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MSBDC serving more clients with fewer centers

Oxford — The Mississippi Small Business Development Center (MSBDC) network is expanding and shrinking at the same time.

“We have more counseling centers, but fewer SBDCs,” said Mike Vanderlip, associate state director of Oxford-based MSBDC. “At one time, we had 21 centers, 21 directors and 21 secretaries. Because of budget changes, we’re moving toward larger centers.

“For example, the SBDC at Ole Miss used to serve seven counties, but now serves 19. My service area used to be covered by four SBDCs with a total budget of $365,000. Now, we have one center, one director, one full-time counselor, two part-time counselors and two graduate students. We did not replicate the administrative function four times in one area. It’s a much more efficient model because the money goes to counseling services.”

A misperception in the marketplace is that because the MSBDC has reduced the number of centers from 21 to nine, fewer people are being served.

“That’s not true at all,” said Vanderlip. “The way we define a client has changed, but we’re touching more people than before. Used to, I’d give the same canned statement to 15 to 18 people a week: ‘There’s no free money. You’re not your own boss. Your customers are your boss. You must have collateral and good credit to get loans.’ It was a reality check, and half of those people never came back. We decided if we brought this group together for two hours a week, it would give us a lot more time for counseling. Now, a client is an info-seeker unless they return. Therefore, the number of ‘clients’ has dropped, but we’re seeing more people than before.”

Last year, the MSBDC registered 2,800 people that never became clients.

“Under the old model, that would have taken 2,800 hours of one-on-one time repeating the same thing versus satisfying that demand in less than 500 hours’ worth of work, leaving the remainder for us to help those trying to make the week’s payroll,” said Vanderlip. “Also, because of the way we now classify clients, we’re seeing more balance between queries for startups and existing business.”

Another change: each center is moving toward an area of specialization. For example, Greg Butler at Jones County Junior College specializes in business turnarounds, and some counselors at Jackson State University have received training to help DBE (disadvantaged business enterprise) clients.

Sponsored in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the MSBDC network was established in 1981. It is part of a national partnership between state and federal government, the private sector and colleges and universities, and is designed to provide high-quality business assistance services to established businesses and promising new startups, with the objective to create jobs and increase contributions to state and federal treasuries.

“We’d been doing business the same way since 1981,” said Vanderlip. “You find me a for-profit business today doing business the same way they did in 1981, and I’ll show you somebody I need to talk to as a client because they aren’t going to survive much longer.”

MSBDC does not charge for counseling services, which includes improving managerial skills, analyzing financial records, creating marketing strategies and technology transfer assistance. The most sought-after advice deals with developing business plans and locating loan sources.

“Ronnie (Westbrook from East Central Community College) didn’t paint a pretty picture,” said Kevin Weeks, co-owner of Lakeside Village Assisted Living Center in Noxapater. “He told (me and my dad) the truth, not what we wanted to hear.”

Georgette McLain, owner of Taco Casa in Natchez, managed the restaurant for six years before persuading her boss to sell the business to her.

“The (SBDC) counselor told me what financial paperwork to gather so I could go to the bank for a loan,” she said. “A good friend of mine who worked in a convenience store saw how much they helped me, and she just did the same thing.”

MSBDC is on track to triple the number of workshops offered this fiscal year on topics ranging from starting a small business, tax planning, record keeping, doing business with the government, financial management to other special issues. Attendees are charged a small fee, enough to cover room rental and instruction expenses.

As business has quickly become more global in nature, more SBDC clients have taken advantage of Hinds Community College’s International Trade Center.

To increase outreach efforts, MSBDC developed more than a dozen business information CDs and has placed copies in every public library in Mississippi and in each Mississippi State University Extension Service office.

“They really helped us,” said Weeks. “My dad and I couldn’t have done it without SBDC.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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