Business titans offer tips

Business advice from some of the region's most successful entrepreneurs was shared Tuesday during a daylong conference in Modesto. And despite the gloomy economy, many speakers stressed that unprecedented opportunities exist for savvy investors.

About 400 people attended the third annual Valley Real Estate & Economics Conference. More than 30 business leaders offered their perspectives and guidance on how to survive and prosper during this recession.

Here's a sampling of their tips:

"Look at business like a piece of fruit," advised Dan Costa, who runs 5.11 Tactical and has founded several successful Modesto businesses.

Like fruit, Costa said, most businesses have a cycle: They start out green, ripen, then rot.

"You have to be in front of that change, or you'll be left on the rotten side of that fruit," said Costa, noting how all companies must prepare for market shifts. "It's not 'if' things will change. It's just how dramatically it will change."

"Don't be afraid to pull the trigger," warned Bob Piccinini, who is the majority owner of the 245-store Save Mart Supermarkets chain.

When making a business decision, "do your homework and verify your numbers from different angles," he said. But once your analysis shows the proposal is sound, follow through.

"If it truly is a good opportunity, don't vacillate," Piccinini stressed. "Because if you don't pull the trigger, someone else will."

"You don't always have to have money to be successful in business. If you have a vision, you can get financial backing," said Fritz Grupe, who runs The Grupe Companies. His construction firm began in Stockton and has built 50,000 housing units.

Grupe said confident, hard-working business people who prove they are reliable can do very well.

He suggested everyone have multiple income streams so they can weather economic downturns. Grupe noted how his 43-year-old construction company "built not one house in 2008, and I'm not going to build one in 2009."

Since he had diversified his investments, however, he has had other sources of income to fall back on.

"Get the right members on your team, and use them in the right places," said Jim Applegate, CEO of Applegate-Johnston Construction.

His company seeks employees and associates with experience, especially those with a passion for mentoring others.

"We gladly admit we don't know everything," Applegate said. But, he added, his company is committed to finding people who do have the answers.

"This is the greatest single moment of opportunity in any of our lifetimes," said Mike Zagaris, president of PMZ Real Estate.

"The smart money is moving in and buying homes for pennies on the dollar," Zagaris said. There are properties inappropriately priced far below their actual value, such as $28,000 condominiums. "They do exist."

Financial institutions don't always understand what their foreclosed properties are worth. "Oftentimes they just want to dump them," Zagaris said.

Although residential real estate is the best value now, but he predicted commercial properties will offer "huge opportunities in two to three years."

Property values won't begin soaring anytime soon, he warned: "We're going to be in a prolonged period of very, very difficult times."

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or 578-2196.

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