothing else, I'm showing her that when you do reach times of adversity, it's how you handle yourself and how you're going to come out of it," she says. "Not wallowing, not self-pity. That's not how you're going to get to the next level."

___

William Marshall didn't have nearly as far to fall as some. But that doesn't make the pain any less keen.

After five years in the warehouse of a Milwaukee heating and cooling equipment wholesaler, the 43-year-old father of three had worked his way up to $14.90 an hour. In January 2009, he and his wife, Janet, emerged from a painful bankruptcy and were hoping for a fresh start.

Five months later, the company let him go, leaving the couple strapped to pay thousands of dollars in uncovered medical costs from their daughter's hip surgery.

It took Marshall seven months to land another job, with a company that locates utility lines. It paid just $12 an hour.

That job lasted about six weeks. Luckily, Janet Marshall knows how to handle money.

The 45-year-old bank payment specialist has had to get creative with meals — using less expensive foods like macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, hamburger and chicken. She's become expert at finding coupons and watching for sales.

The couple have had to put off replacing their oven, box spring and television, and they only buy the necessities. They spend little, if anything, on entertainment or clothes.

"It's sad when your kids say, 'Mom, Do you have $5?' And you can't even give them $5 because every dollar is ... allocated to go somewhere that is more important than them having $5 at the mall," Janet Marshall says.

In March, William Marshall finally landed a new job, in shipping and receiving. He's making $13.25 an hour.

The ups and downs, false starts and backward slides have taken their toll. Like many Americans, Marshall was taught that the man was the breadwinner, and he confesses to struggling with depression.

"It is hard," he says. "It's in the back of your mind all the time, like 'Man we could be doing better. We SHOULD be doing better.'"

But his Pentecostal faith tells him that things happen for a reason. Although his salary isn't quite where it was, he's with a good company, one where he seems to fit.

"I think I really have to experience the things I've had to experience to get me where I'm going," he says. "I can't really explain it, but I'm a whole lot happier than I've been in a long time."

As if on cue, the couple's dilapidated van died recently. They bought a replacement, meaning their hopes of socking away some money will have to wait a bit longer.

"Just once I want to catch a break," Marshall says.

___

Chris Cummings knew a "reduction in force" was coming at Walgreens. But with a marketing degree from a prestigious university, he thought he was insulated.

Then he heard the words, "This is going to be your last day." For a moment, he thought he might faint.

His wife, Kristie, stays home to care for the kids — Kelsie, 13; Meghan, 10; Spencer, 7; Tyler, 5. Chris Cummings is the sole breadwinner.

The folks at Sprouts gave Cummings more hours, but he still didn't qualify for benefits. Even if he was eligible, he'd be hard pressed to afford the coverage.

Something as simple as the purchase of four new tires so his wife's car could pass inspection can throw the family's finances into turmoil. Cummings doesn't want to think where he'd be without occasional financial help from his family and church (a member who owns a ranch made an anonymous gift of beef).

"I feel like we're RIGHT on the edge financially of being able to make it and generally avoid having incurred too much debt to get over this bridge time," says Cummings, clad in his bright-red "Team Sprouts" T-shirt.

Bagging groceries is not exactly mindless work, but it is hardly intellectually taxing. Cummings confesses that his mind sometimes wanders to the job applications he's sent out, the positions he's competing for.

"What if they don't come up?" he asks himself. "What if they don't happen?"

Cummings has heard other out-of-work professionals scoff at such menial jobs as being "beneath" them. But his parents taught him that all work is meaningful.

Besides, he has a wife and four children to feed. He can't afford such airs.

"It DOES feel good to be doing what I can and feeling like this isn't permanent, that this is gonna end, and there will be something better," he says.

Cummings doesn't regret his decision to move to Prosper. The school district is great, and he loves the community.

"The only missing piece is the employment that matches my education and experience," he says. "And I'm confident it will happen soon, and we will, indeed, prosper in Prosper."

G20 Market Reform Efforts Start to Splinter

Reuters

 
The Group of 20 countries vowed last year to sing from the same hymn sheet on regulating banks, But the tune from Toronto this weekend sounds increasingly like a line from the Frank Sinatra signature song, "My Way".

GLOBAL BANK TAX TO PAY FOR BAILOUTS: ABANDONED


Any determination to introduce a common tax on banks to shield taxpayers from paying for another bailout -- an approach favored by Germany and its EU partners -- formally fell by the wayside on Sunday. G20 leaders agreed there are a range of policy approaches for making banks pay a "fair and substantial" contribution toward any government interventions.

"Some countries are pursuing a financial levy. Other countries are pursuing different approaches," the summit's communique said tersely.

It marks a victory for host Canada, along with Japan, Brazil and Australia, who balked at piling a tax on their banks, which required no bailouts during the financial crisis.

Any tax now introduced in Germany, France and Britain will have to be modest or else risk banks shifting operations to more tax-friendly locations.

STRENGTHENED BANK CAPITAL: 2012 DEADLINE DELAYED

The Toronto G20 endorsed a long phase-in for the new Basel III bank capital and liquidity rules. This marks a significant setback to last year's pledge to increase by 2012 the amount of capital banks must hold to absorb shocks. The phase-in is now more open-ended, allowing different speeds for different countries. If countries can effectively pick and choose their path, it will be a messy prospect for global banks.

