Nurture small businesses, create jobs, experts say

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LANSING — Money may not grow on trees, but experts say the best way to foster small business growth is through “economic gardening.”

“In Michigan, large companies are the news, more than any other state,” said Rob Fowler, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “Big businesses get the headlines, but jobs come from small businesses.”

Among the beneficiaries of economic gardening are companies in Traverse City, Clare County and Gladwin County.

Michael Rogers, vice president of communications for the association, said the concept of economic gardening is to encourage the growth of the state’s own small businesses.

“Improving access to capital, decreasing regulatory start-up costs and partnering with universities to develop new technology are all part of it,” Rogers said.

Rogers said economic gardening is the opposite of economic “hunting,” which tends to be the focus of state government and attempts to lure out-of-state companies to Michigan. That approach usually aims at big businesses.

“The state needs both,” Rogers said.

Rogers said SBAM’s membership has grown from 5,000 to 9,000 in the past two years, despite the difficult economy. “We focus the power of small businesses so they can work together to accomplish what they can’t accomplish on their own.”

He said there is a broad and diverse small business economy in Michigan, but owners who are committed to their companies and have successful mentors are key elements to their success.

“It all boils down to having passion, good preparation, lots of support and access to adequate capital,” Rogers said.

Tony Fox, regional director of the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center based at Grand Valley State University, said businesses in the state have the potential to grow. “Small businesses can balance out the ill effects large business has created,” he said.

Fox said the center provides no-cost counseling for existing and start-up businesses, as well as workshops and market research through local host Mid Michigan Community College.

The center worked with 214 clients in Clare County and 94 in Gladwin County in 2009.

Fox said he believes success for small businesses comes from becoming more informed about their industry.

“In challenging times, companies have to be fundamentally sound,” Fox said. “There’s no room for inefficiency. It’s about how to implement strategies to grow.”

Jennifer Deamud, marketing manager for the Small Business and Technology Development Center, said 27 of the 50 businesses recognized by the Michigan 50 Companies to Watch program in 2009 were clients of the center. “This year, 18 of the 50 recipients were involved with our programs,” she said.

Fowler said the awards program is for second-stage companies that have seven to 99 employees, make $1 million to $50 million annually and are growing.

“Some are retailers beginning to franchise. Some are manufacturing stories of turnaround,” Fowler said. “It’s always hopeful when you see what’s really going on out there.”

Alfie — Logo Gear for Work and Play received one of the awards in 2009.

“Small businesses are what drive Michigan’s economy,” said Bonnie Alfonso, president of the Traverse City firm. “Economic gardening is vital to moving the state forward.”

Alfonso said the award gave her company exposure and recognition in the community. She now serves on SBAM’s board of directors.

“Diversifying offerings, staying in front of clients and being effective in communicating your message are really important for small business.”

Deamud said the center has found one of its niches in providing assistance to second-stage companies to help them grow, diversify and get out of difficult financial situations.

“The awards put a spotlight on companies,” she said. “There’s a lot of pride associated with the awards.”

Deamud said the recipient companies often come together to brainstorm and share successful business tactics. She said there were 114 finalists in the competition this year.

The awards ceremony for the 2010 Michigan 50 Companies to Watch will be held in Lansing on Apr. 29.

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