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Spying Empty Niche, Engineer Launches Firm

ROSANNA GARCIA had never even considered starting her own business. But when she discovered a wide-open niche in the telecommunications market, Ms. Garcia decided to set up a manufacturing company.

Rummel Engineering produces equipment used in conjunction with electronic voicemail services. The company manufactures devices that visually signal voicemail subscribers that they have a message waiting.

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While some businesses have new telephone systems with electronic display screens that alert employees when a voicemail message is waiting, many firms with slightly older telephones do not have such a mechanism. These companies are Rummel Engineering's target market.

Since the company's founding in 1989, revenues have doubled each year. "The bad economy has been good for us," Garcia says. "With our equipment, companies don't have to replace their entire telephone systems to install the voicemail services they need."

Garcia's customer list would make the owner of almost any fledgling company envious. Last year's biggest customers included Xerox, Sun petroleum, Unisys, and Sandia National Labs.

New product design, marketing, shipping, and administrative functions are handled from Garcia's office here. She contracts with outside assemblers and parts manufacturers to handle production. Garcia now employs the equivalent of seven people full time. She started her business with $5,000 in savings and relied on engineering and design work from her husband. Support from mentors

When she has hit the inevitable rough patches, Garcia has turned to local support groups. The Women's Network for Entrepreneurial Training pairs mentors with women who are just starting their own companies. Garcia's mentor has been invaluable, she says. Now, Garcia is a mentor to another woman starting her own business.

"It's harder to be a woman than it is to be a minority," she says. "We run into the older generation of men who feel that women don't have the credibility, especially in high-tech areas."

Garcia has a chemical engineering degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an MBA from the University of Rochester. After her MBA, she worked for Rochester Telephone, where she saw the need for a signaling device for voicemail.

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"I thought hard about it, and realized that if I gave the idea to another company, I couldn't do the marketing and would have to give up a lot of control," Garcia says. "I decided to test my skills. The core of this business - keeping customers happy - is what I do. That's the key."

Not giving up is also essential. "Last time I was out trying to get financing, we were turned down by three banks before getting picked up by another," she says. "Success involves being focused on what your business is and what you do well."

"Rummel Engineering is ready to take the next big jump" upward in sales, Garcia says. The company has just come out with a new product aimed at residential customers.

As Bell companies and independent telephone companies start to provide voicemail services to residences, they have to find a means of signaling the customer when a message is waiting without replacing everybody's telephones.

Currently, residential voicemail customers know they have a message waiting when they pick up the phone and hear a "stutter" dial tone rather than the regular steady dial tone. Garcia's new product attaches to the customer's phone and visually signals that messages are waiting.

"Our units really do provide a benefit to the Bell operating companies to help them sell their voicemail services" to residential users, she says.

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