Showing posts with label Business. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Business. Show all posts

When the latest layoff story is about you

It’s an odd feeling reading in the newspaper about losing your job. I didn’t learn about being fired in the newspaper but the story of losing my position was there. Why I lost my job (along with more than a dozen of my colleagues) was the lead story in the business section of The Miami Herald on Feb. 22. It even had a picture of me right next to the paragraph describing how we lost our jobs with the public television program Nightly Business Report.

What’s nice about sharing your employment woes with the entire community is the outpouring of support you get. I received dozens of emails from friends, fans and colleagues across the country, expressing sympathy and pledging to help any way they could. It is humbling to hear how you have impacted people’s lives, especially those you don’t know directly. The range of emotions you feel when you face a job loss can be overwhelming, but a short email or voicemail from an associate can lift your spirits, giving you the strength to press on. The medium of the messages does not matter. A tweet of support, LinkedIn endorsement or text message of sympathy fuels the encouragement to face the anxiety of joblessness.

After news of my job elimination was in the newspaper and blogosphere, there were compassionate glances from fellow parents on the sidelines of the kids’ weekend soccer games. I didn’t have to break the news — most had already read about it. A pedestrian on the sidewalk stopped me in mid-stride to express his disappointment. The inevitable questions came: What are you going to do? Will you stay? Do you have anything you’re working on?

I am lucky my employment status was on the business front page. Thousands of other people are treated as statistics. As a business journalist, I have been guilty of that. Company layoffs numbering in the dozens as ours did rarely demand attention. The cuts have to be in the thousands to have any hope of getting much media attention. Even then, it’s only a number. The names of those losing their jobs are known only to their HR departments, in order to fill out the paperwork. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the nature of job loss. Each job cut is a story that begins en masse in boardrooms and offices but plays out individually in kitchens and living rooms across America.

In January, there were more than 1,300 mass layoffs of U.S. workers. A mass layoff impacts at least 50 people from a single company. More than 134,000 individuals were involved in such action, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. My job loss and that of my colleagues won’t show up in February’s report. There were too few of us. Some of us will appear in other employment data, but we will be just statistics. Each of those statistics has groceries to buy, bills to pay and hope for a new opportunity.

In a $16 trillion economy, it’s understandable that we become statistics. The stakes are just too big to pick up the noise from any of our individual unemployment stories. The weekly and government reports I have spent my career reporting on don’t ask why. They don’t ask who. They only ask how many. It’s our friends and family and colleagues who ask, “How can I help?”

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Florida class-action case takes aim at Citizens’ reinspection program

Thousands of Florida homeowners buffeted by higher windstorm premiums have sued state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to recover potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in “back-door” rate increases driven by “arbitrary” reinspections of their residences.

The proposed class-action lawsuit, filed in Broward Circuit Wednesday, aims to halt Citizens’ reinspection program, claiming it has illegally stripped discounts from homeowners who had earned them under a 2007 inspection program approved by the Florida Legislature. Their original inspections were supposed to be valid for five years.

But in 2010, Citizens violated the due-process rights of homeowners, who had submitted official inspection forms, by arbitrarily reinspecting their properties to boost lost revenue that the agency could not generate lawfully through premium hikes, the suit said.

Lawyers who filed the suit, whose class representative is a Broward homeowner, said Citizens violated the due-process rights of its policyholders, costing each higher premiums averaging upwards of $1,000 — and possibly more — a year.

The collective cost to homeowners throughout Florida exceeds more than $100 million, said attorney Todd Stabinksi, whose Miami law firm, Stabinksi & Funt, filed the suit with Farmer, Jaffe of Fort Lauderdale and Kula & Samson of Aventura. They gathered Thursday for a press conference outside the West Broward County Courthouse in Plantation.

“Citizens got the benefit of lowering their risks, but Citizens’ policyholders did not get the benefit of lower premiums,” Stabinski said. “It should have been a mutually beneficial bargain.”

Consumer advocates have accused Citizens of using the reinspection program to impose “massive” rate hikes on homeowners. Citizens has denied the charge, saying that it is simply trying to get accurate information about the homes it insures.

“Since at least 2010, Citizens has used a wind mitigation reinspection program to systemtically deprive policy holders of legitimate wind mitigation credits,” said a nonprofit group, Florida Association for Insurance Reform, which praised the legal action.

A spokesperson for Citizens said the company has been operating under the law, and that the reinspections came after regulators changed the mitigation criteria. “Our position is Citizens’ reinspections were conducted under statutory authority afforded any insurer to verify, at the insurer’s expense, the accuracy of inspection reports submitted for a mitigation discount,” said spokesman Michael Peltier.

Discontent has been widespread among Citizens’ policyholders, who spent large sums of money on roof, window and other upgrades to earn windstorm mitigation discounts while protecting their homes against potential hurricane damage. In response, Citizens unveiled major changes to its home reinspection program last August, after consumers expressed outrage over media reports about a staggering $137 million in premium increases generated by the unpopular program.

Under its new plans, homeowners who lose insurance discounts because of a reinspection can receive a second inspection free of charge. They will have new tools to dispute the findings of the first reinspection. That decision could impact more than 200,000 property owners, who have already seen their premiums go up by an average of about $800 after the initial reinspection.

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Don’t get too personal on LinkedIn

Have you ever received a request to connect on LinkedIn from someone you didn’t know or couldn’t remember?

A few weeks ago, Josh Turner encountered this situation. The online request to connect came from a businessman on the opposite coast of the United States. It came with a short introduction that ended with “Let’s go Blues!” a reference to Turner’s favorite hockey team in St. Louis that he had mentioned in his profile. “It was a personal connection … that’s building rapport.”

