Out on their own Entrepreneurs: The move from employee to owner of a small business is eased by counselors at Maryland's Small Business Development Center Network.

November 30, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

David Meltzer had a marketing strategy but no formal business plan.

Patrice Hooper had a business plan and a proven idea but no start-up money.

And Victor J. Norris had an idea for an invention, though unproven, but no investors.

All three were bitten by the entrepreneurial bug after years of working for someone else. And they made the jump from employee to business owner with the help of Maryland's Small Business Development Center Network, a joint state and federal program that counsels small-business owners for free.

Just ending its first year under management of the University of Maryland, the system has restructured and now plans to broaden its services by expanding links with universities and community colleges. And in a shift from the past, the network hopes to concentrate more on existing businesses than start-ups, such as Meltzer's property management company, Hooper's custom cookie franchise and Norris' Radar detection manufacturing firm.

"Small-business owners are faced with incredible challenges every day in terms of remaining competitive. They need help in surviving," said James N. Graham, state director since January, when the system moved from its former host, the state Department of Business and Economic Development, to College Park's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, as part of a nationwide movement to associate SBDC programs with higher education institutions.

In the coming year, Graham expects the network's annual client base of 3,000 to swell to 5,000 because of aggressive marketing and more creative efforts to bring services to far corners of the state, for instance by offering courses via satellite television.

He expects the majority of new clients to be owners of businesses with 25 or less employees, many of which got their start earlier this decade and are now facing intense competition. He anticipates an even greater need if the economy begins to slow down.

"That's when we're the busiest, with people trying to save themselves, especially people who haven't experienced a real recession," Graham said.

Toward that end, Graham wants to see the state double its $500,000 annual funding. Part of that would pay for at least nine more counselors. They would bolster the current 19, who work from four regional offices in Baltimore, Cumberland, Charles County and Salisbury or from one of 13 satellite offices, where they help clients write business plans, research the competition and apply for business loans. Graham is also working toward enlisting more corporations to assist with money or services.

The network's year-old association with the university has brought added benefits, giving clients access to facilities, faculty and equipment. In one program through the College of Engineering, biotech start-ups can use research facilities and equipment at low cost for up to three years. Companies in need of technical engineering assistance can get help from university faculty, while businesses developing surveys might turn to the psychology department.

When Graham started in January, he was surprised to learn the system had no business blueprint of its own. His first step was to draft one, out of which grew a set of performance goals for each region. Five state regions were consolidated to four, with the Prince George's County regional office replaced by a smaller satellite office.

For the state, which contributes only about a quarter of the mostly federally funded $1.9 million budget, the payoff will be fewer business failures, a broadened tax base and a stronger network of suppliers to attract big business, Graham said. Perhaps most importantly, the state counts heavily on its small businesses to create new jobs, he said. Consider that Maryland businesses of fewer than 20 people reported job growth of 10.4 percent from 1991 to 1995, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, which helps fund SBDCs nationally.

For start-up businesses -- which now account for about 80 percent of the network's client base -- the payoff is invaluable free advice.

David Meltzer, a former mortgage broker who had bought and rehabbed a Charles Village apartment building, decided in February to start a full-time business managing apartments. He had devised a marketing plan, but needed help with budgeting, projections and applying for a loan.

Over four months, Meltzer met with counselor Alan Dobzynski at the resource center on West Baltimore Street, the central region's headquarters. With the counselor's help, Meltzer produced an 11-section leather-bound business plan for Laurence Management Inc. Today, he manages 120 apartments and handles repairs for a condominium complex.

"He helped me turn my ideas into really concrete concepts," said Meltzer, who was accompanied by the counselor during his presentation to bankers. "A business plan is more than the product and who you sell to; it's market analysis, your qualifications, projections. He helped me pinpoint all that to put into a form that the bank could accept."

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