The G20 is under intense pressure from banks and countries like Japan, Germany and France to delay elements of Basel III, for fear that building up capital would reduce lending and harm a fragile recovery.

The Financial Stability Board, tasked to coordinate the G20 reforms, swung behind a longer phase-in on Sunday, saying 2012 should be seen as merely the start date. FSB Chairman Mario Draghi is betting the delay will make it harder to argue for diluting the rules, a strategy that may well falter in coming months when the reform is finalized by November.

"If you don't have a coordinated approach to regulatory (systems)... then there's the risk of regulatory arbitrage," Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Josef Ackermann said.

TOO BIG TOO FAIL: NO CONSENSUS

The "My Way" doctrine may also be required to make progress over how governments handle banks deemed too big to fail. The FSB is working on a string of recommendations by November. So far there is no consensus on whether big, interconnected banks should face capital surcharges or "structural constraints" or other types of remedies to discourage risky activities and shield taxpayers from the cost and damage of a government bailout. The betting is that a menu of options will be finally agreed giving G20 countries plenty of leeway.

UNIFORM GLOBAL ACCOUNTING RULES:MID-2011 DEADLINE SLIPS

Hopes for a single set of global accounting rules by the mid-2011 deadline are also in doubt. The world's top accounting standards setters have reached no agreement on when banks should price assets at the going rate or cost, known as mark-to-market or fair-value accounting.

The G20 reiterated its call on Sunday for a single set of standards but made no mention of the 2011 deadline.

The U.S. accounting board wants to widen the use of fair value. But the International Accounting Standards Board, whose rules are mandatory in the EU, has effectively narrowed the scope of fair value, in response to calls from European policymakers. The FSB said on Sunday it backed the narrower approach, but its appeals may well fall on deaf ears and a Band-Aid solution will be needed if a single set of global rules is to emerge.

FINANCIAL REFORM: OUT OF SYNC

U.S. financial reform, heading for a final vote in Congress this week, incorporates many of the G20 pledges, including requiring credit rating agencies and hedge funds to register, improving supervision of markets and curbing risk in derivatives trading. It goes even further than the G20 proposed. The bill forces structural changes on banks by requiring the spin-off of some derivatives trading and barring proprietary trading.

The sweeping U.S. overhaul puts pressure on the European Union, which has yet to approve rules implementing many of the G20 pledges. Europe is not expected to copy U.S. initiatives.

Britain will be pleased that the G20 communique calls for nondiscriminatory crackdowns on hedge funds -- a swipe at the EU's draft law that could make it much harder for U.S. and other non-EU hedge funds to operate in the 27-nation bloc.

The FSB also noted on Sunday there has been no full implementation of G20 principles to curb bank pay.

BP Denies Russian Report of Hayward Stepping Down

Associated Press

Admiral Allen heads back to Gulf Coast

 
MOSCOW — Russia's state RIA Novosti news agency is quoting a senior Russian Cabinet official as saying that BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward is expected to resign, a report BP denied.

It quoted Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin as saying that Hayward "is leaving his post." Sechin, who is set to meet with Hayward on Monday, said the BP chief would introduce his successor.

BP spokeswoman Carolyn Copland in London said the report "is definitely not correct."

Hayward was to assure officials of BP's viability and discuss issues related to Russian joint venture TNK-BP, which accounts for about a quarter of BP's reserves and production.

NEW ORLEANS (AP)
— The admiral in charge of the spill response was headed back to the Gulf Coast a day after Mississippi's governor said he would press BP and the federal government for more help because oil started washing up on the shoreline of his state.

Meanwhile, a tropical storm farther south in the Gulf threatened to push oil from the spill farther inland.

Tropical Storm Alex's center wasn't expected to approach the area of the oil spill off Louisiana's coast, said Stacy Stewart, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But Alex's outer wind field could push oil from the spill farther inland and hinder operations in the area, Stewart said early Monday.

Forecasters also said Alex could become a hurricane later Monday or Tuesday.

On Sunday, oil was found in at least two areas of Jackson County in Mississippi, and emergency management director Donald Langham said tar balls and a patch of oil were spotted at the St. Andrews beach and at the Lake Mars pier in Gulf Park Estates. The state had been mostly spared the oily mess from the a blown-out undersea well that has spewed anywhere between 69 million and 131 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico the past 10 weeks.

"While command and control of on-water resources has improved, it must get much better and the amount of resources to attack the oil offshore must be greatly increased," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said in an e-mailed statement Sunday. BP said it would work with officials to get the necessary help in place.

So far, deadly Tropical Storm Alex that moved into the Gulf on Sunday after dumping rains across Belize and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula was not expected to cross the oil spill.

Still, Florida Department of Emergency Management meteorologist Amy Godsey said rough waves churned by the storm would disrupt efforts to corral and burn surface oil and will likely push more oil and tar onto Panhandle beaches throughout the week.

Adm. Thad Allen was expected to be in New Orleans on Monday and talk to the media about the latest on the spill. Allen has received some criticism from local officials who feel he might not be the right man to head the team. He has not responded to the criticism.

For some, the relentless spill is bringing back feelings that are far too familiar still dealing with the physical and emotional toll wrought by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. Shrimper Ricky Robin haunted by memories of riding out the hurricane on his trawler and of his father's suicide in the storm's aftermath.