LinkedIn is known for being the professional social network where members expect you to keep buttoned-down behavior and network online like you would at a business event. With more than 200 million registered users, the site facilitates interaction as a way to boost your stature, gain a potential customer or rub elbows with a future boss.

But unlike most other social networking sites, LinkedIn is all about business — and you need to take special care that you act accordingly. As in any workplace, the right amount of personal information sharing could be the foot in the door, say experts. The wrong amount could slam it closed.

“Anyone in business needs a professional online presence,’’ says Vanessa McGovern, the VP of Business Development for the Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs and a consultant to business owners on how to use LinkedIn. But they should also heed LinkedIn etiquette or risk sending the wrong messages.

One of the biggest mistakes, McGovern says is getting too personal — or not personal enough.

Sending a request to connect blindly equates to cold calling and likely will lead nowhere. Instead, it should come with a personal note, an explanation of who you are, where you met, or how the connection can benefit both parties, McGovern explains.

Your profile should get a little personal, too, she says. “Talk about yourself in the first person and add a personal flair — your goals, your passion … make yourself seem human.”

Beyond that, keep your LinkedIn posts, invitations, comments and photos professional, McGovern says.

If you had a hard day at the office or your child just won an award, you may want to share it with your personal network elsewhere — but not on LinkedIn.

“This is not Facebook. Only share what you would share at a professional networking event,” she says.

Another etiquette pitfall on LinkedIn is the hit and run — making a connection and not following up.

At least once a week, Ari Rollnick, a principal in kabookaboo, an integrated marketing agency in Coral Gables, gets a request to connect with someone on LinkedIn that he has never met or heard of before. The person will have no connections in common and share no information about why they want to build a rapport.

“I won’t accept. That’s a lost opportunity for them,” Rollnick says.

He approaches it differently. When Rollnick graduated from Emory with an MBA in 2001, he had a good idea that his classmates would excel in the business world. Now, Rollnick wanted to find out just where they went and reestablish a connection.

With a few clicks, he tracked down dozens of them on LinkedIn, requested a connection, and was back on their radar. Then came the follow-up — letting them know through emails, phone calls and posts that he was creating a two-way street for business exchange. “Rather than make that connection and disappearing , I let them know I wanted to open the door to conversation.”

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Friday is the deadline for homestead exemption applications

Friday is the deadline to apply for a homestead exemption or other property-tax break with the Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser.

Two new exemptions are on the books. One aims to cut the tax burden for low-income seniors who have lived in their homes more than 25 years. The other is for the spouses of police and fire-rescue workers who have died in the line of duty.

Homeowners can apply for homestead and other tax cuts at the Property Appraiser’s offices or by calling 305-375-4091 for forms.

Information and online filing for homestead exemption also is available at the Property Appraiser’s website at

A homestead exemption excludes $50,000 of the assessed value of a primary residence from taxation and caps the annual increase in a property’s assessed value at a maximum of 3 percent.

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Foreclosure prevention counseling offered

Homeowners struggling to keep their homes can meet with mortgage company officials and housing experts to get personal advice and help at a free workshop this week in Miami.

The event will run 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at the James L. Knight Center at 400 SE Second Ave., Miami.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, from Florida’s 24th Congressional District, and the U.S. Treasury Department are hosting the “Help For Homeowners” event, which is aimed at helping provide homeowners information on avoiding foreclosure, including topics like mortgage principal reduction, refinancing, loan modification, and short sales.

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Miami medicine goes digital

About 10 years ago, Dr. Fleur Sack quit her practice as a family physician to become a hospital department head. Spurring her decision was the need to switch from paper records to electronic ones to keep her private practice profitable. “At that time, it would have cost about $50,000,” Dr. Sack recalled. “It was too expensive and it was too overwhelming.”

But times and technologies changed, and last year, Dr. Sack left her hospital job to restart her medical practice with an affordable system for managing electronic patient records. She agreed to a $5,000 setup fee and a subscription fee of $500 per month for the system. Her investment also qualified her for subsidy money, which the federal government pays in installments, and to date, her subsidy income has paid for the setup fee and about two years of monthly fees. “So far, I’ve got my check for $18,000,” she said. “There’s a total of $44,000 that I can get.”

That kind of cash flow is one reason why so-called EHR software systems for electronic health records have been among the hottest-selling commercial products in the world of information technology. EHR system development is a growth industry in South Florida, too. Life sciences and biotechnology are among the high growth-potential sectors identified by the Beacon Council-led One Community One Goal economic development initiative unveiled in 2012; already, the University of Miami has opened a Health Science Technology Park while Florida International University has launched a healthcare informatics and management systems program in its graduate school of business.

For many young businesses in the area’s IT industry, government incentives are paving the way. The federal government is pushing doctors and hospitals to use electronic health records to cut wasteful spending and improve patient care while protecting patient privacy — sending digital information via encrypted systems, for example, rather than regular email.

Under a 2009 federal law known as the HITECH Act, maximum incentive payments for buying such systems range up to $44,000 for doctors with Medicare patients and up to $63,750 for doctors with Medicaid patients. Hospitals are eligible for larger incentive payments for becoming more paperless. The subsidy program isn’t permanent; eligible professionals must begin receiving payments by 2016. But by then, the federal government will be penalizing doctors and hospitals that take Medicare or Medicaid money without making meaningful use of electronic health records.

“What the government did is, they incentivized, and now they’re going to penalize,” said Andrew Carricarte, president and CEO of IOS Health Systems in Miami, one of the largest South Florida-based vendors of online software service for physician practices. He said insurance companies also may start penalizing physicians for failing to adopt electronic health records because “the commercial payers always follow Medicare and Medicaid.”

