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"He lets you run your own shop." -- Business Wire founder Lorry Lokey, to the San Francisco Chronicle, on why he sold his company to Warren Buffett for several hundred million dollars

Can Lenny Kravitz help Absolut lure younger drinkers? That's the hope of Absolut parent V&S Group of Stockholm, which is rolling out its first new marketing campaign in 25 years. In 1979, Absolut pioneered the premium vodka segment, using stylish packaging and clever ads to get consumers to shell out an unheard-of $20 a bottle. But today Absolut is under attack by more than 100 new vodkas. Its share of the U.S. import market fell from 58% in 1999 to 36.5% in 2004, says Adams Beverage Group.

The multimillion-dollar push marks the first time Absolut has advertised on TV. The ads by TBWA\Chiat\Day play off iconic moments that are "absolutes" in pop culture. They will debut on cable channels such as Comedy Central, E!, and Fox Sports Net. Absolut also commissioned rocker Kravitz to come up with a dance track (with no mention of Absolut in the lyrics) entitled Breathe. It's a free download on Absolut's Web site. One thing isn't changing: Absolut will continue its iconic print ads starring its bottle dressed up by fashion designers, artists, and others.

Don Imus has a new cause, and doesn't Big Business know it. The radio personality (and ex-Marine) has been naming companies he thinks should give to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. The nonprofit recently began building a training-skills facility in Texas for injured vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It raised $27 million, with major donations from Fisher Brothers, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Avon Foundation, and Anheuser-Busch. But the organization needs $10 million more to finish construction.

Imus, who gave $250,000, hasn't been shy about suggesting potential donors, putting the touch on Halliburton (HAL), Pfizer (PFE), Google (GOOG), and ExxonMobil, among others. On his Jan. 17 show, he said: "I know people who could write the check. Why they don't, I don't know." A Halliburton spokesperson says the company sponsors a number of military-related causes and gets more requests than it can handle. The other businesses declined to comment. Bill White, the fund president, is grateful for the attention. "We worry about the perception of challenging corporations publicly, but I think it's being done in fairness," he says. "Imus has a terrific way of getting the word out."

It's axiomatic that being No. 1 in a market is a good thing. But research by two consultants at Marakon Associates finds that in recent years scale hasn't delivered the advantage you might expect. In analyzing 3,260 public companies, Marakon's Brian Burwell and Jeremy Sicklick discovered that between 1999 and 2004, the median total shareholder return was 1.8% for market leaders vs. 9.5% for non-leaders.

What gives? The results partly reflect the quirks of the economy: Leading airlines, for instance, were hammered after September 11 in a way that the small fry, including discounters, were not. Also, Burwell points out, companies that bulked up through mergers and acquisitions in the 1980s and '90s could exploit gains in productivity, but those gains have slowed in the past five years. Finally, the increasing segmentation of the consumer marketplace has made growth tougher to come by for companies trying to appeal to broad swaths of buyers. "Serving large numbers of customers is less of an advantage today than it was 10 years ago," says Burwell.

It all adds up to an intriguing lesson. Whether it will be heard above the fee-driven clamor for a new round of mergers is another matter.

Fans of the Sacagawea dollar are riled up over a plan to augment it with new coins recognizing 37 ex-Presidents. To avoid flooding the market, Sacagawea's production will drop by two-thirds when the Presidents roll out in 2007. In 2000 the Sacagawea dollar marked the first such recognition of a Native American woman. But today the coins are so scarce you need a vending machine to find one. "Sacagawea contributed something very special to our history," says Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). "I don't want to lose a reminder of [that]." But he's fighting cold cash: The Treasury expects the Presidents, which it will sell to the Fed at an 80% margin, to be hugely profitable.

2million.blogspot.com

WHY READ IT

To keep tabs on how this 29-year-old IBM engineer in Raleigh, N.C., is balancing his budget in an attempt to reach $2 million net worth. (He's up to $206,990.)

