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A tremor in the Force

Star Wars fans might be in shock today with the news that creator Disney-Lucasfilm George Lucas has sold the franchise of Luke, Leia, Darth and Hans to Disney!

Can we expect Mickey vs. Yoda? Sith Lord Roger Rabbit?

The deal continues Disney's quest for total domination of the movie industry (ala The Evil Empire?),  having previously bought Marvel Entertainment and Pixar.

The most recent Star Wars movies have been slick events with super special effects, but does anyone else miss the "made in the garage" feel of the earliest movies, with plastic model spaceships flying around? The gritty feel added somehow to the whole adventure.

Lucas, after the $4.05 billion sale, will remain an advisor on future Star Wars movies, but don't be surprised if they have a slightly different feel. Disney knows how to appeal to the broadest possible audience, not the more narrow die-hards who have made Star Wars an icon.

Some other voices on the issue:

Nothing ro worry about

Might be okay

We'll see

Episode Seven!


- Grove Potter





Going private

Western New York has a collection of very small, publicly traded companies that we cover closely at The News. For many of the companies, our coverage is the closest thing to analyst coverage that the companies receive. Business reporter David Robinson does a masterful job keeping shareholders and employees informed about the health and activities of these companies.

Since they are public - and that means they have sold shares of the MODPAC_001 company are therefore are beholden to their owners - these companies must disclose their finances. In the newspaper on Tuesday through Saturday (when the market is open), we list these companies in the "Local stocks" chart. We have information on local companies on our website, too.

But we may lose one. The father and son team of Kevin and Daniel Keane are attempting to buy the printing company Mod-Pac and take it private. Some shareholders have been pushing for this for years, arguing that the firm is too small to be publicly traded and that it could be run more efficiently if freed from the expensive accounting requirements that being public involves.

That may be true. The Keane's are offering a  price that is a 31 percent premium on the stock price, valuing the company at about $23 million.  That's a small public company.

Shareholders will certainly push for a few more cents per share, and the deal may go through. And if it does, we will miss covering their annual meetings and quarterly earnings. And we'll wish them well.





A run on generators

Folks battening down the hatches for Sandy's arrival tomorrow have grabbed up almost all the portable generators in the Western New York region - and perhaps in the entire state of New York. Super Storm Power

Clerks at Home Depot, Lowes and Hectors Hardware said the gasoline-powered generators have all been sold. The Lowes at Transit and Maple roads in Amherst was expecting a few to be delivered today, but those may have been reserved.

People in these parts remember the October storm six years ago, when power in parts of Amherst and Cheektowaga was out for up to eight days. Let's hope that that storm cleared out the weak branches and that the power stays on this time.

- Grove Potter




Earnings reports coming in

Earnings season is upon us and the results on this day are mixed for Western New York companies.

Greatbatch, which we still consider a local company despite its front office folk moving to Texas, reported lower profits associated with closing a Swiss factory. The company is bringing the work back to the U.S.

Columbus McKinnon, maker of hoists, chains and devices to lift and move things, has been running a tight ship, and the profits show it. Increased productivity helped boost profits 24 percent last quarter.

Synacor, the Buffalo-based high-tech firm that helps TV stations improve web site profitability, saw revenues rise but profits dip due to some higher expenses.

Five Star Bank's earnings fell due to one-time expenses of an outgoing CEO and the cost of buying eight former HSBC branches.

Earnings rose at Evans Bancorp on income from lending and setting aside less for loan losses.

Sounds like local companies are battling hard in the slow economy.

- Grove Potter


Grand Island hotel could get an upgrade

The Grand Island Holiday Inn sits in a beautiful spot, on the southeast corner HOLIDAY INN GRAND ISLAND of the island overlooking the bend in the east branch of the Niagara River. It has very nice amenities, including two swimming pools, and the tour boat the Grand Lady often cruises from nearby docks. The hotel is located between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, but is slightly off the beaten path, making it more tranquil than some hotels in busier spots.

But the Grand Island hotel fell on hard times in recent years, struggling through bankruptcy. But that may all change now.

In a lively auction run by Blackbird Auctioneers on Wednesday, a group of investors  headed by Dubai-based Byblos Hospitality Group bought the hotel as its first property in North America. There are two local investors in the group, giving the effort some local know-how.

HOLIDAY INN GRAND ISLAND viewBut if the Byblos group brings some of the glamor of its other holdings to the Grand Island property, the nice view of the river may soon come with some extra luxury.

- Grove Potter

A man, a bank and a city.

What can any of us hope to achieve in a career? Earn enough to take care of our families, help others along the way, perhaps attain some professional success, and maybe build something for the next generation, if we are so fortunate.

How about building a company that has become a pillar of an entire city, employing more than 14,000 people across several states, and earning a reputation for honesty and integrity?

In the 29 years since he came to Buffalo, Robert G. Wilmers WILMERShas done these things. It's hard to think of anyone who has done as much for his adopted city.

During a lunch meeting recently, Wilmers, 77, discussed the bank's success, giving credit to his employees, and offered some ideas about Buffalo's attributes for the future. The bank has a competitive hiring program that brings in a cadre of college graduates and MBA's each year. That force has grown to more than 800 employees throughout the company. That recruitment and retention of young talent has helped the bank and the community. M&T employees are known for their community involvement, something Wilmers cares about and stresses. He has said often that the bank can succeed only if the community succeeds. And the intimate local knowledge a bank and its people develop help it make good loans. Basic banking.