It’s all part of the growth story at IOS Health Systems, which has more than 2,000 physicians across the nation using its online EHR system. Carricarte said many of the company’s customers buy their second EHR system from IOS after their first one flopped. “Almost 40 percent of our sales come from customers who had systems and are now switching over to something else,” he said.

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South Beach Wine & Food Festival changes Miami's culinary scene, impacts economy

For Miami restaurateurs, this is Showtime.

With dozens of top chefs — Bobby Flay, Todd English, Daniel Boloud and Masaharu Morimoto among the list — in town for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, the pressure is on everywhere, from Michy’s to the new Catch Miami. The goal: Show everyone from around the country that Miami’s food scene has arrived on the national stage.

Chef Michelle Bernstein’s staff whipped up dishes designed to impress guests at Michy’s — like foie gras, oxtail and apple tarte tatin — while she juggled menus for multiple events. Bernstein kept her cellphone handy to make sure any chef friends could get a table, even though her namesake restaurant was sold out.

As always, Joe’s Stone Crab was a must-do stop for many, including Paula Deen and New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. Aussie Chef Curtis Stone attracted a string of admirers as he ate his way around town, with stops at Prime 112, Pubbelly Sushi and Puerto Sagua. Khong River House and Yardbird Southern Table & Bar hosted Meyer, The Food Network’s Anne Burrell and Chef Anita Lo.

Michael’s Genuine was another hot spot.

“This is kind of our coming out party for Khong and it’s our chance to knock it out of the park and wow people,” said John Kunkel, owner of Khong and Yardbird.

Prime 112 owner Myles Chefetz admits he’s a fanatic about checking plates when they come back from a chef’s table. And he’s always on the lookout for the table ordering 20 different items, because that’s usually a restaurateur doing research.

“If you have Jean-Gorges or Bobby Flay eating at your restaurant, you want to make sure he has a great experience,” Chefetz said. “You want to put your best foot forward because you know you’re going to get scrutinized.”

The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival is not just a forum for impressing the culinary elite. It’s among the top three tourist draws for Miami restaurants and hotels. In its 12th year, the festival draws more than 60,000 people to Miami Beach for a weekend of decadence, featuring more than 50 events spread over four days.

It is neck and neck with two of the area’s other most prominent weekends: Art Basel and Presidents’ Day (which coincides with the Miami International Boat Show).

There’s the immediate economic impact, of course, but the festival has made its mark in other ways: helping transform Miami’s food scene from a cultural wasteland to one of the country’s hot spots, one where top chefs all want to set up shop.

“Twelve years ago I don’t know if you could even name five really good restaurants. Now, you can’t think of where you want to eat because there are so many good restaurants,” said Lee Brian Schrager, festival founder and vice president of communications for Southern Wine & Spirits, its host. “What the festival can take credit for is introducing the culinary world to the great talent down here, and really highlighting South Florida as a great dining destination.”

There has been plenty of indulgence to go around. Flay finally broke his losing streak and took home top honors at the Burger Bash with his award-winning crunchified green chili burger. At the Q, barbecue lovers had their choice of Al Roker’s lamb ribs with baked beans or Geoffrey Zakarian’s smoked tagarashi crusted tuna, among other offerings.

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The faces of Florida’s Medicaid system

The tea party governor now says he wants to expand Medicaid. The Republican Legislature isn’t as sure.

Hanging in the balance?

Access to health care for 1 million or more poor Floridians.

Billions of dollars in federal money.

The state budget, which — already — pumps $21 billion a year into care. Florida’s Medicaid system today serves more than 3 million people, about one in every six Floridians. The decision whether to expand the system by a full third will be made by men and women in suits in Tallahassee’s mural-filled chambers this spring.

But the impact is elsewhere, in children’s hospitals in Tampa and Miami, in doctors’ offices in New Port Richey and in the home of a woman who recently lost her full-time teaching job.

The Suddenly uninsured

This was not how she envisioned her 60s.

Jean Vincent dreamed of turning her five-bedroom home into a bed and breakfast. She painted murals on walls, created mosaics on floors and let her imagination guide the interior decorating. There is a “garden” room, a “bamboo” room and a “canopy” room.

In 2010, Vincent lost her full-time job teaching in Citra north of Ocala. Her mother became sick with cancer and needed around-the-clock care before dying in August. Then, doctors began prescribing Vincent costly medications to treat osteoporosis and early-onset diabetes.

“I started getting a little behind with my mortgage,” said Vincent, 61. “All of a sudden, I found out I had to have an emergency retina eye surgery.”

Today, Vincent is searching for roommates to move into her home and help pay the bills. She begs Gainesville’s Sante Fe Community College and City College to schedule her for as many classes as she can handle as an adjunct geography professor; this semester’s four is the most she’s ever had.

But her biggest worry? Not having comprehensive health care.

Vincent —who is too young for Medicare — is enrolled in CHOICES, a health services program the Alachua County government created for the uninsured. It covers preventative care like her flu shots and helps with her drug therapy. But if Vincent ever got so sick she needed to go to the hospital, she’d be on her own.

Under current Florida law, adults with no dependents are not eligible to participate in Medicaid no matter how little they make. Vincent’s four children are all grown, which means even as her income has dwindled she can’t become eligible for the health insurance program run jointly by the federal and state governments.

If Florida decides to expand the Medicaid system, people in Vincent’s position for the first time could be covered.

The expansion would allow any single adult making about $16,000 a year eligible for Medicaid.

On the matter, Vincent has become an activist. She joined with patient rights group Florida CHAIN and traveled to Tallahassee to lobby lawmakers.

“When I gave my testimony, that’s all I wanted them to do was see there were people out there that weren’t just trying to take advantage of the system,” she said.

This summer, she expects to only be assigned one class at Sante Fe. That will provide about $2,000 for her to live on for three months. Meanwhile, her retirement dreams are put on hold.

