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Friday, December 11, 2009

SBA Course Helps Small Firms (Like Tow Companies) Look To The Future

Here's the story for the Atlanta Journal - Constitution:
For 15 years, Lester Shields followed a simple plan to build his business, Atlanta Cargo Transportation Co.: Do the job, and the customers will come.

It worked, too, as he grew his relocation firm to eight trucks and 15 employees with commercial and industrial clients.

Then, "The economy took a dip, and we took one right along with it." Suddenly, Shields had to learn some new tricks.

He picked up a few during a free six-month business education course offered through the U.S. Small Business Administration called the Emerging 200 Initiative, a two-year-old national program that seeks to identify and help 200 inner city firms in 10 communities considered to have strong growth potential. They had to be in business at least three years and have at least $400,000 in annual revenue.

Shields was one of 10 inner city Atlanta business owners selected to take the class this year. They graduate at a ceremony today.

Shields and his fellow students said they gained a better understanding of finances (many had simply left the details to their accountants). They developed long term business plans. And they got advice on how to go out and get customers, something Shields, for one, says he knew little about. He'd mostly relied on word-of-mouth referrals.

"It helped me identify some marketing tools I never really thought of," he said. "The blogs, the Facebooks, the Twitters … the social networking things. A lot of the information was invaluable."

SBA Georgia District Director Terri Denison said the program, "is really a way of systematically allowing business owners to look at their enterprise and figure out how to make that transition to the next level. Businesses have to be able to adapt as situations change. This (program) creates a space for them to take a longer term approach."

Those who took the course said it will help them.

Paula Henao, co-owner of H&G Construction Concepts, a general contracting firm that does residential and light commercial work, said she learned "to get closer to the customer, to understand their needs."

That means, for example, being aware that small remodeling jobs are more likely now than expensive projects, she said.

She also began to create a database of customers and developed a three-year growth plan.

Llewellyn Bryant said he learned something as well, even though he's been in business for 35 years. But his Bryant Auto & Towing Service is being converted from a repair and towing operation to a salvage shop, and he knew he needed some help, especially finding business.

Bryant said much of his old customer base moved out of his northwest Atlanta neighborhood and now he has to find new customers.

"That was the biggest thing," he said. "I've got to reach out to the touch the community."

Bryant and others said the course didn't solve another problem they face, however: finding capital to build their inventory and grow their businesses.

Dietris Barnes, founder and president of Enrichment Bookstore Inc., a 13-year-old online book retailer, noted that many of those who took the course had been rejected by lenders.

"We'd like," she said, "to find some ‘yeses.'"

Denison said, "There probably was a little more discussion (this time) about how to best leverage financial resources in this environment … how to keep the operation going when maybe you're not able to get as much financing as a couple of years ago."

But, she said that by taking the course in such tough times, the 10 business owners showed something.

"It's really a testament to their stick-to-it-iveness," she said. "There's opportunity ahead, and they want to be prepared for it."

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