Many of the region's other banks are populated with former M&T people, spreading the gospel of conservative, community-based lending.

As for Buffalo's attributes, Wilmers points to the region's strong higher education infrastructure - colleges that can produce capable workers and leaders. And he sees the region's growing medical infrastructure as a bright sector that can be built upon.

LOCAL BANKWilmers has ruffled more than a few feathers in town with his annual letters to stockholders, which he presents with the annual report. Local unions, schools, political leaders have all been called out. And he has called out the bank itself for ill-advised investments in collateralized debt obligations that sank with the mortgage crisis.

Wilmers reputation reaches far beyond Buffalo. American Banker magazine named him "Banker of the Year" last year, a nationwide honor, and in June he participated in the Clinton Global Initiative America 2012 Meeting in Chicago. And the bank now stretches into six states and the District of Columbia. 

When Wilmers came to Buffalo, he was welcomed by the banking establishment, which recognized the value of having a viable M&T Bank as competition. He also found a welcoming, unpretentious city.

And the city found a modest leader who embraced it.

- Grove Potter





Movie theaters upgrading - ticket prices sure to follow

Several small movie theaters around the region - and the nation, we expect - are having a bit of sticker shock over the conversion to digital. Movie companies are tracing Movie film toward the day when they no longer have to make and ship large reels of film to theaters - a cumbersome and expensive process that yields an inferior product on the screen. Digital movies have better picture quality and sound and do not degrade with repeated showings.

But converting to a digital projector - which can show movies from a disk or from a satellite download - can cost up to $75,000. That's not chump change for a small hometown theater. Some theaters are trying to hold fundraisers and others are scrambling for grants and loans.

But all industries change, and all businesses must reinvest in capital projects.
Movie fans can expect clear movies when the conversions are complete - and higher ticket prices.

- Grove Potter


SmartPill gave it a shot

It's a sad day for SmartPill Corp. and the Buffalo Niagara region's nascent life sciences industry. As David Robinson has reported this week, the company was bought LOCAL SMARTPILL GEE by Given Imaging of Israel and is being moved there. Thirteen local jobs are being lost, and the local scientific/business community is taking a gut punch.

SmartPill was founded in 2003 with a novel product right out of a Jules Verne novel - a pill that could measure internal body conditions and functions. The capsule looked like a horse pill and it contained instruments to measure acidity, pressure and other things. President and CEO David Barthel fought the good fight, raising more than $60 million to launch and sustain the business.

But for whatever reasons, the company couldn't make it. Given Imaging has a similar pill that has a camera inside. Perhaps it can take the SmartPill technology and use it to help people.

Smart pill Fin smart pill scull


No one said getting a life sciences industry off the ground would be easy. Successes and failures are all part of the process. A tip of the hat to Mr. Barthel, his people and his investors for swinging for the fences. Let's hope they keep trying.

- Grove Potter


Riverfront housing faceoff

For years people of Western New York have complained about the lack of any development along the Buffalo's waterfront. Many blamed the NFTA for having no imagination McCoy Local Outerharbor and incentive to do anything with the Outer Harbor land. But things have started to change. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has helped revitalize the harbor front with parks and the ongoing work on the former Aud site.

The climate has changed enough that private developers are starting BOATERS AT HARBORto dip their toes into the waterfront redevelopment efforts. Sam Savarino has proposed an apartment/condo complex along the Buffalo River on Ohio Street. It's one of the first signs that the tide has turned against neglect and stagnation.

But there's a snag.

Well meaning preservationists say the Savarino's site - home to the decaying Erie Freight House - has enough historical significance to be saved. Find another place for housing, they say, and save this vestige of Buffalo's former waterfront glory.

It's a tough call, as David Robinson's column points out. Preservationists SAVARINO have helped preserve so much of what makes Buffalo unique. Their work should be honored. They have saved us from smashing true value for transient successes.

But the Erie Freight House may be too far gone to save. A judge may have to make that decision.  The slow crawl toward reusing our waterfront is going to involve some hard choices. Sacrificing some of the past may be the cost for building a new waterfront future.

- Grove Potter

Are you better off than you were four years ago? NO!

Upstate New Yorkers answered with a resounding "No" when they were polled earlier this month on whether they think they're financially better off than they were four years ago.

More than half of the upstate residents - 51 percent to be precise - polled by the Siena Research Institute said they were not better off financially than they were in October 2008. Just 34 percent - a little more than a third - said they were better off, while 14 percent said they were in a similar financial condition.

The poll from the Albany researcher, with financial backing from First Niagara Bank, also found that wealthier people generally are feeling better about their financial condition than less affluent New Yorkers.

While almost half (48 percent) of all New Yorkers earning more than $100,000 said they were better off now than they were four years ago, a little more than a third (36 percent) of those earning $50,000 to $100,000 felt they were in a better financial place, and only three of every 10 residents earning less than $50,000 believed they were better off.

More than a third of the Upstate residents surveyed (35 percent) said they'd taken a second job or sought more overtime to help make ends meet. And 47 percent said they were having a harder time managing their monthly expenses with their monthly income.

"New Yorkers continue to climb a steep financial hill," said Don Levy, the Siena Research Institute's director. "Few say that their load has lightened since this time in 2008."

Fewer than half of the upstate residents surveyed (46 percent) said they were confident that they'd be able to maintain their current standard of living after they'd retired. That's in stark contrast to New York City, where almost three of every five people surveyed said they were confident they'd be able to retire comfortably.

- David Robinson



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