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Jorge Perez: Large upfront payments for condos only works in Miami

Financing condo towers with large upfront payments in the United States basically only works in Miami, thanks to foreign buyers who don't expect to borrow heavily for real estate, Related CEO Jorge Perez said Friday.

"It's a very local market," he told the University of Miami Real Estate Impact Conference. "It's for people who are used to paying cash for most of their second homes."

When condo loans dried up during the housing crisis, Perez and other developers turned to a financing model popular in Latin America where builders demand significant payments throughout the construction process. That's a big change from the boom, when buyers could secure condo contracts for only 10 percent down or less.

Perez said the new model does not work well with U.S. buyers or others who are used to small down payments. "We see resistance to that (Latin American) model in even the Canadian market," he said.


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Experts offer advice to entrepreneurs

Do your research, be sure to network, pick partners who have complementary skills and make sure your product is amazing.

Starting or growing a business can be daunting for an entrepreneur. So have a plan, give only a sliver of your business away to investors, know how much money you need and how you will spend it, and demonstrate your passion when searching for capital.

Experts doled out that advice and more at The Miami Herald’s Small Business Forum on Thursday at Florida International University.

About 100 attendees — budding entrepreneurs, small-business owners and others — gleaned tips and inspiration during a series of panel discussions.

Matt Kuttler, co-president of, started three businesses with his business partner, who started as his high school friend.

“The background is trust,” he said, advising entrepreneurs to choose someone with similar values, and to ask themselves: “Can I work with this person? Can I respect them?” In that way, though they have had disagreements, “Ultimately, the mutual respect brings us back,” Kuttler said

Before founding, which the partners sold four months ago to a Baltimore company, Kuttler did lots of research and networked with everyone he could, asking questions.

Know what you want and what you don’t want when searching for a venture, he counseled. For example, if you don’t want to work nights and weekends, don’t start a restaurant. And be aware that even though you can have a thriving personal life, you will always be thinking of your business.

Alberto Perlman, chief executive and co-founder of Zumba Fitness, energized attendees with his tale of starting and growing the Miami business, which combines exercise with entertainment. Zumba classes are now found in 140,000 locations in 186 countries, and the company has sold 12 million DVDs.

“One of the biggest business lessons of Zumba,” said Perlman, the keynote speaker, “is that the product has to be magical. It has to be amazing.”

Other lessons he offered: only give investors or licensees “a sliver of the business” —only what they need. Always “give people more value than what they are paying for.” And spend the money to hire “A” players.

To find financing for a small business or start-up, get help putting together a business plan and a loan application from organizations like SCORE and Partners for Self Employment, their executives said.

Marjorie Weber, Miami-Dade chapter chair of SCORE, advised being careful not to borrow short term if your needs are long term.

And when you are asked, “ ‘How much do you need,’ never answer with ‘How much can you give me,’ ” said Cornell Crews Jr., program director at Partners for Self Employment. “Always know how much you need and how you are going to spend it.”

When pitching to potential investors, do your homework to see what they are interested in, and make a good first impression, said Darius G. Nash, co-founder of G3 Capital Partners, a mid-market and early-state investment company.

“Image matters,” he said.

To present your business, frame it in terms of a problem and a solution, said Melissa Krinzman, founder and managing director of Venture Architects.

“If you don’t have a problem you are solving for your customer, you don’t really have a business,” she said.

What’s more, show your passion and commitment, said Boris Hirmas Said, chairman of Tres Mares.

“I love clever ideas; I love clever people,” he said.

And find someone who believes in you, because the road ahead may be bumpy, he said. “You don’t want people to pull the plug on you.”

Finally, expert coaches critiqued entrepreneurs’ pitches so they could shine.

Among the tips: begin with a provocative sentence to explain why your business solves a problem. Go from ‘why’ to ‘what’ to ‘how,’ to ‘who,’ and always ask for something — like an investment or advice. Also, offer what experience you and your team have in your field.

Speak directly into the microphone and take your hands out of your pocket.

“Showing your hands shows you have nothing to hide,” said Michelle Villalobos of Mivista Consulting.

And share your passion, said David Suarez of Interactive Training Solutions.

“If you can make your audience feel what you are feeling,” he said, “you have done most of your job.”

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Heico Corp. says sales, profits increased in first fiscal quarter

Technology company Heico Corp. on Wednesday reported modest growth in sales and profits for the first fiscal quarter, though operating income decreased compared to a year ago.

The company, with headquarters in Miami and Hollywood, reported that net sales increased 2 percent to $216.5 million for the quarter that ended Jan. 31.

Net income increased 4 percent to $20 million. The company said net income for the quarter includes a benefit of two cents per diluted share from the retroactive extension of the research and development income tax credit.

Operating income dropped from $37.6 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2012 to $34.9 million.

“As expected, global economic uncertainty and domestic governmental spending reductions were principal contributing factors to the nominal sales growth and lower operating income reported in the first quarter of fiscal 2013,” the company said in a press release. But optimism remains for the rest of the year, Heico said in the release, noting that growth in airline capacity and maintenance spending is expected in the later part of the fiscal year.

The company, which makes components for the space, defense, communications, medical and computer industries as well as replacement parts for airplanes, raised estimates for the full fiscal year. Heico now expects 6-8 percent year-over-year growth in net sales and 9-11 percent growth in net income, compared to previous estimates of 5-7 percent growth.

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Best photo apps for Android devices

Whether you want to slap a simple filter on your photo or get granular and change attributes like color levels and saturation, we’ve got a list of the Android apps you’ll want to use.


The good: With its unique gesture-based interface, this offers an incredible level of control over its effects and filters.

