Thursday August 4th, 2005

Colombia's president invites foreign investment at Houston business conference...Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Lee Raymond announces retirement...Administaff Business Confidence Survey finds satisfaction with performance in first half of 2005, optimism for second half...

President Alvaro Uribe greets Colombian journalists in HoustonξPresident Bush has welcomed one of his closest Latin American allies to his ranch in Crawford. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe arrived for a day of talks on drug trafficking, terrorism and trade. With U. S. backing, President Uribe has been waging a fierce fight against drug cartels and Marxist rebels.

President Alvaro Uribe audio 1

The Colombian president is also hoping to convince U. S. investors that his country is a good place to do business. On the way to the ranch, Uribe stopped in Houston for a meeting with business chiefs.

President Alvaro Uribe audio 2

President Uribe told foreign investors from the U. S., Canada and Puerto Rico at a Houston conference promoting Colombian goods and services that his civil war-ravaged country is stable and brimming with economic opportunity.

President Alvaro Uribe audio 3

Uribe wants to see energy companies already doing business in Colombia extend their contracts. The Colombian government has claimed the main leftist rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is losing its power. But since the start of the year, the rebels have carried out dozens of strikes against military targets. More than 300 government troops have been killed.

Venezuela's state oil company today signed a series of deals with eight private oil firms. The government will obtain a majority stake in oil fields where the firms used to pump crude independently under contract. The Venezuelan government is seeking to exert more control over the oil industry and generate more revenue. Venezuela has ordered 22 oil firms to convert their contracts into joint ventures with state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela by year's end. Company president Rafael Ramirez, who is also Venezuela's oil minister, says talks are moving rapidly with the remaining 14 companies on the list. The oil companies that signed included Houston-based Harvest Natural Resources, which Venezuela recently hit with a $94 million unpaid tax claim. The company could seek international arbitration to resolve the dispute.

Lee Raymond announced today that he'll retire as chairman and chief executive of Irving-based Exxon Mobil at the end of the year. According to an Exxon Mobil statement, the company board is expected to promote President Rex Tillerson as Raymond's successor. No date's been set for the board vote. Raymond had been chairman and CEO of Exxon since 1993 and retained the post when Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999. The 66-year-old executive has been with the company for 42 years since 1963. The Wichita Falls-born Tillerson has been president of Exxon Mobil since March of last year. He's been with the company since joining Exxon Company USA as a production engineer in 1975.

Owners of small- and medium-sized businesses are feeling positive about their companies' performance in the first half of 2005, according to the Administaff Business Confidence Survey. Business owners are expressing optimism about the second half of the year, including in hiring. Some 45 percent say they plan to add employees to keep up with growth. Administaff also released is compensation data compiled from its client base of more than 4,800 small- and medium-sized businesses, and the number reflect the confidence expressed by survey respondents. Average raises are five percent ahead of last year, bonuses are up nine percent and commissions are up over eight percent. Respondents express concern about rising health care costs, increased competition, rising fuel costs, employee retention and regulatory compliance issues.

Houston is fifth in buying and selling real estate without a broker, according to the Houston Business Journal, which quotes a survey by the real estate services company. Detroit tops the list this year, but Houston topped the list in 2003 and was number four last year. Of the more than 40,000 homes listed on the web site since July 2004, the company says Houston represented 1.7 percent.

Houston places sixth in a list of top sports cities in North America, according to The Sporting News. Boston ranks first in the list of best North American sports cities. To be included, a city must have at least an NCAA Division I basketball team or a minor league baseball team, or it must score in certain other ranking categories, such as hosting a training camp for a major league team or hosting a PGA Tour tournament. Weight factors include regular season records, playoff berths, bowl appearances, tournament bids, championships, overall fan fervor and fan knowledge.

The Transport Workers Union of America Local 260 and the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year labor agreement. Results of a final vote by union members are expected to be compiled by August 25th, and METRO's board of directors must approve the agreement before it is finalized.

PetroSearch Energy subsidiary TK PetroSearch of Houston has sold its interest in the Blue Ridge Salt Dome oil field in Fort Bend County. Kellco Energy bought the company's interest in a $2.14 million deal.

Logan International Airport is trying to block Continental Airlines from providing free wireless internet access to its frequent fliers. The Boston airport charges a daily fee of just under $8 for the service. Airport officials say it's a matter of security. The Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan, claims Continental's wireless fidelity, or "wi-fi,'' service interferes with other wireless devices. But Houston-based Continental rejects that claim. Continental filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission after Massport ordered removal of a wi-fi antenna from its Presidents Club Lounge. August 29th is the FCC deadline for accepting public comment on Continental's complaint. A Massport spokesman declined comment. All 27 of Continental's frequent-flier lounges offer free wi-fi service.

A Texas widow says she struggles with guilt because she suggested her spouse inquire about Vioxx after they saw TV ads about it. Carol Ernst took the stand today in her civil trial in Angleton against drug maker Merck. Robert Ernst, who took the painkiller for eight months, died in 2001. Carol Ernst says she feels like if her husband had never met her, he might still be alive--because she was the one who told him to ask his doctor about Vioxx for pain in his hands. Robert Ernst's autopsy report says he died from an arrhythmia--or an irregular heartbeat--secondary to clogged arteries. Carol Ernst and her lawyer allege a Vioxx-induced blood clot and heart attack caused those conditions. Merck took Vioxx off the market last September after a study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer. There are more than 4,000 Vioxx-related state and federal lawsuits across the country.

A cement kiln in Midlothian will cut back on its ozone-forming pollutants. The move ends a challenge by environmental groups fighting a state permit to increase emissions. Both sides say the settlement between Holcim Cement and two clean air groups could dramatically improve air quality in the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth area. Blue Skies Alliance and Downwinders at Risk challenged the state permit. Holcim will operate pollution-control equipment to prevent the release of 1,000 tons of ozone-forming emissions through ozone season--May through October. The company also will spend $2.5 million to promote regional ozone-fighting programs.

The dismal sales picture isn't getting any brighter at Pier 1 Imports. The Fort Worth-based home-furnishing retailer says July sales at stores open at least a year fell almost eight percent as customer traffic levels remained below a year ago. Pier 1 says its same-store sales decrease reflects softer sales the final week of July due to a planned shift towards back-to-school merchandise. The disappointing sales have prompted the company to expect second-quarter results at the low end of its prior outlook.

Pilgrim's Pride announced that it's has agreed to buy back the last of its shares owned by Conagra Foods for about $482 million. Conagra sold its chicken-processing operations to Pilgrim's Pride in the fall of 2003 for $300 million in cash and 25.4 million Pilgrim's Pride shares. Omaha, Nebraska-based Conagra began liquidating its stake in the east Texas poultry processor last December, when it sold ten million shares for $282 million. At the time, Conagra reported a 23.2 percent stake in the Pittsburg-based company. To raise money to buy the remaining stake, Pilgrim's Pride will sell 15.4 million shares to the public for about $520 million through Lehman Brothers. The stock offering is worth $40.5 million more than Pilgrim's Pride is paying Conagra. Pilgrim's price will use the rest of the proceeds for general corporate purposes. It expects the sale to close on August 9th.

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