NOTABLE POST

On buying car parts to bring them to a mechanic: "I then called the dealer and got an estimate of $380 to change out my starter. Someone recommended I also call a local tire shop...they gave me an estimate of $303.76. Better, but I checked with Advance Auto Parts...and knew I could get a remanufactured starter for $88.21 (after tax)."

Economists are debating whether the economy will slow in 2006. But bankers have already made up their minds. It's not a pretty picture. In an annual survey released by accounting firm Grant Thornton, 65% of bankers surveyed nationwide said they are pessimistic or neutral on the outlook for this year. That's sharply up from last year, when only 31% were similarly dour or neutral. Of the 334 bankers surveyed through mid-November, most from smaller institutions, 21% are outright pessimists, vs. only 3% last year. An economic slowdown "is a looming specter," warns Jan Miller, CEO of Boston's Wainwright Bank & Trust (WAIN) and one of those surveyed.

What makes bankers downbeat are things like the impact of last year's hurricanes, which bid up building material costs; jitters over Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's Jan. 31 retirement; and an end to the housing boom. Optimists, on the other hand, expect incoming Fed head Ben Bernanke to do just fine. It helps that most don't think their local housing prices are excessive.

Some of the biggest National Football League stars will be playing with their helmets off at Super Bowl XL in Detroit. Former football heroes will command up to $75,000 for an appearance at corporate parties leading up to the Feb. 5 game, says Robert Tuchman, founder of New York-based marketer TSE Sports & Entertainment. TSE is cutting deals for about 25 Super Bowl events.

Top-dollar attractions include Super Bowl MVPs Joe Montana, John Elway, and Terry Bradshaw, Tuchman says. Prices are less stratospheric for gridiron personalities who have been out of the limelight for years or who didn't play a glamour position. Archie Manning, a quarterback in the '70s and '80s for the New Orleans Saints (and whose sons Peyton and Eli were knocked out of the playoffs this year), says he is getting $15,000 to $20,000 for a one-hour gig. Ickey Woods, semi-famous for his end zone dance, the Ickey Shuffle, has done events for $2,000, Tuchman notes.

Duties aren't too strenuous, usually including brief remarks about the big game. For years, Manning was the attraction in a pre-Super Bowl flag football game put on by B.F. Goodrich (GR) for its star em-ployees. That ended, Manning says, when the company CEO separated his shoulder. "It got kind of dangerous," the ex-quarter-back says. A Goodrich spokesman was unable to confirm the injury.

Gold & Silver Reserve's tangle with the U.S. government is deepening. The company operates a bullion-backed "digital currency" unit called e-gold that U.S. law enforcement officials say has become a popular payment system for online criminals ("Gold Rush," Jan. 9). On Dec. 16, agents from the U.S. Secret Service and FBI raided Gold & Silver Reserve's offices in Melbourne, Fla., and took copies of documents and computer files. Now the U.S. Justice Dept. is demanding that the company forfeit more than $800,000 in two of its bank accounts. The funds were seized on Dec. 15 by the Secret Service, which declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations being conducted with the FBI.

The government alleges in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 30 in federal court in Washington that Gold & Silver Reserve -- using the name Omnipay to provide an exchange service that enables users to convert regular money into units of e-gold -- has operated as "an unlicensed money-transmitting business." Gold & Silver Reserve, e-gold, and Omnipay are controlled by Douglas Jackson, who disputes the government's authority to regulate his businesses. Jackson did not respond to requests for comment on the new lawsuit. He has denied wrongdoing and said agents exaggerated how much criminals employ e-gold. On Jan. 12, Gold & Silver Reserve filed a motion with the court seeking to reclaim the funds because it does not meet the legal definition of a money-transmitting business. A government response is due by Jan. 30.

Law enforcement officials worry that digital currency is becoming the money-laundering machine of choice for cybercriminals. At least a dozen such services allow users to deposit and transfer funds. Eight, including e-gold, claim to be backed by actual bullion.


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