Wednesday June 7th, 2006

Militants threaten oil companies in Nigeria…Convicted former Enron executives interviewed this week for pre-sentencing report…Women’s Business Enterprise Alliance conducts two-day expo at Reliant Center… Oil companies in Nigeria are again warned to “leave while they can” by militants calling themselves Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta. They claim responsibility for an overnight raid […]

Militants threaten oil companies in Nigeria…Convicted former Enron executives interviewed this week for pre-sentencing report…Women’s Business Enterprise Alliance conducts two-day expo at Reliant Center…

Oil companies in Nigeria are again warned to “leave while they can” by militants calling themselves Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta. They claim responsibility for an overnight raid in which five South Korean contractors and a Nigerian were kidnapped at a Shell gas plant. Several Nigerian soldiers and one assailant were killed in a firefight during the raid, according to the group, which has been responsible for attacks and abductions this year in the southern delta. Militants say Nigerians aren’t getting enough of the oil revenue. The Nigerian arm of Royal Dutch Shell has shut down the plant near Nigeria’s oil hub of Port Harcourt. MEND wants to exchange the hostages for Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who has called for autonomy and was jailed last year on treason charges. The militants say they will target more oil facilities in the next few weeks. Last week, militants demanding jobs and money kidnapped an American, a Canadian and six Britons from an offshore platform, but released them unharmed days later.

Enron founder Ken Lay was interviewed Tuesday at the probation office at the federal courthouse building where he was convicted on all ten charges against him, including conspiracy and fraud, on May 25th. Probation officials are creating a pre-sentence report for U.S. District Judge Sim Lake. Lay’s co-defendant Jeff Skilling, who was convicted of 19 of 28 charges, is also set to visit the probation office for an interview this week. Sealed initial reports are to be sent to Judge Lake by July 7th. Prosecutors and defense lawyers can submit any objections. Final reports are due on September 1st, and sentencing is set for September 11th. Lay and Skilling plan to appeal their convictions.

Albertsons says it will close 30 grocery stores in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma as part of a national move to shed unprofitable stores. The Boise, Idaho-based company says the closures include 11 stores in the Dallas area, nine stores in the Austin area, one store in Georgetown and one store in Waco. Each of the stores employs about 100 people. They’re set to close in early August. Last week, a consortium of buyers including the New York firm Cerberus Capital Management closed a deal to take over 661 Albertsons stores–those in Texas included. The company said it will maintain 158 stores in its Fort Worth-based division. Five stores will remain open in Austin. Company officials say they will focus on locations that can be turned around. Officials also say they’ll offer jobs at remaining stores to as many displaced employees as possible, and offer severance to those who can’t relocate.

The Women’s Business Enterprise Alliance is conducting its two-day expo at Reliant Center. WBEA Executive Director Sandy Poffinbarger says the annual event offers business workshops and networking.

“We have marketing, education, as well as how to use blogs and podcasts–we all wonder what those are and how can we use them in our business–and we have one called “Hot Flashes.” It’s about how to use flash reports in your business. Nothing like a catchy title to get people to see what you’re all about! And on Thursday, we have the expo itself, with the booths opening at 8:30, the ribbon-cutting, comments from out platinum sponsors. This year we’ve had over a 20 percent growth from last year’s event. We have over 150 booths. And then we have, during the middle of the day, we have our awards luncheon where we recognize some of our super-achievers over the last year.”

WBEA helps women-owned businesses with procurement contract opportunities.

“We’re the Women’s Business Enterprise Alliance–you think you’re gonna walk in and it’s gonna be just this giant hall full of women! Well, we certainly do have our fair share of women in the organization because that’s all the women business owners. But don’t forget that they have employees. The average of our companies, they employ over 35 people. So you have their employees that are help working the booth, and then you have our corporate partners–large corporations, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Staples, Continental Airlines–that have a supplier diversity initiative. And that’s what we’re about, it’s the certification that is done through WBEA. It certifies that this company really is owned and run by at least 51 percent women.”

Poffinbarger says WBEA hopes to convey just how important women are in business.

“I want them to walk in the door and go, ‘I’…that they’re amazed at what’s going on. I think that women business owners have been an integral part of our economy, and I think now people are starting to realize what a big piece. It’s been a rather quiet piece of our economy, but it truly is…the Greater Houston Partnership has in a five-year initiative to grow the business and grow jobs in Houston, and they know the piece that’s going to make it grow are the entrepreneurs and the small business owners. You know, you say small, and so often people think of a little shop. Small is not always that. Our business owners are everything from a woman that’s a sole proprietor working alone, to a half-a-billion dollar a year company.”

WBEA hopes to increase opportunities for women-owned businesses by providing qualified suppliers to corporate and government purchasers.

The Houston Independent School District is holding an HISD Job Fair on Friday morning at the University of Houston Hilton Hotel on Calhoun. Applicants are asked to take their resume, teaching certificate, college transcript and references for immediate consideration. HISD anticipates the need for about 1,000 new teachers. New teachers with no prior experience start at $38,550 a year. Teachers certified in math, science, bilingual or special education could also be eligible for an additional recruitment incentive of between $3,000 to $6,000.

The Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau will welcome 14 conventions and trade shows in July, with more than 223,323 attendees expected to spend an estimated $217.5 million in Houston during the month. The Essence Music Festival is set for July 1st through the 3rd at Reliant Park. The Auxiliaries in Ministry Conference takes place the George R. Brown Convention Center July 3rd through the 8th. And the Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching is set for July 22nd through the 24th at the convention center.

The Tejano Center for Community Concerns is staging an office renovation and home ownership showcase on Thursday at their office on Brownwood. The center says a growing Hispanic population in Houston signals the need for increase home ownership services. TCCC is celebrating 14 years of work for the Houston Hispanic community.