"I can't sleep at night. I find myself crying sometimes," said Robin, of Violet, a blue-collar community on the southeastern edge of the New Orleans suburbs, along the highway that hugs the levee on the Mississippi River's east bank nearly all the way to the Gulf.

Psychiatrists who treated people after Katrina and have held group sessions in oil spill-stricken areas say the symptoms showing up are much the same: Anger. Anxiety. Drinking. Depression. Suicidal thoughts.

"Everybody's acting strange," said Robin, 56. "Real angry, frustrated, stressed out, fighting brothers and sisters and mamas and family."

Fishing families, the backbone of the coastal economy, are especially hard-pressed as the waters that make up their livelihood are sporadically closed because of fears the oil will taint fish, oysters and shrimp.

Oil field workers, whose salaries are among the best the region can offer, worry about their industry's long-term future.

And there is still the rebuilding after Katrina, which in August 2005 devastated a swath from Louisiana to Alabama — almost as big as the area affected by the oil — killing more than 1,600 and forever changing the region's relationship with the water.

The helplessness, coupled with the uncertainty about what's going to happen with the spill and when the next check from BP PLC will arrive, leaves boat captain George Pfeiffer angry all the time.

"Our families want to know what's going on," said Pfeiffer, 55, who keeps two charter boats at Zeke's Landing. "When we get home, we're stressed out and tired, and they want answers and we don't have any."

His wife cries, a lot.

"I haven't slept. I've lost weight," said Yvonne Pfeiffer, 53. "My shoulders are in knots. The stress level has my shoulders up to my ears."

Mental health professionals say it is too early to have reliable data to understand the full severity of stress issues spawned by the spill.

However, their work so far indicates the problem is taking root, and the backdrop of Katrina means it is likely to get worse. Tropical systems such as the one that swirling back into the Gulf won't help matters, even though it was forecast to bypass the spill.

"This is a second round of major trauma for children and families still recovering from Katrina. It represents uncharted territory," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a member of the National Commission on Children and Disasters who has worked with Katrina survivors.

The spill — and the prospect of a hurricane whipping oily water into bayous and coastal communities — is also complicating the already complex hurricane planning that takes place each summer. After all, this is a region that's no stranger to big storms

BP, the Coast Guard and the state of Louisiana have already been talking about how to coordinate evacuations so workers and equipment involved in the oil spill response don't clog highway escape routes.

Thousands of families that lost jobs because of the spill may have fewer resources for a storm evacuation, said Mark Cooper, director of the Louisiana governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Pete Gerica says fishermen like him who typically ride out storms in their boats also might have second thoughts this year. Oily water carried by the storm surge could be difficult to clean.

"You will have to clean up mud and oil. Can you clean that out of the walls? Who knows," he said.

No matter what happens with Alex, it's likely just the beginning. Forecasters are predicting a busy hurricane season with powerful storms.

Frustrated Franchise Owners want Help from BP

Yahoo News




Tension is mounting between BP and the neighborhood retailers that sell its gasoline. As more Americans shun BP gasoline as a form of protest over the Gulf oil spill, station owners are insisting BP do more to help them convince motorists that such boycotts mostly hurt independently owned businesses, not the British oil giant.

To win back customers, they'd like the company's help in reducing the price at the pump.

BP owns just a fraction of the more than 11,000 stations across the U.S. that sell its fuel under the BP, Amoco and ARCO banners. Most are owned by local businessmen whose primary connection to the oil company is the logo and a contract to buy gasoline.

In recent weeks, some station owners from Georgia to Illinois say sales have declined as much as 10 percent to 40 percent.

Station owners and BP gas distributors told BP officials last week they need a break on the cost of the gas they buy, and they want help paying for more advertising aimed at motorists, according to John Kleine, executive director of the independent BP Amoco Marketers Association. The station owners, who earn more from sales of soda and snacks than on gasoline, also want more frequent meetings with BP officials.

"They have got to be more competitive on their fuel costs to the retailers so we can be competitive on the street ... and bring back customers that we've lost," says Bob Juckniess, who has seen sales drop 20 percent at some of his 10 BP-branded stations in the Chicago area.

Owners and distributors put forth their demands at a meeting in Chicago with BP marketing officials. BP's reply could come as early as this week, says Kleine, whose group represents hundreds of distributors.

Station owners are locked into contracts that can last seven to 10 years in some cases. So, switching to a competing brand if BP refuses to help may not be an option.

BP spokesman Scott Dean declined to offer specifics about the discussions when contacted by The Associated Press.

"BP is in daily contact with its independent distributors and franchisees and helping them manage the impacts the oil spill is having on their businesses," he said.

Gasoline retailing trade groups say the boycott's impact isn't only evident in southern states such as Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, but also in places further from the spill like southern Pennsylvania. Jim Smith, president and CEO of the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, said BP has given some station owners a one-cent-per-gallon discount, which "doesn't amount to much." Kleine told AP the discount appears limited to Florida. He declined to give the size of the discount that was requested at the Chicago meeting.

Websites and Facebook pages advocating a BP boycott popped up soon after oil started spewing into the Gulf in late April. Drivers only heeded the call when the spill's full impact became apparent.

