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Engineering a comeback

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AOL Time Warner Inc., Amtrak, Intuit Inc., Merrill Lynch & Co. and other b-to-b companies are taking to the rails to help small U.S. businesses get back on track after the events of Sept. 11.

The companies are bankrolling "Back on Track America," a six-month, 20-city educational tour meant to help small businesses recover from the economic ramifications of the terrorist attacks and the recession.

Back on Track America’s half-day sessions begin with executives from the sponsoring companies arriving on Amtrak trains and going to local hotels to offer counseling on topics ranging from banking to technology. Other sponsors include MasterCard International Inc., ThinkDirectMarketing Inc. and FleetBoston Financial Corp.

Back on Track America, organized by business journalist and SBTV Corp. President Jane Applegate, began its tour last month in New York; Newark, N.J.; and Washington. Future stops include Boston; Chicago; Miami; Minneapolis; New Orleans; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Seattle.

The idea behind Back on Track America is that while some big businesses, including major airlines, received financial bailouts after Sept. 11, small businesses have received scant help, Applegate said. "The smallest companies in our country were really knocked for a loop," she said.

One-on-one opportunity

While the premise behind Back on Track America is benevolent, it provides sponsors with a rare one-on-one marketing opportunity. Small businesses, while a potentially lucrative demographic, are notoriously difficult to reach through traditional marketing and advertising initiatives.

The New York session attracted 500 small-business people; the one in Newark brought in 130. The Chicago session, slated for today, is expected to draw 500, Applegate said.

"We view this as an opportunity to help ourselves by getting in touch with small businesses and seeing what they’re going through, and to help small businesses," said Dan Levin, VP- general manager of QuickBooks management solutions at Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuit.

Other companies also view Back on Track as a way to offer help through marketing. "This is a role we can play given our bully pulpit," said Fred Singer, senior VP-small business at New York-based AOL Time Warner.

The company is running ads on its NetBusiness site, and has sent 8 million e-mails promoting the events so far, said Joel Lockwood, directormarketing for AOL small business. "A lot of people in New York told us they learned about this through e-mail," he said. "We’re putting it to use for the movement."

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