Cathy Gardner had sold enough homes in Crofton to know what was wrong with the place.
Not one pet store in the West County community specialized in tropical fish.
The real estate agent believed Crofton needed a fish store. So she decided to open one herself.
But starting a small business can be overwhelming -- even for someone with as much experience as Gardner. She'd run a successful Pasadena pet store in the early 1980s, eventually moving up to wholesaling, buying a warehouse and supplying petsto stores in seven states. Lack of capital ultimately forced her outof business.
Last May, when she could no longer ignore the urge to be her own boss again, Gardner decided to try to meet Crofton's tropical fish needs. But this time she looked for help.
She found it at the Small Business Development Center Network, an operation run from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development that helps people in five Maryland regions start or expand small businesses.
The county's Small Business Success Program, a network of volunteer counselors that has offered similar assistance since 1988, merged with the development center in October. This week a Glen Burnie satellite office will officially open, staffed by counselor William T. Geiger.
Since October, Gardner has met frequently with Geiger, a Harvard University M.B.A. who owned three printing businesses and came out of retirement to staff the center.
After hearing her sales projections and goals for G & G Tropical Fish, "he put it into a new, logical order for me," Gardner said. "Because of information I've gotten from him, it's changed my way of operating. Instead of buying smallquantities, I buy large quantities and get a discount."
Geiger also showed Gardner how to control inventory, introduce items into the store and approach a bank for a loan.
"The goals, as far as sales,we have exceeded every month," she said. "I'm no longer in the hole.I can call him and say, 'Bill, this is what I'm doing. What do you think?' "
The satellite office will act as a one-stop information referral service, where entrepreneurs can get free analyses of business plans and learn about training programs, employee benefits and business loans, said Shelly Gross-Wade, business development representative in the county Office of Economic Development. It also will offer low-cost seminars and workshops.
Technical assistance can mean anything from how to start, operate and market a business to where to apply for required licenses and how to get appropriate zoning.
"People going into business need to be prepared," Geiger said. "My job is to help find a business plan and determine whether they can qualify for loans."
When Sal and Marlene Picard opened Chapel Florist in Annapolis early last year, they faced problems they hadn't come upon in a smaller shop they'd run in Pennsylvania. For one thing, they had tohire for the first time, and they had no experience with benefits packages and other aspects of employee management.
"We needed to talk with somebody who could take a look at what we were doing and whether we were going in the right direction," said Marlene Picard, whose husband met twice with Geiger. "In a new business, the operating costs are tremendous. The profits get turned into the business. Any assistance available that's going to help you survive is crucial."
Over85 percent of the county's 8,000 businesses qualify as small businesses -- those that employ up to 50 workers or generate less than $3 million in sales, Gross-Wade said.
More than 1,400 people are expected to seek help in Central Maryland this year, about 200 of them in Anne Arundel County, said John Faris, the state center's executive director. The Glen Burnie office will be the region's seventh, with others in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Carroll and Cecil counties.
About half of the people in the region who seek help want to start businesses, while the others want to expand existing ones, he said. Of the companies that use the regional centers, about half are service-oriented, with about 20 percent in retail and 15 percent in manufacturing.
Because of the recession, businesses have begun looking for different kinds of assistance.
"Last year, people were looking for expansion money or start-up money, and this year there's a lot more interest in marketing, because sales are down," Faris said. "Also, we're beginning to see more experienced people: white, middle-aged males with decent corporate positions as they get out of work and can't find another job. We've been tracking that for the last seven or eight months."
The Glen Burnie office, at the Arundel Center North on Crain Highway, will be open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdaysand Thursdays as well as Friday mornings.