The bad: The tools and interface aren’t intuitive, so it could take a while to get familiarized. Also, the lack of a zoom function makes it difficult to see finer adjustments.

The cost: Free

The bottom line: If you’re a serious mobile photographer looking for an app with which to fine-tune your photos, Snapseed is your best choice.

Pixlr Express

The good: Offers more than 600 effects that all work well and are easy to use. Auto Fix and Focal Blur (tilt-shift) are particularly effective.

The bad: The app doesn’t warn you before backing out, which can result in lost work. A Recent Files picker upon launch would be nice.

The cost: Free

The bottom line: One of the most powerful Android apps in its category. Despite its minor flaws, it should be your go-to mobile photo editor.


The good: An excellent way to turn mundane images into cool-looking photos you can share with friends. Mapping features mean people can easily browse all your geotagged shots.

The bad: Photo Map features default to showing all your geotagged shots, which could be dangerous under some circumstances.

The cost: Free

The bottom line: If you like taking retro-looking shots and sharing them, Instagram is tough to beat. Mapping features and frequent updates to the app mean your pictures will have a longer browsing life span.

Photo Grid

The good: Offers a huge menu of grid templates and a dead-simple interface for combining photos into framed collages.

The bad: The app unfortunately doesn’t let you customize the thickness of collage borders or the level of curvature on rounded panels.

The cost: Free

The bottom line: Even though it’s missing a couple of nifty customization tools other collage apps have, Photo Grid’s simple interface and outstanding menu of predesigned grids make it the best collage app on the market.

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Open English expands across Latin America

Back in 2008, Open English, a company run from Miami that uses online courses to teach English in Latin America, had just a handful of students in Venezuela and three employees. Today the company has more than 50,000 students in 22 Latin American countries and some 2,000 employees.

To fund this meteoric expansion, the founders of Open English — Venezuelans Andrés Moreno and Wilmer Sarmiento and Moreno’s American wife, Nicolette — began with $700. Over the last six years, the partners have raised more than $55 million, mostly from private investment and venture capital firms.

Their formula for success? The founders rejected traditional English teaching methods in physical classrooms and developed a system that allows students to tune into live classes every hour of the day from their computers at home, in the office or at school, and learn from native English-speaking teachers who may be based anywhere. Courses stress practical conversations online and the company guarantees fluency after a one-year course, offering six additional months free if students fail to become fluent.

“We wanted to change the way people learn English,” said Andrés Moreno, the 30-year-old co-founder and CEO, who halted his training as a mechanical engineer and worked full-time at developing the company with his partners. “And we want students to achieve fluency. Traditionally, students have to drive to an English academy, waste time in traffic, and try to learn from a teacher who is not an native English speaker in a class with 20 students.”

Using the Internet, Open English offers classes usually with two or three students and a teacher, interactive videos, other learning aids and personal attention from coaches who phone students regularly to see how they are progressing.

Courses cost an average of $750 per year and students can opt for monthly payments. This is about one-fifth to one-third of what traditional schools charge for small classes or individual instructors, Andrés noted.

“We work at building confidence with our students and encourage them to practice speaking English as much as possible during classes,” said Nicolette Moreno, co-founder and chief product officer, who met Andrés in Venezuela while she was working there on a service project. “Students are taught to actively participate in conversations like a job interview, traveling and talking on a conference call,” said Nicolette, who previously lived in Los Angles, worked with non-profits to create environmentally friendly products and fight poverty in emerging markets, and was head equity trader at an asset management firm. “Students need to speak English in our classes, even though it is sometimes difficult. They learn through immersion.”

Open English has successfully tapped into an enormous, underserved market. Millions of people in Latin America want to learn English to advance in their jobs, work at multinational companies, travel or work overseas and understand the popular music, movies and TV shows they constantly hear in English. Many of them take English courses at public and private schools and learn little if any useful conversational English. While students at private schools for the upper middle class and wealthy often learn foreign languages extremely well from native English-speaking teachers, most people can’t afford these schools or courses designed for one or two students.

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Small business lending rebounds in South Florida

For years, Pablo Oliveira dreamed of buying a property to house his high-end linen and furniture rental company, Nuage Designs, which has created settings for such glamorous events as the weddings of Carrie Underwood and Chelsea Clinton.

A few months ago, that dream came true, when Oliveira purchased a warehouse across the street from his current Miami location. He is now renovating the loft-like space with the help of a $2.1 million, 25-year small business loan.

“It allows me to own my own space as opposed to renting, and that will decrease my costs for infrastructure and allow me to build equity with time,” said Oliveira, who secured a U.S. Small Business Administration-guaranteed loan from Wells Fargo.

For small businesses like Oliveira’s, a loan can be the critical key to growing a business, as well as the kindling to ignite an operation.

Take Harold Scott’s fledgling Great Scott Security, which manufactures window guards in Hollywood that can open quickly in case of need.

When he was 13, Scott’s stepfather perished in a Georgia house fire because he couldn’t escape through heavy window bars. Scott made it his mission to fix the problem.

“I promised myself I would dedicate all my time to working on a solution,” said Scott, 60.

Now retired from a 23-year career in the U.S. Justice Department, Scott recently secured a $7,500 microloan from Partners for Self Employment. He used it to buy a computer and pay for marketing and other business expenses for his quick-release window guards, which have met national, state and Miami-Dade County fire safety codes.

During the depths of the recession, business owners often griped that gaining access to capital was their biggest hurdle. Saddled with bad loans, many banks were wary of making new ones. At the same time, both the value of collateral and the creditworthiness of many borrowers tumbled.

Now, at last, banks are starting to open their pocketbooks again, experts say, though lending is still not on par with pre-recession levels.

