Woolly world of small-time bartering has its own appeal

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Her disheveled Upper East Side Manhattan office is a far cry from Atwood Richards's posh Park Avenue setting. No tropical birds here. Visitors to Barter Advantage Inc. are more apt to be greeted by a long-haired sheep dog.

But in three years, Lois Dale has built what may be the most successful small-business barter exchange in the Big Apple. And she's savvy enough for television host Louis Rukeyser to dub her the ''First Lady of Barter.''

Ms. Dale's clientele numbers 1,000, and they trade some $10 million in goods and services annually.

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''Management is the whole thing,'' asserts the flamboyant matchmaker. The Bronx-born president was decked out in red nails and leopard-spotted stockings during a recent interview.

''The most important thing is balance. You can get too many services and not enough goods. It won't work if you've got 10 doctors, 10 lawyers, and one office furniture store.'' And the members must be active traders. This year, Ms. Dale has dropped 200 members for lack of trades, price gouging, or simply bad debt. On the other hand, she's picking up new clients at the rate of 14 a month, she says.

While Dale is branching into barter seminars, opening up a West Coast office, and putting a computer terminal in every barter member's office, two other New York barter exchanges recently foundered.

''The industry is in a shakeout phase now, but we're still growing in volume and interest,'' says Joe Weiss, deputy director of the International Reciprocal Trade Association.

A poorly run barter exchange can sour businesses on the concept, and ''there are bad apples all over the country. It's not a stable business,'' Mr. Weiss agrees. ''Because there are no licensing standards at all, everybody and his brother can get into this - and does.''

The trade group is trying to get Congress to set up licensing standards and put the group in an oversight role similar to the one the National Association of Securities Dealers has been given by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Meanwhile, Weiss advises business people thinking about joining a barter setup to do the following:

* Check the age of the barter firm and verify its standing in the business community.

* Ask for a referral list and check it carefully.

* Be sure the members are situated close enough to one another to trade conveniently.

* Prepare a list of what you want and then see if you can get those items based on the client list.

* Find out how many clients are on ''standby status'' - clients with such a flooded credit account they cannot trade with you. If more than 10 percent of the members are on standby status, it could be a sign of problems at the exchange.

And if you're thinking of starting a barter exchange, Ms. Dale counsels: ''It's a fallacy that you're going to get rich overnight. I started with $25,000 and in one year reinvested another $90,000 out of the business. You should have at least $25,000 to begin, plus enough to live on for six months or a year.''

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