Paola Soldevilla, manager of a BP station in Pembroke Pines, Fla., said it was only when images of oil-soaked birds appeared in newspapers that sales fell off. So sharply, in fact, that she won't be getting her usual one-week paid vacation.

Kevin Dalton can empathize. He owned a Citgo station when President Hugo Chavez made anti-American statements in 2006, leading to a boycott of the Venezuelan-owned gas company. Sales of gas and in-store items dropped more than 50 percent. Sales at his Shell station in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., have increased 15 percent since the spill started in late April, but he says it's hard to directly tie that to a BP station less than a mile away.

Last week, Vincent Connolly's GPS guided him to a BP station off Interstate 480 in Cleveland. But he had second thoughts after filling up for $2.75 a gallon.

"You don't want to support anyone that's killing the environment," he said.

That connection to the destruction on the Gulf Coast concerns Juckniess, the Chicago station owner. He's been running his own promos — free coffee and $2 off a car wash — but he wants BP to step up support of both the stations and the BP brand.

"We're their branded marketers," he says. "It would be foolish for BP to not support its branded marketers when clearly we can document that some of the loss that we've experienced is due to the incidents in the Gulf."

The biggest hit comes not from lost gas sales but from lost convenience store business. Owners like Juckniess make just pennies on a gallon of gas. But they might make up to 55 cents on a $1 cup of coffee. The margins on candy and chips are about 48 percent and 37 percent, respectively, Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores.

The boycott's impact on BP is limited. The company makes most of its money exploring and producing oil in places such as Angola, Egypt, the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

"The corner store is the face of BP, but by no means how BP gets its money," Lenard said.

And even if drivers opt to fill up at an Exxon or 7-Eleven, they still may buy BP gasoline. Because of the way gas is refined and marketed, BP fuel gets supplied to stations other than those with BP brands.

The boycott's impact is felt less in rural areas, where people know the owners personally. And it helps to sell other necessities.

Dacia Radabaugh, who manages a BP station owned by her parents in Williamstown, W.Va., thinks the station is as popular as ever because it sells liquor and cigarettes to a regular crowd.

And of course some drivers are just more pragmatic.

"Gas is gas, buddy," said Danny Sullivan, making no apologies for filling up at a Little General BP station in Charleston, W.Va. "It don't matter where it comes from."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wisconsin Adds more Weapons to Battle with Drunken Drivers

The Northwestern

Officer Mike Weinberger patrols the streets Wednesday night in the Town of Menasha. A new law imposing tougher consequences for drunken driving goes into effect Thursday. (Post-Crescent photo by Dan Powers)


It's a gamble taken all too frequently by Wisconsin residents: Getting behind the wheel of car while drunk.

To combat the problem, the state has raised the ante with the most ambitious package of drunken-driving reforms in decades. One of the primary aims of the law, which takes effect Thursday, is to persuade impaired motorists to stay off the roads.

But there is considerable debate about whether the target audience will get the message.

"Many people simply think that they won't get caught," Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson said. "Until we can intrude in the psychology of that, that portion won't change."Many police officials, lawmakers, researchers and safety advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether the stiffer drinking-and-driving penalties will make a significant impact.

Even with the changes, Wisconsin's law is not among the nation's toughest.

Still, state Rep. Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna, said, the law marks the first major upgrade in how Wisconsin treats drunken driving in 20 years. It incorporates ideas that were subject to debate for years before Gov. Jim Doyle signed the law in December.

In striving for meaningful reform, lawmakers worked to incorporate provisions on punishment, prevention and treatment, Nelson said.

"It's not just a criminal justice issue or a prevention issue," he said. "We chose to take a different approach: Let's bring everything to the table. Let's bring all these approaches into this law."

Bad habit

Meanwhile, police and experts say Wisconsin's alcohol-driven culture puts it in a uniquely difficult position when it comes to improving roadway safety.

Nina Emerson, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Resource Center on Impaired Driving, said drunken driving carries a certain degree of social acceptance in the Badger State.

A 2008 federal survey placed Wisconsin highest in the nation for driving while intoxicated. More than 26 percent of those questioned acknowledged having done so in the previous year.

Emerson said potential consequences don't often sway drunken drivers when the party winds down or the bartender makes the last call.

"They're not thinking, and they're definitely not thinking they're impaired," Emerson said. "Time after time, they'll say, 'I didn't think I was that bad.' They've also done it so many times without repercussions that it reinforces that behavior. That behavior becomes more entrenched."

Beginning Thursday, a fourth-offense drunken-driving conviction will be a felony if it occurs within five years of the previous offense. Currently, drunken drivers are treated as felons after a fifth conviction.

A first offense will be a misdemeanor if someone younger than 16 is in the car. Today, it's a traffic ticket.

Repeat offenders and first-timers with high blood-alcohol concentrations will have to get ignition interlocks on all vehicles they drive.

In addition, judges will have the power to place more drunken drivers on probation.

State Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, said he is confident Wisconsin drivers will take notice once they start encountering others who have been stung by the tougher penalties.

"It was a compromise and we've taken another step forward," said Kaufert, who owns a bar. "In some people's eyes we didn't go far enough, and in other people's eyes, we went too far. The bottom line is that we coalesced on something that could pass."

More felonies

History provides a sense of the new law's potential impact on prosecutors' caseloads.

Last year, Outagamie County registered 57 convictions for fourth-offense drunken driving and 26 convictions for fifth or subsequent offenses, which were felonies. Another 16 felony drunken-driving cases from 2009 remain open.