“There is no question that small business borrowing declined as a result of the recession and has yet to recover to pre-crisis levels,” said Richard Brown, chief economist for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., via email. “According to the Federal Reserve, total loans to noncorporate businesses and farms stood at just under $3.8 trillion in September, which remains below the peak of about $4.1 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2008.”

Signs of Growth

In South Florida, more businesses are applying for loans and getting approvals from banks, according to lenders, officials at government agencies and leaders of organizations that help small business owners secure loans.

“Lenders are expressing a greater interest than they have in the past few years in terms of meeting the needs of the small business community,” said Marjorie Weber, Miami-Dade Chapter Chair of SCORE, which helps business owners put loan packages together and refers them to bankers.

Loan figures are indeed rising. During the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2012, SBA-guaranteed loans were up in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to the SBA. In fiscal 2012, 449 loans were approved in Miami-Dade, totaling $213.3 million, up from 426 loans for $154.4 million in 2011. In Broward, 262 loans for $91.4 million were approved in fiscal 2012, compared to 257 loans for $102.4 million in 2011.

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Sign up for Feb. 21 Miami Herald Small Business Forum

Prepare your best pitch for the Miami Herald’s Small Business Forum, Feb. 21 at the south campus of our sponsor, Florida International University.

In addition to how-to panels and inspirational stories from successful entrepreneurs, our annual small business forum will include interactive opportunities with experts to learn about financing options and polish your personal and business brands.

During our finance panel, audience volunteers will be invited to explain their financing needs to the group. During our box-lunch session, they will be invited to pitch their business or personal brand to our coaches.

Those who prefer just to listen will be treated to a keynote address by Alberto Perlman, co-founder of the global fitness craze Zumba. Panels include success stories from the local entrepreneurs who founded Sedano’s, Jennifer’s Homemade and; finance tips from experts in small business loans, venture capital, angel investments and traditional bank loans; and insiders in the burgeoning South Florida tech start-up scene.

Plus, it’s a real bargain. $25 includes the half-day seminar, continental breakfast and a box lunch.

Register here.


8 a.m.

Registration and continental breakfast, provided by Bill Hansen Catering

8:30 a.m. Welcome

Host: David Suarez, president and CEO, Interactive Training Solutions, LLC

•  Jerry Haar, PhD, associate dean & director, FIU Eugenio Pino and Family Global

Entrepreneurship Center

•  Alice Horn, executive director, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE South Florida)

•  Jane Wooldridge, Business editor, The Miami Herald

Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge Overview:

•  Nancy Dahlberg, Business Plan Challenge coordinator, The Miami Herald

8:45 a.m. Session I – Success Stories

Moderator: Jerry Haar, PhD, associate dean & director, FIU Eugenio Pino and Family Global

Entrepreneurship Center


•  Jennifer Behar, founder, Jennifer’s Homemade

•  Matt Kuttler, co-president of

•  Javier Herrán, chief marketing officer, Sedano’s Supermarkets

10 a.m. Session II – All about Tech

Moderator: Jane Wooldridge, Business editor, The Miami Herald


•  Susan Amat, founder, Launch Pad Tech

•  Nancy Borkowski, executive director, Health Management Programs, Chapman Graduate School of

Business, Florida International University

•  Chris Fleck, vice president of mobility solutions at Citrix and a director of the South Florida Tech Alliance

•  Charles Irizarry, co-founder and director of product architecture, Rokk3r Labs

11:15 a.m. Keynote

Speaker: Alberto Perlman, CEO and co-founder of Zumba® Fitness

Introduction: Jane Wooldridge, business editor, The Miami Herald

11:45 a.m. Session III – Show me the money: Financing your small business

An interactive session featuring audience volunteers who will be invited to make a short investment pitch before a panel, including experts in microlending, SBA loans, traditional bank loans, venture capital and angel investing. Audience volunteers should come prepared with a two-minute presentation that includes details about current backing, how much money they are seeking and a brief synosis of ow that money would be used.

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South Florida trade shattered records in 2012

It was a golden year for international trade through the Miami Customs District in 2012, as South Florida’s airports and seaports handled a record $124.73 billion worth of trade and cracked into the nation’s Top 10 customs districts for the first time.

But the Miami district’s top exports and imports were also golden. Since 2009, gold from countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Guyana and Peru has been South Florida’s top import as skittish investors bought the precious metal, pushing its price to lofty heights. In 2012, gold also became the top export of the Miami district, which includes airports and seaports from Miami to Key West.

Last year the district imported a record $7.25 billion worth of gold — a 42 percent increase over the previous year, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by WorldCity, a Coral Gables media company that focuses on U.S. connections to the global economy.

But almost as quickly as the gold arrives, it is shipped out, primarily to Switzerland and to other European countries in smaller amounts. Last year the Miami district exported a record $7.93 billion worth of gold.

The gold business is a “relatively recent phenomenon,’’ Ken Roberts, president of WorldCity, said at a Trade Connections event in Coral Gables Friday that analyzed the past year’s trade numbers.

Global economic uncertainty, he said, has driven people to the safety of gold and that has pushed up prices. Not only are central banks buying gold; so are many jittery investors.

Miami became the nation’s leading importer of gold in 2009 but imports only totaled $2.14 billion then. Over the past 10 years, the Miami district’s gold imports have increased by 2,420 percent and gold exports are up a whopping 13,433 percent. That corresponds with a huge run-up in the price of gold over the past decade — gold prices increased from around $300 an ounce in mid-February 2002 to $1,730 an ounce in mid-February 2012.

But the volume of gold trade through Miami also has increased.

Roberts noted that overall, Miami district exports increased to a record $73.3 billion, up nearly 6 percent from the previous year, and imports totaled a record $51.4 billion — a 17 percent increase.

