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Business ownership by women climbs rapidly

Although most are still one-woman operations, women-owned businesses are growing at a rapid clip, the Center for Women's Business Research reports. In the Tampa Bay area, there are now an estimated 65,825 businesses in which women own at least 51 percent of the company, a 37 percent gain in the past seven years. That's twice the growth rate for all private companies in the Tampa Bay area. Including the 38,258 companies in which men and women split ownership 50-50, women now have at least a 50 percent stake in half the area's privately held companies.

Similar gains are occuring in other parts of the country. Women are now majority owners of about 6.7-million of the country's 22.3-million private companies and half owners of 4-million others.

"Part of it is the increased access to capital," said Sharon Hadary, executive director of the center in Washington, D.C. "Part of it is the evolution of women in business in general as they've moved from being primarily administrative and clerical into more senior positions. A lot of it is also seeing other women in business and saying, "If other women can do this, I can do it too.' "

Most women-owned businesses are still small. In the Tampa Bay area, only 12,788 employ someone other than the business owner, with 69,432 people on their payrolls. Annual sales are $12.8-billion, a 63 percent gain in seven years.

The center's research is based on U.S. Census data. The numbers do not include public companies or nonprofit organizations.

_ HELEN HUNTLEY, Times staff writer

Like the new drug card? Tell Medicare

With health care becoming a hotter topic in the presidential election, Medicare wants to hear from seniors who are happy with the new drug discount cards.

The cards, put forth by the Bush administration as a way to save on prescriptions until they are covered by Medicare in 2006, have met lukewarm response. Fewer than one-third of those eligible have enrolled; they say the choices are too confusing and the discounts too slim.

To combat those complaints, the agency wants to publicize some success stories from real people willing to brag about their savings. The Medicare Web site (www.Medicare.gov) asks seniors to submit their names and phone numbers so they can be contacted by a Medicare representative. (The link for success stories can be reached by clicking on "Find available Medicare-approved drug discount cards" on the site's main page.)

The Web request adds the disclaimer that participation is voluntary.

"Your Medicare benefits will not be affected in any way by your answers or your decision to participate," it says.

A Medicare spokesman said a handful of people have responded to the invitation, which recently was added to the Web page.

_ KRIS HUNDLEY, Times staff writer

TECO earns J.P. Morgan recommendation

TECO Energy Inc. has struggled this year to convince Wall Street analysts that it is putting its wholesale power problems behind it.

But now, J.P. Morgan has become the first brokerage firm in months to recommend TECO's stock. This month, J.P. Morgan analyst Brooke Glenn Mullin initiated coverage of the Tampa utility at "overweight," its highest rating. In a research note, Mullin said the depressed price of TECO's stock didn't reflect the company's strong core utility operations, cash flow stemming from various tax benefits, prospects for above-average earnings growth and progress in reducing exposure to the troubled wholesale power business.

Mullin also said that TECO benefits from a favorable regulatory environment, describing the Florida Public Service Commission as "constructive regulators that have allowed companies to earn reasonable rates of return." Mullin said she expects TECO to continue paying its dividend at current levels.

"We are not defending the company's prior decisions, but at this point we think the bad news is primarily behind the company," she said.

Meanwhile, Mullin also joined the growing number of analysts who are concerned about the near-term prospects for Progress Energy Inc., the Raleigh, N.C., parent of Progress Energy Florida of St. Petersburg.

Mullin initiated coverage of Progress at "underweight," its lowest rating. She cited the possibility of rate cuts in Florida and North Carolina during the next few years; concerns that the company may lose lucrative federal tax credits on coal-based synthetic fuel; and above-average debt levels.

It's worth noting that TECO and Progress are both clients of J.P. Morgan. The firm has provided investment-banking services to both utilities during the past year and expects to continue doing so for the next three months.

_ LOUIS HAU, Times staff writer

Women in business

In the Tampa Bay area, women own 50 percent or more of half the private companies. This includes companies in which there is a 50-50 ownership between women and men.

Equally owned: 18.6%

Majority owned by women: 31.9%

Majority owned by men: 49.5%

Note: Majority owned by women or men means those companies in which women or men own 51 percent or more of the business

Source: Center for Women's Business Research; U.S. Census Bureau

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