In Winnebago County, 73 drivers were convicted on a fourth offense and 44 were convicted for fifth or subsequent offenses. Six cases from 2009 cases remain open.

Bottom line: More felony cases would mean more time spent per case.

Felonies require a preliminary hearing, to determine if there is sufficient cause to send the case to trial, which misdemeanors don't carry. And defendants are more apt to fight a felony charge because they stand to lose more, including the potential of going to prison and the right to own firearms.

Despite possibly larger caseloads and related expenses, adopting the tougher threshold made sense particularly when comparing Wisconsin to other states, UW's Emerson said. In 21 states, a third offense is considered a felony. In Indiana and New York, drunken driving is a felony on the second offense if it occurs within five years of the previous conviction. Oklahoma considers a second offense a felony if it occurs within 10 years of a previous conviction.

Only seven states have laws weaker than Wisconsin's fourth-offense standard.

"I don't think it's by any stretch unreasonable," Emerson said of Wisconsin's new law.

Focus on treatment

Some police wonder whether any degree of punishment is enough to break the behavior of those who've reached or exceeded the felony threshold.

"I think punishment has very little to do with it, frankly," Outagamie County Sheriff Brad Gehring said. "At that stage, they've demonstrated they have incredibly strong addictions."

That's where another portion of the law shows promise, he said.

"Legislatively, I understand the need to get tough, but with more alcohol addiction treatment we're hoping to have more positive results."

The new law offers counties the option to use a treatment-based program now available only in Winnebago County. Outagamie County will open its version of the Safe Streets Treatment Options Program to drunken drivers arrested after the law takes effect.

The program is available to those charged with second and third offenses. Participants who complete the Wisconsin alcohol rehab program receive less jail time than they would have under traditional sentencing. They would be placed on probation with alcohol treatment and community service among the conditions.

Annie Levknecht, alternative treatment coordinator for Outagamie County, said the initial benefit of the program is urgency.

Offenders don't have time to consider whether they're ready or willing to undergo treatment because they have just three days to get an alcohol assessment.

Those who complete the program similar to alcoholics anonymous will have two-thirds of their sentence stayed.

"There's incentive," Levknecht said. "Another key benefit is they get to stay with their families."

Winnebago County Judge Scott Woldt, who instituted the program with Judge Barbara Key in 2006, said it has benefited taxpayers by saving on jail costs and it is giving offenders the tools they need to avoid further offenses.

Winnebago's program has produced 266 graduates. Of them, 26 have re-offended.

Woldt said measuring success goes beyond facts and figures.

"I get letters from time to time saying, 'I didn't want to get into it, my lawyer talked me into it, but it was the best thing I ever did,'" Woldt said. "I don't typically get letters from people I've sentenced to prison. People are turning their lives around."

Woldt said he's given about a half-dozen presentations on the program since it was included in the state's new drunken-driving law. In addition to Outagamie, Waukesha County plans to incorporate the program into its alcohol treatment court, he said.

"It's going to be a slow process, but it'll slowly build," Woldt said.

Counties that decline to use Safe Streets still have better opportunities to keep closer watch on offenders.

The new law will make probation an option for those convicted of second and third offenses. Currently, probation is only available to judges for four-time offenders.

Winnebago County Dist. Atty. Christian Gossett said allowing probation earlier in the process is a laudable step, because it's vital to reach drunken drivers early and address the behavior before it worsens.

However, Wisconsin's probation agents are already overburdened, and it's likely drunken drivers wouldn't get the attention that would make it worthwhile, Gossett said, due to any given agent's higher-priority clientele.

"Make it a meaningful probation," he said. "If you can't, it's feel-good legislation only."

Mandatory interlocks

If stricter penalties can't stop drunken drivers from repeat offenses, there's hope that technology will.

Judges now have the discretion to order use of ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders. Beginning Thursday, the devices will be mandatory for repeat drunken drivers and for first-timers arrested with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent or higher. The state's legal limit is 0.08 percent.

The interlock devices require drivers to take a breath test before they can start their vehicles.

Kaufert was among the lead Assembly proponents for toughening the interlock requirement. He said it was crafted to better assure that those ordered to use the devices follow through.

"People are always going to try to find a way to circumvent it," he said, "but I think it's a pretty good law."

Currently, the clock starts when a judge orders a driver to have the device in place for a certain length of time. The offender can ignore the order and drive illegally until the time expires, then get a new license.

Under the new law, a driver won't be able to get a license without proof that the interlock was installed. The clock on an order won't start ticking until an offender applies for a license and officials see the paperwork.

Wisconsin's interlock provision places it in the top half of the country in terms of the strength of the law.

Judges in 12 states are required to order interlock use for any drunken driving offense. Wisconsin will join eight states that require the devices with a 0.15 percent blood-alcohol content. Another six states have mandatory interlocks only for repeat offenses.

New Mexico has had success with provisions to assure drivers follow through with the interlock orders, Kaufert said.

"The compliance is way up, and the recidivism has gone way down," he said.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kellogg Recalls Breakfast Cereals over Taste, Smell

Reuters

 
Foul smells from some Kellogg Co breakfast cereals prompted the world's largest cereal maker to voluntarily pull millions of packages from store shelves around the United States.