Most interesting, said Roberts, is that the Miami District made its move into the ranks of the nation’s Top 10 Customs districts, by value of trade, at a time when the U.S. economy has been sluggish. But 30 percent of Miami’s trade is with South American, Central America and the Caribbean, and many of the Latin economies have been relatively resilient throughout the U.S. downturn.

Brazil remained the Miami district’s No. 1 trading partner in 2012 with $16.4 billion in total trade — a 6.4 percent increase.

“Brazil has had a tremendous decade and they’re a little smug about it,’’ said Scott Miller, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director of global trade policy at Procter & Gamble. “It’s a tough place to do business and they know it and don’t seem to want to do much about it.’’

Miami traders acknowledge that restrictions and high tariffs make the Brazilian market difficult, but Latin America’s largest economy is so big and diverse that it’s still very attractive. Brazil also is the top source of international visitors to Miami-Dade County.

Colombia, with $9.89 billion in trade with the Miami district, was the 2012 runner-up, and Switzerland, with $8.8 billion in trade with South Florida, was third.

But trade statistics only tell part of the story of international commerce.

Miller pointed out that increasingly, world trade involves the exchange of components rather than finished goods. If one takes out oil, he said, half the world’s trade is in components.

He pointed to Apple’s iPhone, which is made in China from U.S. and Japanese chips, a screen from Malaysia and other components from around the world. “So many things today are made in the world,’’ rather than manufactured start to finish in one location, said Miller. “What is really being done is that we make things together.’’

Every iPhone that is imported into the United States, he said, adds $178 to the U.S. trade deficit, but that doesn’t take into account all the jobs created by Apple’s inventions and design development, its sophisticated customer service system and its marketing apparatus.

“Stop looking at trade as a competition,’’ he said. “It’s a mutually beneficial exchange.’’

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American Airlines, US Airways announce merger

After a nearly yearlong courtship, the union became official Thursday: American Airlines and US Airways have formally announced plans to merge.

An early morning announcement by the airlines confirmed reports widely circulated after boards of both companies approved the merger late Wednesday.

The move brings stability to one of Miami-Dade County’s largest private employers more than a year after the airline and its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving the fate of thousands of employees — and the largest carrier at Miami International Airport — in question.

According to the Thursday announcement, the deal was approved unanimously by the boards of both companies, creating the world’s biggest airline with implied market value of nearly $11 billion, based on the Wednesday closing price of US Airways stock. The airline will have close to 100,000 employees, 1,500 aircraft, $38.7 billion in combined revenue.

The deal must be approved by American’s bankruptcy judge and antitrust regulators, but no major hurdles are expected. The process is expected to take about six months, according to a letter sent to employees Thursday by American CEO Tom Horton.

Travelers won’t notice immediate changes. The new airline will be called American Airlines. It likely will be months before the frequent-flier programs are merged, and possibly years before the two airlines are fully combined. The new airline will be a member of the oneWorld airlines frequent flier alliance.

And for Miami travelers, it’s unlikely that much will change at any point. American and regional carrier American Eagle handled 68 percent of traffic at the airport last year, while US Airways accounted for just 2 percent. American boasts 328 flights to 114 destinations from Miami.

“We don’t expect any substantial changes at MIA if the merger occurs because our traffic is largely driven by the strength of the Miami market and not the airlines serving it,” said airport spokesman Greg Chin.

American has said for more than a year that its long-term plan calls for increasing departures at key hubs, including Miami, by 20 percent. That pledge has already started to materialize; in recent months, the airline has added new service to Asuncion, Paraguay and Roatán, Honduras.

During its bankruptcy restructuring, about 400 American employees lost jobs, leaving American and its regional carrier, American Eagle, with 9,894 employees in Miami-Dade County and 43 in Fort Lauderdale. US Airways has few employees in the area.

“It really isn’t going to affect Miami in a very major way anytime soon,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo. “Only because US Airways isn’t a big player in South Florida.”

At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, American and US Airways combined would still only be the fifth-largest airline after Southwest, Spirit, JetBlue and Delta, a spokesman said. The two airlines have little overlap in routes from Fort Lauderdale.

Despite the lack of major changes, Boyd said the merger would be a good development for Miami.

“It should be positive for the employees and it should be positive for the communities that the airlines serve,” he said.

Robert Herbst, an independent airline analyst and consultant, said US Airways will add a “significant amount” of destinations in the Northeast, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

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Now owned by top executives, Cruise Planners on course toward continued growth

With a background in travel and present-day focus on raising her two small children, Lori Jahner set out to find work she enjoyed that would give her the flexibility she needed.

The 33-year-old from Aurora, Colo. decided on Cruise Planners — American Express Travel, a home-based travel agent network headquartered in Coral Springs.

“They have so much training to offer, ongoing education, and the branded name alone is so reputable and distinctive,” Jahner said. “Out of all the ones that I kind of looked into, this is the one that was standing out. More or less, it’s just the perfect opportunity so that I can do what I love, which is raising my kids but also selling travel.”

She has plenty of company. More than 850 franchise owners around the country are actively selling travel through Cruise Planners after paying startup costs that range from zero to $9,995. Those costs cover initial and continued training, marketing and advertising programs, a website, accounting and customer management software and support from the home office.

Fueled by everyone from stay-at-home moms to firefighters and retirees, the number of franchisees has grown by 14 percent annually for the last few years.

That has not gone unnoticed by cruise lines, who welcome more voices pitching their product.

“I think they are very important,” said Camille Olivere, Norwegian Cruise Line’s senior vice president of sales in North America. “They’re big supporters of ours and they’re bringing new people into the industry — and that is something that we desperately need.”

Cruise Planners agents sold $156 million in travel and related services last year, a 16 percent increase over 2011 and 48 percent jump over 2009.

