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Competition with crooks drives businesswoman out

When I returned from an out-of-town trip last week, my wife met me at the door. She was not smiling.

"I've had it," she said. "I'm moving out."

Not from our house, she added quickly, catching the look on my face.

No, she is staying home, and she says I can stay as well.

Amazingly, despite some severe garbage distribution problems and a lack of household productivity, she does not want to leave me. No, she is leaving her office. Moving her business. Getting out.

She tried to hang on in her old location, but she can't compete with all the savvy, hard-driving players who want a piece of her action. These businesses don't offer the same services she does. They are not, in the strictest sense, competitors.

Instead, these entrepreneurs work in a variety of specialties. They are tough to fight because their operations are closely held and not publicly traded. They don't advertise. They have little overhead _ no rent, no stationery, no high-priced accountants. Their only big expenses are to maintain legal departments.

By keeping themselves lean and aggressive, these growing enterprises can react quickly to changes in the market. When an opportunity presents itself, the top executives and the support staff think nothing of working weekends, holidays and late nights. These businesses are perfectly positioned to profit in the 1990s.

To throw off competitors and regulatory agencies, they change their business trademarks regularly. My wife has given up trying to figure out the names. She just calls the whole industry "Crimes-R-Us."

As a small businesswoman, she expected to deal with tough clients, erratic subcontractors, underpriced competitors and a maze of government regulation, but she didn't realize all that was a walk in the park compared to the territorial fight she has had with the Crimes-R-Us crowd.

The end came last week when she discovered her business had been the target of yet another hostile takeover bid over the weekend. It was the fifth assault in four years on her second-story office that sits in an industrial area in the shadows of Tampa's skyline.

Even Ross Perot would be impressed with the skill, persistence and dedication with which these takeover specialists approach their profession. To get into the heart of my wife's business operations, they have scaled bare walls, clambered over barbed wire _ leaving blood samples on the floor as testimony to their tenacity _ they have squeezed through tiny windows, tiptoed around motion detectors, smashed down reinforced metal doors, climbed poles to clip telephone lines. Like Sylvester Stallone in the movie Cliffhanger, these industrial daredevils have lowered themselves from rooftops carrying a computer in one hand and a microwave oven in the other.

When I hear people saying that American workers are lazy and we have abandoned the work ethic that made this country great, I remind them of our burgeoning burglary industry. It is filled with men and women ready to sacrifice their freedom and even their lives to get the job done. These are innovative workers who readily deal with all kinds of products and equipment. People who think on their feet. Who do whatever it takes.

So now my wife is out looking for a new location. Some place where she might not be noticed by the local representatives of Burglary Brothers or Grand Larceny & Associates. When she meets a landlord or questions a tenant in a building she likes, she doesn't talk square footage or monthly rent until after she has asked the important question: "Has your business ever been robbed?"

Robbed? Why yes, they all say, aren't they all? At one building, the landlord assured her the robbers had come only once, and they didn't destroy the place. They just took what they wanted and left.

My wife probably will move in there because she is really tired of messy thieves who trash the offices they visit.

She knows now that, like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, Crimes-R-Us is everywhere. She is just hoping her new location will attract a better class of burglars.

Paul Wilborn is a member of the Times editorial board and is based in Tampa.

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