Kellogg said on Friday it noticed "an uncharacteristic off-flavor and smell" from the box liners of its popular Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, Froot Loops and Honey Smacks products.

The company said the chance of serious illness from the smell was low, but the products could cause nausea and diarrhea among sensitive consumers.

Only U.S. products marked with the letters "KN" following the "better if used before" date notice were affected, the company said.

No other products are a part of this recall, Kellogg added.

U.S. regulators are under fire this year following high-profile recalls involving products for children.

Johnson & Johnson recalled 40 widely used nonprescription products for children and infants, such as Tylenol and Motrin, earlier this year after Food and Drug Administration inspectors found filthy equipment and contaminated ingredients at a Pennsylvania factory.

"When foods that are popular among kids are being recalled in large volumes, it is clear that our food safety system is not working," U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro said in an email.

DeLauro, a Democrat, chairs a House of Representatives subcommittee that funds the FDA and frequently has criticized its response to dangerous food and medicines.

The lawmaker said 28 million boxes of Kellogg cereal were being recalled after about 20 people, including five who reported nausea and vomiting, complained about the "waxy" smell and flavor coming from the box liners.

Kellogg shares fell 0.8 percent to close at $52.42 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Potato Power - Yissum Introduces Potato Batteries for Use in the Developing World

Business Wire

 
Yissum Research Development Company Ltd., the technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, introduces solid organic electric battery based upon treated potatoes. This simple, sustainable, robust device can potentially provide an immediate inexpensive solution to electricity needs in parts of the world lacking electrical infrastructure. The findings were published in the June issue of the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy and are featured in this week’s Research Highlights section of Nature.

Researchers at the Hebrew University discovered that the enhanced salt bridge capability of treated potato tubers can generate electricity through means readily available in the developing world. This cheap, easy to use green power source could substantially improve the quality of life of 1.6 billion people, comprising 32% of the developing non-OECD populations, currently lacking access to electrical infrastructure. Such a source can provide important needs, such as lighting, telecommunication, and information transfer.

"The ability to construct efficient vegetative batteries supplies us with a novel way of exploiting bio-energy sources, which are currently primarily used as fuel," said Yaacov Michlin, CEO of Yissum. "The ability to provide electrical power with such simple and natural means could benefit millions of people in the developing word, literally bringing light and telecommunication to their life in areas currently lacking electrical infrastructure."

Prof. Haim D. Rabinowitch from the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the research student Alex Golberg from the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the Hebrew University, jointly with Prof. Boris Rubinsky at the University of California at Berkeley, study the electrolytic process in living matter for use in various applications, including the generation of electric energy for self-powered implanted medical electronic devices. In their research, they discovered a new way to construct an efficient battery using zinc and copper electrodes and a slice of your everyday potato. The scientists discovered that the simple action of boiling the potato prior to use in electrolysis, increases electric power up to 10 fold over the untreated potato and enables the battery to work for days and even weeks. The scientific basis of the finding is related to the reduction in the internal salt bridge resistance of the potato battery, which is exactly how engineers are trying to optimize the performance of conventional batteries. The ability to produce and utilize low power electricity was demonstrated by LEDs powered by treated potato batteries.

Cost analyses showed that the treated potato battery generates energy, which is five to 50 folds cheaper than commercially available 1.5 Volt D cells and Energizer E91 cells, respectively. The clean light powered by this green battery is also at least 6 times more economical than kerosene lamps often used in the developing world.

Thus, the boiled potato or other similarly treated vegetables could provide an immediate, environmental friendly and inexpensive solution to many of the low power energy needs in areas of the world lacking access to electrical infrastructure. The long-keeping humble potatoes in particular are a good energy source since they are produced in 130 countries over a wide range of climates, from temperate zones to the subtropics- more than any other crop worldwide, but corn, and thus available year round almost anywhere.

The potato is the world’s number one non-grain starch food commodity, with production reaching a record 325 million tons in 2007. Potato consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries, which now account for more than half of the global harvest and where the potato’s ease of cultivation and high energy content have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers.

Yissum has made this technology freely available to economically disadvantaged parts of the words.

Black & Decker's Room for Improvement

The Wall Street Journal


Stanley Black & Decker's stock is in a vise.

Following a healthy rally, shares of the tool manufacturer have plunged 21% from their April high. One hit came from the economic scare in Europe. The company generates about a quarter of revenue in the battered single currency.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's dismal U.S. new-home sales have added to concerns that the housing market won't gain momentum, threatening demand for construction-related equipment and Bloomfield Township additions.

But now that Stanley has begun to integrate with Black & Decker, it has advantages that set it apart.

The company expects $350 million in annual cost savings from the deal. Even if revenue is well below expectations, that is sufficient to drive higher earnings. And in Latin America, where economies have been resilient, the acquisition gives Stanley scope to expand its business.

The company had just $100 million of annual sales in the region before the deal while Black & Decker had roughly $400 million.

Back home, stagnant home prices can't prevent repair and remodeling work indefinitely. Sooner or later, there will be demand for handyman services in Grosse Pointe. Dan Oppenheim of Credit Suisse says annualized U.S. spending on residential improvements is about $115 billion, compared with a peak near $145 billion in 2007. With the stock at just 8.8 times 2012 consensus earnings, even a modest sales improvement should set it free.