Confident in continued growth, top Cruise Planners executives bought the company late last year from Palm Beach Capital, the private equity firm that had been majority owner since 2007.

CEO Michelle Fee, who has always held a stake in the company and now owns 50 percent, said she and fellow owners chief financial officer Tom Kruszewski and chief operating officer Vicky Garcia did not want to risk Cruise Planners being taken over by another investment group that might try to make changes.

“We wanted to make sure that whatever we keep doing is in the best interest of the company,” said Kruszewski, 60.

Before, Fee said, agents often asked whether the investment company would try to sell or change Cruise Planners. She said the purchase sends a good message.

“It shows them that we’re in this with you,” said Fee, 50, who co-founded the company with two partners 19 years ago. Those partners retired in 2007.

The company has invested about $2 million in technology upgrades and equipment in the last few years, including a mobile reservations system for agents that was introduced about a year and a half ago, and a consumer mobile app for iPhones and Androids that should launch later this month.

“We just have to be cutting edge,” Fee said. “Travel is technology; we have to be there with the big guys. Not only are we matching them, but we want to be better.”

Janet Fernandez, who started her Crise Planners franchise, Cruise Impressions, last July after working in different parts of the cruise industry since 1998, said she is already taking advantage of the latest tech innovations.

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Register for our free Business Plan Bootcamp

Whether you are planning to enter the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge or want to refine a short business plan you already have, our free Business Plan Bootcamp later this month can help.

Melissa Krinzman, a veteran Business Plan Challenge judge and managing director of Venture Architects, will be leading a panel of experts who will give you advice on crafting a short business plan aimed at grabbing the attention of investors — or judges. If you are entering the Challenge, we encourage you to bring your entry with you because the panel will critique critical sections of the short plan.

Panelists include:

•  Richard Ginsburg, co-founder of G3 Capital Partners, a mid-market and early stage investment company.

•  Steven McKean, founder and CEO of Acceller, a Miami-based tech company, and a Challenge judge.

•  Mike Tomas, CEO of Miami-based Bioheart, president of ASTRI Group and a Challenge judge.

Time, date, place: 6:30 p.m. Feb. 26, Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus Auditorium (Room 1261, Building 1, 2nd floor).

To register: It’s free, but please register here.

Parking: Free parking at the MDC garage at 500 NE 2nd Avenue. It is important to note that the entrances are on NE 5th and 6th Streets.

You do not have to enter the Challenge to attend our free boot camp, but we hope you will. The Challenge deadline is March 11.

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Green cards for sale at a South Beach hotel: Competition is on for EB5 investment visas

If David Hart gets his way, South Beach’s 42-room Astor Hotel will be on a hiring spree this year as it adds concierge service, a roof-top pool, an all-night diner, spa and private-car service available 24 hours a day.

New hires will be crucial to Hart’s business plan, since foreign investors have agreed to pay about $50,000 for each job created by the Art Deco boutique.

The Miami immigration lawyer specializes in arranging visas for wealthy foreign citizens under a special program that trades green cards for investment dollars. Businesses get the money and must use it to boost payroll. The minimum investment is $500,000 to add at least 10 jobs to the economy. That puts the pressure on Hart and his partners at the Astor to beef up payroll dramatically, with plans to take a hotel with roughly 20 employees to one with as many as 100 workers.

“My primary responsibility is to make something happen here over the next two years that will create the jobs we need,’’ Hart said a few steps away from a nearly empty restaurant on a recent weekday morning. “It’s all going to be transformed.”

Though established in the 1990s, the “EB5” visas soared in popularity during the recession as developers sought foreign cash to replace dried-up credit markets in the United States.

Chinese investors dominate the transactions, accounting for about 65 percent of the nearly 9,000 EB5 visas granted since 2006. South Korea finishes a distant second at 12 percent and the United Kingdom holds the third-place slot at 3 percent. If Latin America and the Caribbean were one country, they would rank No. 4 on the list, with 231 EB5 visas granted, or about 3 percent of the total.

Competition has gotten stiffer for the deep-pocketed foreign investors willing to pay for green cards. The University of Miami’s bio-science research park near the Jackson hospital system raised $20 million from 40 foreign investors under the EB5 program, most of them from Asia. The money went into the park’s first building; visa brokers are waiting to see if the second building will proceed so they can offer a new pool of potential green-card sales.

In Hollywood, the stalled $131 million Margaritaville resort had hoped to raise about $75 million from EB5 investors before ditching that plan last year to pursue more traditional financing. A retail complex by developer Jeff Berkowitz in Coral Gables also launched a program to raise $50 million in EB5 money for the project, Gables Station. Hart worked with other EB5 investors to back pizza restaurants in Miami and South Beach. A limestone mine in Martin County also was backed by EB5 dollars.

This year, the city of Miami itself is expected to get into the business by setting up an EB5 program to raise foreign cash for a range of city businesses and developments. The first would be the tallest building in the city — developer Tibor Hollo’s planned 85-story apartment tower, the Panorama, in downtown Miami.

With a construction cost of about $700 million, Miami’s debut EB5 venture hopes to raise about $100 million from foreign investors, said Laura Reiff, the Greenberg Traurig lawyer in Virginia working with Miami on the EB5 effort. “This is a marquis project,’’ she said.

The arrangement is a novel one for Miami, with the city planning to help a private developer raise funds overseas for a new high-rise. And it would allow Hollo and future participants to tout the city of Miami’s endorsement when competing with other Miami-area projects for EB5 dollars. “We will have the benefit of the brand of the city of Miami,’’ said Mikki Canton, the $6,000-a-month city consultant heading Miami’s EB5 effort. “A lot of these others are privately owned and they won’t have that brand.”

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