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East Germans Start Small, Hoping to Become Tycoons

April 7, 1991

EIGENRIEDEN, Germany (AP) _ Peter Kulla’s first step on the road to becoming a tycoon is a combination snack bar and used car lot, opened with the help of two partners from western Germany.

″It’s a humble start, but I’ve got big ideas,″ said Kulla, 34, who sees his eastern German village as the basis for a fortune.

″In a few years I’m going to have a big car repair shop here, maybe a franchise to sell new cars, and a diploma in management to really secure my future,″ Kulla said.

He gazed on the seeds of his dream: about 15 used cars and a prefabricated building where a helper serves simple fare like sausages, cutlets, roast chicken and french fries.

Kulla rolled up his sleeves, strode into an empty structure about the size of a toolshed and started painting the walls of what will be his office.

It is a painful time for what used to be East Germany. Factories are going broke and unemployment lines grow.

Many eastern Germans have become demoralized, but always there are those like Kulla - ambitious and determined to benefit from the prosperity experts predict will come eventually.

About 281,000 new businesses have opened since 1990 began, most of them small operations like used car lots, restaurants, cafes and bars. About 26,000 failed, government officials say.

″This is comparable to West Germany in the 1950s, when many people became entrepreneurs,″ said Peter Pietsch, an economist with the Commerzbank in Frankfurt. He said west Germany is proof to eastern Germans that ″you can become successful if you work very hard.″

″But all this has to be seen in perspective of the very negative situation,″ he said. ″One must not forget that these small enterprises create few new jobs. They are mostly one-man or two-man shows.″

Kulla’s business is on a well-traveled road in Eigenrieden, a village about a mile from the former border between the Germanys.

Right on the old frontier, in view of a now-derelict guard tower, is the Border View restaurant of Josef Hoeppner, 43.

Just after the Communist leadership of East Germany was thrown out in the fall of 1989, Hoeppner was given back some border property expropriated from his family four decades earlier.

He lost his job at a cement factory last month and decided on the restaurant venture.

″I took out a loan and put up this building,″ he said on opening day. ″This area has a lot of history and gets a lot of visitors curious about the old days.″

Hoeppner glanced around at his customers, most of them tourists from the wealthy west.

″This is a completely new start for me,″ he said, ″but I think it’s going to work.″

Major businesses also are settling into eastern Germany, but at a slower pace.

A supermarket owned by the west German Aldi chain is going up in nearby Muehlhausen. Next to it will be a Kolossa shopping center, complete with restaurant, furniture store, travel agency, building supplies store, and pharmacy.

Area residents welcome the new businesses, which will replace some of the lost factory jobs.

″I’ve heard about these ‘miracle miles’ in America, where chain stores are lined up side by side as far as the eye can see,″ Kulla said. ″Someday Muehlhausen will have one of its own.″

When jobs don’t come to eastern Germany, eastern Germans go to them. More than 200,000 commute to jobs in the west.

Each weekday morning, there is a chain of headlights on every road crossing the death strips that formed the border.

The news magazine Der Spiegel told of a busload of East German women who leave Gotha at 3 a.m. four days a week and travel three hours to work at the huge Quelle mail order company in Fuerth, near Nuremberg.

Commuting eastern Germans spend their money where they earn it, however, which means a loss of revenue for struggling businesses where they live.

Kulla, said his snack bar was doing well, but ″jobless people tend not to buy cars, even used ones.″

He said he works late every day, often not finishing his bookkeeping until 2 a.m., but doesn’t mind that.

A big problem for Kulla, as for many other eastern German entrepreneurs, is the lack of a telephone.

″Every time I need to consult with my partners in the west, I have to drive to a telephone booth on the former border,″ he said. ″A customer with a serious interest in buying a car could show up while I’m away.″

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