Rush to Sell John Deere Construction Equipment Unit

My San Antonio

 
 
Rush Enterprises Inc. said Friday it had agreed to sell its John Deere construction equipment business to Doggett Heavy Machinery Services for about $37 million.

That construction equipment division comprised about 5 percent of Rush’s business, and the company had not succeeded in expanding it with other purchases to desired levels, said W.M. “Rusty” Rush, the New Braunfels-based company’s president and CEO.

Rush owns the largest network of truck and commercial vehicle dealerships in the country.

It acquired the John Deere construction equipment outlet in Houston more than 12 years ago. Rush Equipment centers in Houston and Beaumont will be sold as part of the deal announced Friday. Rusty Rush said both are expected to remain open under the Doggett name.

Officials at Doggett could not be reached for comment. Its website said it is one of the newest John Deere dealerships in North America with four locations in South Texas. Rusty Rush said Doggett also serves customers in Louisiana.He said Rush is prohibited from re-entering the construction equipment market in Southeast Texas for several years but looks forward to re-entering the segment with another equipment manufacturer or in another area.

Rush also said the company is working on expanding an 11-unit truck dealership it acquired earlier this year from Lake City Cos. LLC. That gave the company outlets in Utah, Idaho and Oregon.

Jobless Aid Bill Comes To A Halt In Senate



WASHINGTON – The Senate halted an election-year bill to continue jobless benefits for millions of long-term unemployed workers.

Many Democrats joined Republicans on a 52-45 test vote rejecting Obama's $140 billion in new aid, protecting the jobs of thousands of state and local government workers. Democrats have been trying to enact the measure as an insurance policy against a potential double-dipping recession.

The bill's halt counters the advice of economists who support the bill's funding for additional jobless benefits and state aid to deter layoffs of public service jobs. Economist are afraid that the country could find its way back into a recession just as it's emerging from one of the largest economic downturns the U.S. has ever experienced.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave caution last week that while politicians need to devise a plan to address the U.S.'s deficit crisis, the country's recovery is still fragile. It is too soon for a immediate spending cuts on such a large scale, Bernanke added.

Although the current loss was a major hit for many, Democrats predicted that a slightly slimmer version of the measure could pass, even as early as later this week. This scaled-backed bill would extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless as well as provide $24 billion in state aid.

"We've got to do more to build on the existing jobs momentum and that's what these targeted measures are about," claimed White House economist Jared Bernstein.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., claimed the measure would "provide a path forward" as the lighter version was released late Wednesday.

However Republicans warned that the marginal difference of Wednesday's vote was a bad sign for a newly revised bill. Party leaders mentioned that even after revisions have been made, the result would still add over $50 billion to deficits over the next ten years.

President Barack Obama resurged his push for the measure last weekend, while warning that thousands of state and local public service jobs could be lost without $24 billion in Medicaid money to aid states in balancing their budgets and an additional $23 billion to ward off layoffs in local school districts.

The revised measure, which was released on Wednesday afternoon, would fall back to last year's $25-a-week hike in unemployment checks and instead of providing physicians relief of their Medicare payments through 2011, they will have only six-months.

"All I can tell you is that consensus about borrowing, debt, spending is growing stronger in our caucus and I think it is in the Democrats' as well," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

An attractive, new tax on investment fund managers would impose regular income taxes on venture capitalist of only 50 percent of profits that are the result of sales of assets held for five or more years. This reduction for investors - who currently pay taxes on most of their income at the 15 percent capital gains rate rather than the 35 percent income tax rate — could only help to drive more monetary exchange.

Democratic leaders were standing firmly behind the $24 billion to aid state governments for the Medicaid health program. Roughly 30 states have already factored in the money into their budgets for the fiscal year starting July 1. Governors claim that without the money, they will be forced to lay off thousand of workers.

"If we lose this (Medicaid) money, we will have to lay off 20,000 people." Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, adds "If states don't get this aid, they will be cutting payrolls very aggressively and it is a serious threat to the recovery,"

The newly revised stimulus bill is part of a catchall measure bringing together financial help for the jobless and aid for states with the renewal of numerous tax breaks for businesses and individuals.

The announced made earlier this week said that a 21 percent cut in Medicaid reimbursements to physicians would take effect on Friday would only increase the urgency to pass the measure. And according to the latest Labor Department estimates, by the end of the week, over 900,000 unemployed individuals who have been out of work for more than six months will have been ineligible to apply for further benefits.

Aetna of California Withdraws Proposed Insurance Rate Increase


California health insurance provider Aetna has withdrawn a proposed rate increase after an independent review found mistakes in the company's calculations to justify boosting the rates on 65,000 policyholders' plans by an average of 19 percent.

Aetna's shares fell over 2 percent after substantial mathematical errors were discovered by a California regulator. The proposal was incorrectly multiplied when converting the monthly premium into an annual one. The No. 3 U.S. health insurance provider attributed the error to a "simple human error".

According to the California Department of Insurance, Aetna's California health insurance proposal would have increased insurance rates by an average of 19 percent. The mathematical mistakes were a result of inflated rate hikes, however it remains a question as to how far off the rates were because the company withdrew the proposed increase before the review was completed.

The review that prevented Aetna Inc.'s hike was part of a broader regulatory initiative by California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Earlier this month Poizner ordered reviews of all rate increases for individual health insurance plans at California's four biggest insurers.

