Company profits from dotting i's and crossing t's


LONDON -- While both sides of the Atlantic are gripped in recession, Dr. Lynne Agress' small but profitable Baltimore-based company, Business Writing at its Best Inc., is busy dotting its i's and crossing its t's.

The recession has motivated Dr. Agress to "reach out more" for clients. In the decade she has been in business, the former college English professor has expanded about half of her business beyond the Baltimore region. She is hiring two managers, one for New York and one for Washington, D.C., where they will hire instructors and sell the program.

And this winter she was in London discussing new contracts and teaching executives at one of the largest international accounting firms, KPMG Peat Marwick.

"We got what we wanted from it," said Tony Powell, a partner in charge of training at Peat Marwick, where 12 members of his staff completed the 10-hour course.

Selling executives on the concept of learning to write better isn't easy in these hard economic times, Dr. Agress acknowledged, but the weak dollar makes her service a good value overseas, she said.

Back home in Baltimore, however, the recession is hitting hard. The company, which typically has 20 to 25 clients a year, has not had a contract from a local bank for two years. Although the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory is one of Dr. Agress' biggest clients, engineering and commercial real estate companies have fallen from her rolls.

The company's Baltimore business now turns almost entirely on two professions that rely heavily on the written word -- lawyers and scientists.

The BWB course, which she designed and copyrighted, has "a method that really works," Dr. Agress said, adding that she sees "incredible transformations."

When a company signs up for a course, two writing samples are collected from each of the participants -- usually 10 or 12 -- and the instructor -- a published writer or teacher -- develops work sheets centering on the problems in the writing samples. The 10-hour course is usually taught in five-hour segments over over two days.

Mostly, Dr. Agress said, the lawyers, scientists and businessmen need to focus on editing skills. The most common problems, she said, are awkward sentences, wordiness, redundancy and poor organization.

"These are educated people," she said. "They already have a command of the language. They're better right away at the very first work sheet where they're confronted with their own work."

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