IN the world of American commerce, ``I did it my way'' continues to be a theme song for the '80s. But today's successful entrepreneurs aren't high-tech whiz kids. They're magnates of the mundane: irrigation pipe, ball bearings, and earthquake-proofing. About 80 percent of today's millionaires come from middle- or working-class families, according to a National Science Foundation study. Gordon Bizar calls these proprietors ``the new American heroes.'' His International Business Network (IBN) has been helping these self-starters since 1980, with notable success. NSF data suggest there's great value in supporting such small-business ventures: They produce ``90 to 95 percent of the radical innovations'' in commerce. Other market research indicates that they accounted for 3.5 million new jobs in the country from 1981 to '83.
These new captains of industry are ``normal people from every walk of life,'' Mr. Bizar noted at a recent IBN banquet honoring several of them -- ``ordinary people who overcame tremendous obstacles and tremendous odds to become successful in a business of their own.'' They include:
A chemist. After 20 years as an industrial chemist, Jim Mason felt it was time for his own family to reap more directly the fruit of his talents. Working his way into a plastics-extrusion company in the San Fernando Valley, Mr. Mason invented an irrigation pipe made of used, ground-up rubber tires and scrap plastic, which saves nearly half the water normally wasted in irrigation. With his wife keeping the books, the net worth of Mason's company after five years is $500,000, with 50 million feet of pipe on order for this year.
An engineer. Laid off after 30 years as an engineer, Russ Remington found that many companies weren't willing to take on an older employee. He decided to go into business for himself. After completing a six-week IBN program now being offered in a dozen cities from here to Minneapolis, Mr. Remington bought a small machine shop. In nine months, the Los Alamitos company went from $0 to $300,000 on the books, manufacturing ball bearings for the aerospace industry.
An architect. When the City of Los Angeles mandated that old buildings had to be made earthquake-proof, local architect Chris Lippman used IBN techniques to finance a new business and hire a marketing manager to find out which buildings were coming under the mandate each month. Now, $3 million richer, and recognized by the city as being among the best in the business, Mr. Lippman is being motivated by last year's earthquake crisis in Mexico to expand his business to an international level.
The spirit of commitment shared by these and other honorees was what led Mr. Bizar to spotlight their achievements.
``Kids grow up today with a lot of negative role models,'' says the 41-year-old Bizar, who made his first million by age 26, before beginning his campaign to unite small businesses behind common political and economic goals. ``They look at all the rock and movie stars and all the people who hit the headlines every day -- not perhaps the right models when it comes to really going out and making your life successful.''
Bizar started IBN out of his desire to ``set people free economically'' and because of his own frustrations of being a small businessman. In 1973 he bought a small motorcycle-parts company, and within three years annual sales went from $250,000 to $3 million.
``But it seemed like all the odds were stacked against me,'' he says. ``Governmental red tape, the bureaucracy of playing second fiddle to large corporations in securing expansion dollars, and the tax laws all pointed to the giant rift between the contribution that small businesses make to the economy and the lack of support the system holds for them.''
In 1980 he became chairman of the California state task force on small business regulation, which worked to reduce the regulatory and tax burdens on small businesses in California. Now the entrepreneurial climate is perhaps better than ever, according to Jeffrey Timmons, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. Across the country, the start-up of small businesses has increased tenfold, from 60,000 new businesses in 1970 to 700,000 in 1985.
While other support groups for small businesses have emerged in various regions of the United States, Bizar's organization has grown to 7,000 members over that period, with active advisers in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Minneapolis -- and as far away as South America and Canada. Bizar, who runs a travel business on the side, visits about nine cities a year, giving one week of free, evening seminars on business techniques. For about $550, IBN also offers in-depth courses over the course of six weeks.
After the prospective small entrepreneur has learned such techniques as how to start and maintain his new business, often with no start-up money of his own, he or she can subscribe to the IBN information clearinghouse as an ongoing educational resource tool. Experts such as accountants, lawyers, and bankers donate time to the ``hot line,'' often developing new business for themselves from the contacts.
Many former clients eventually become experts, advising newcomers on hiring, handling withholding taxes, determining what agencies to register with, and securing private loans. ``SBA [Small Business Administration] loans often take seven months to a year,'' says Bizar. ``We try to go around the system wherever possible.''
Ellen Sachtjen, a single mother of three who lost her job while going through a divorce, was a good candidate for the IBN program: a person with energy and vision who just needed guidance.
``I was catapulted into a new world of understanding how to achieve my business goals,'' says Ms. Sachtjen, a former professor at the University of Southern California, who always wanted the independence of her own business but didn't know how to achieve it. ``They believed in me when I didn't know if I believed in myself.'' She is now the owner of a successful secretarial agency in Los Angeles, the cash flow of which has increased sevenfold, to $500,000, during the last three years.
Bizar says 70,000 have attended his free seminars; about 7,000 have gone through his course, and of those, 20 percent have started successful businesses, a figure he calls ``quite high.''
Bizar's company has support on the national level from Herb Liebenson, president of the National Small Business Association, and on the state level from Richard Katz, chairman of the California state Assembly's Select Committee on Small Business. And he has support locally as well:
``IBN is not only special, it's very important,'' says Skip Cooper, president of the Black Business Association of Los Angeles. ``We have a lot of businesses for whom Gordon [Bizar] is filling a void. He is giving a lot of people across the country that belief in themselves to go out and make it happen.''