The president and chief executive of BP America is on a list of executives that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board will question about the March 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City that killed 15 workers and injured dozens. The safety board is also meeting with London executives, and has interviewed the global refining chief. A federal grand jury has also been impaneled to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing at Texas City.

Saudi Aramco has awarded a contract to Halliburton for the oilfield services component of the largest oil development project in the Arabian Gulf region since the 1950s. The Houston Business Journal reports the three-year contract for the Saudi Aramco Khurais project will use up to 23 rigs to support the drilling and completion of more than 300 wells.

The men and women who run America’s big corporations are bullish on the economy. CEOs polled by the Business Roundtable predict that the nation’s economy will move from a vigorous first quarter to more sustainable, long-term growth. According to the survey, expectations for company sales remain high, employment projections are solid, and there’s a willingness to invest. The bottom line is that CEOs predict the economy will be able to withstand the challenges of high oil prices and rising interest rates. The Washington-based roundtable is comprised of CEOs from 160 of the nation’s largest companies.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was back on Capitol Hill today. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said the U.S. economy may finally be starting to feel the impact of high oil prices. Even so, he says oil prices have not yet caused any “serious erosion” of world economic activity. He says American businesses have been able to handle the situation through continued productivity improvements, but adds that U.S. households are ”struggling with rising gasoline prices.” Greenspan says high prices reflect a sharp decline in spare global oil production capacity, refinery shortages and to some extent market speculation.

Consumer borrowing increased in April at the fastest pace in ten months, due to a pick-up in credit card spending and auto loans. The Federal Reserve reports borrowing rose at an annual rate of 5.9 percent, following a tiny increase of eight-tenths percent in March. How long the rebound in borrowing will last is unclear, given a decline in consumer confidence during May that was blamed on worries about soaring energy prices.

A top real estate group believes that although the housing boom has faded, sales will continue at healthy levels will continue, with price appreciation at more normal levels. The National Association of Realtors is predicting that sales of previously-owned homes will drop nearly seven percent–to $6.60 million this year from last year’s record of $7.08 million. NAR is also predicting a drop in new-home sales of almost 13.5 percent. As far as pricing is concerned, the realtors are forecasting an increase of 5.3 percent this year for all houses–to $231,300.

The semiconductor industry’s trade group says consumer demand for new cell phones, personal computers and digital cameras is strong. That’s why the Semiconductor Industry Association is out today with a revised, stronger forecast for global chip sales this year. It looks for growth of nine-point-eight percent to nearly $250 billion this year. That’s up from the previous forecast issued last November, when it called for growth of just 7.9 percent. The group expects strong growth continuing over the next couple of years, and then slowing toward the end of the decade. The U.S. chip industry employs about 225,000 people.

The judge hearing a lawsuit against AT&T says he’ll examine classified government documents to determine if they warrant “state secrets” protection. The documents relate to a class-action lawsuit filed by privacy advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation against San Antonio-based AT&T. The suit accuses AT&T of illegally cooperating with the National Security Agency to make information on communications on its networks available to the agency without warrants. AT&T denies wrongdoing. Spokesman Michael Coe says AT&T respects the privacy of customers. Coe says the company complies with requests for information from law enforcement or other government agencies–strictly within the law. The judge on June 23rd will hear AT&T and the U.S. government’s separate motions to dismiss the lawsuit.

A jury handed up a $64 million verdict against a travel club that sold “free” vacations that included hidden fees and falsely claimed its activities were approved by the Texas Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau. After a two-week trial in state district court, the jury ruled Monday that Sun Country Travel and its principals should pay $15.2 million in civil penalties and $49 million in restitution. A judge will consider whether to uphold the verdict. The AG’s office said the company had sold about 6,000 memberships at up to $4,000 apiece. The agency sued in 2003 after getting consumer complaints and sending undercover agents to company presentations.

Dell today announced a deal to supply Google with customized computer servers. The search engine company will then sell the servers to corporate customers. Dell spokesman Jess Blackburn says the products are based on the company’s server platform but will feature Google-branded logos. The systems will be sold to Google’s corporate clients as the Google search appliance. Financial terms and other details were not provided by Round Rock-based Dell or California-based Google. In May, Google said it would start bundling some of its software on Dell’s personal computers.

Hewlett-Packard is recalling about 679,000 digital cameras because non-rechargeable batteries can overheat when connected to a power supply. There’s one report of an HP Photosmart R707 camera catching fire and causing minor smoke damage. Consumer can contact HP to obtain a free software upgrade that stops the camera from trying to charge a non-rechargeable battery, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Southwest Airlines is suing a company that helps travelers get the best seats on its planes by handling their online check-in. Dallas-based Southwest is asking other Web sites to stop offering the same service. Southwest last month sued Boardfirst in federal court in Dallas, alleging computer fraud, unfair competition, trademark infringement and “unjust enrichment.” Boardfirst didn’t immediately comment. Other U.S. airlines assign seats, but Southwest boards passengers by groups. Customers can check in up to 24 hours before a flight. Those who check in first–in person or over the internet–get the best seats in group “A.” Southwest last September noticed some Web sites were offering to check in passengers for free or a fee of a few dollars. Southwest is concerned about control of its seating inventory.

Customers on Southwest swilled more than 65,000 free drinks during a six-week binge as part of a travel promotion. The alcohol freebies were designed to counter free flight vouchers from rival American Airlines. The carriers are competing for passengers flying from Dallas Love Field to St. Louis and Kansas City. Each side declared victory in the giveaway contest. The scuffle began April 19th.

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