The four major insurers dominate 90 percent of the market for California individual health insurance policies regulated by Department of Insurance.

In April, WellPoint's Anthem division withdrew its proposed filing to hike rates by an average of 25 percent in California. Democrats had strongly disapproved the insurer's relentless proposal as they rallied to enact the health reform law.

President Barack Obama targeted Anthem's rate increase as a primary example of a failing health care system. He emphasized to health insurance executives that they should discontinue massive rate hikes. Executives counter claimed that many rises were unavoidable because the new health law requires them to offer more attractive insurance benefits.

"I have decided to take the exceptional step to post future filings on the Department of Insurance's website," California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner claimed. "Given that two of the four major health insurers have provided rate filings containing math errors, I believe an additional level of transparency is warranted," Poizner added.

In the state of California, insurers are required to spend 70 cents of every dollar collected in health insurance premiums on medical benefits.

Kodak Sees Fewer Patent Fights Ahead

The Wall Street Journal
Kodak Chief Perez Plans to Curtail Patent Lawsuits



Eastman Kodak Co. Chief Executive Antonio Perez said he plans to curtail the aggressive patent lawsuits that have generated cash for Kodak as it struggles to reinvent itself with a focus on making printers.

Since becoming CEO in 2005, Mr. Perez, a former Hewlett-Packard Co. printer executive, has successfully turned Kodak's patents into a lucrative sideline and key source of funding to finance its push into digital printing.

But those printing efforts haven't yet paid off and the slow pace of the company's turnaround has frustrated analysts. Meanwhile, Kodak's once-lucrative film business continues to shrink and its need to invest in printers continues.

"We need [cash flow from patents] right now because we're investing too much for the size of the company in these new businesses," he said in an interview at the company's Rochester, N.Y., headquarters.

"Film will never come back," Mr. Perez said. "Those very, very, very high gross margins that film had will never come back. I don't know of any digital businesses that will even have half of the margin that film had."

Kodak has reported only one full-year profit—in 2007—since 2004. Last year, its loss narrowed to $210 million from a loss of $442 million the prior year. But sales have continued to tumble, falling 19% last year to $7.61 billion from $9.42 billion in 2008.

Mr. Perez says his efforts to transform the 130-year-old company are making a noticeable difference. "When I came into the company [it] had a revenue profile that was 85% based on film and a profit profile that was 130% based on film," he says. Today, the company gets 70% of its sales from digital products.

In March, Kodak's movie-film business, which had remained relatively steady even as camera film sales plunged, suffered a new blow when three big movie theater chains secured financing to convert 14,000 movie screens to digital projection by 2013. The funding is expected to accelerate the digital distribution of movies, giving Kodak less time to adapt to the long-anticipated decline in its film cash cow.

Earlier in his tenure, Mr. Perez pushed aggressively to get Kodak into digital cameras, and now he is making a big bet on consumer and commercial inkjet printers. But he doesn't expect the printer businesses to be profitable until 2012.

Kodak's consumer printer business has gained some traction, with the number of households with Kodak printers doubling last year to about two million. Its printers are priced higher than rivals such as Hewlett-Packard and Seiko Epson Corp., but its ink cartridges, at $10 to $15, cost about half as much. Mr. Perez believes Kodak will finish the year with more than 5% of the consumer printer market in the U.S.

Chris Whitmore, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, says it will be difficult for Kodak to gain significant market share in consumer printers because the market is so competitive and profits come from ink, which requires lots of printer sales.

"We are somewhat skeptical they can actually get to that level [of market share] in that timeframe," Mr. Whitmore says.

In commercial printing, Mr. Perez has high hopes for a fast digital printer introduced in the first quarter called Prosper Press, aimed at publishers and catalog makers. Mr. Perez says more than 100 companies have requested the Prosper Press but so far Kodak's only shipped four of them because of manufacturing complexities. The commercial printers cost $1.4 million to $4 million each.

He says Kodak so far is incapable of making more than "a few dozen" this year. "We're desperately trying to get the technology under control so we can expand," he says.

While he has worked to build these new businesses, patent payments have provided a cash cushion for the company. In 2008, he set a goal to generate between $250 million and $350 million on average each year in intellectual property licensing—mainly its digital imaging patents—through 2011. He later extended the target for that goal to 2012 but had disclosed little on his plans afterward.

In the past year, Kodak's patent attorneys settled lawsuits with Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. receiving lump sums of $550 million and $400 million respectively. In January, it filed lawsuits against Apple Inc. and Research in Motion Ltd. alleging their smart phones infringe Kodak's digital-imaging patents. Analysts say it may be difficult for Kodak to match its earlier success in the latest patent fights.

But Mr. Perez says he'll wean Kodak off the patent lawsuits once the commercial and consumer printer businesses are profitable. "We'll find more value getting into business relationships that generate revenue working with some other partner rather than asking for cash," he says.

He says he didn't want to litigate so much, but felt he had to during the downturn when he says companies using Kodak technology ignored his requests to strike licensing deals. "Going to court is expensive, it creates a lot of publicity, nobody benefits from it except law firms," he says.

Mr. Perez expects intellectual property income to continue generating revenue for Kodak even as the number of new patent-suit filings slow. "It will be very valuable," he says.