Resource organizations open for business

With the announced Aug. 31 closing of the Portsmouth-based Women’s Business Center, the organization’s several hundred members have been encouraged to continue growing their small businesses with other business resource agencies in New Hampshire.But, while not facing the extreme funding challenges the WBC had, other agencies affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s New Hampshire office – the Small Business Development Center and SCORE – as well as Concord-based MicroCredit-NH and business incubators around the state are trying to do more with much less, at a time when the need for their help is increasing.The Small Business Development Center is operated as a collaboration of the SBA, the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, the University System of New Hampshire and the private sector.”We have many private sector partners that truly believe in what we do,” said Mary Collins, state director of the SBDC, which has offices around the state and is administered from UNH in Durham.Despite its pedigree, Collins said that the agency “still needs to be watchful and concerned” about its funding, “however, the infrastructure is strong.””Several years ago, we downsized,” said Collins. Today, she added, “we are very lean, with a core staff of 15.”That core assists more than 3,000 business owners each year, she said, through counseling, classes and other business assistance programs.While many classes continue to be available at locations around the state, the SBDC has added a wealth of programming through its Web site, winter, it launched its e-Learning Courses, offering more than 20 free online classes in finance, marketing and business management, for business owners at any stage of growth.”Once we did that, our Web site just lit up,” said Collins. “So far, more than 1,500 entrepreneurs have used the courses and the feedback has been excellent.”One new initiative to be unveiled in the fall is a virtual business center based at the SBDC’s Keene office on the campus of Keene State College.Designed for veterans and active-duty service members, the business school for “vetrepeneurs” is a partnership with Second Life and Netdreamerz, 3-D environment design companies, and will offer everything from classes to access to business counselors and other resources – all online.According to Collins, while learning about business basics is always popular, requests have “skyrocketed” for aid in finding financing.”One core goal is access to capital,” she said. “That has gone up immensely.”This is especially true for owners of older companies and high-growth firms looking to expand and take their businesses to the next level.Collins said the SBDC is looking for resources to support these companies as well as start-ups.”Any additional funds we bring in, we put toward business counseling,” she said.Funding supportThe New Hampshire Community Loan Fund oversees two other statewide small-business programs – MicroCredit-NH and Vested for Growth.Both programs are funded through an “all hands on deck” approach, said John Hamilton, who oversees both programs.”We reach out to private industry, businesses, foundations as well as federal resources,” he said. “We are a unique program because we tap into citizens who are helping businesses in New Hampshire to grow.”The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved some $500,000 for the programs and is now awaiting action by the full Senate.MicroCredit-NH assists with loans of up to $15,000, primarily for sole proprietors.”We are trying to build capacity to handle even larger loan requests,” said Hamilton.Those requests, indeed all funding requests, have grown during the recession, he said.”We listen to our customers, find the gap, and seek appropriate funding from our partners,” said Hamilton.In addition to funding support, business training and networking opportunities also are important programs under MicroCredit-NH.”And more than 50 percent of our peer group members are women,” said Hamilton.Realizing business programs must adjust to new – and difficult – economic conditions, MicroCredit-NH is currently undergoing a strategic planning review.”We are not a static program, we are a dynamic program that needs to adapt,” said Hamilton.That fluidity is also a characteristic of Vested for Growth.Geared to larger high-growth companies, often in the manufacturing sector, the program looks for companies “that offer value-added service versus commodities,” said Hamilton.Typical clients have $2 million to $20 million in annual sales, 10 to 200 employees, and gross profit margins of 25 percent or higher.Vested for Growth provides investments with and through its partners of between $100,000 and $500,000, and occasionally more, and also provides peer networking opportunities.Requests for services from Vested for Growth also have risen dramatically, said Hamilton.”We have closed 50 percent more deals in the last two quarters than all of last year,” said Hamilton – a trend that also speaks to the returning interest in the marketplace of the capital and angel investor, he added.He said the recession affects the way the program analyzes businesses, “but it doesn’t slow down our volume, and in fact, quickens the pace.When credit is easy, clients are less likely to rely on Vested for Growth. When capital is tight, that’s when we’re most needed.”Counseling servicesSCORE, a resource partner of the SBA since 1964, has some 350 chapters nationwide.In New Hampshire, there are six SCORE chapters, of which SCORE Manchester is the largest, with more than 60 volunteer counselors.SCORE receives about half of its funding from the SBA and the remainder through attendance fees from its workshops, including its popular “How to Start a Business” workshop.Randy Roody, president of the Manchester chapter, said that last year it had a budget of $30,000 to work with more than 300 clients and provide more than a dozen workshops.He said that each SCORE office works closely to support entrepreneurs in their local communities, providing free one-on-one counseling.Each office is staffed by volunteer counselors – current and former business executives and other professionals with backgrounds ranging from accounting to engineering to marketing.”SCORE is unique by assigning a counselor a client” acting a bit like a case manager, said Roody. “They meet when and as long as necessary.”The counselors draw from real-world experience to help new and existing business owners navigate the turbulent waters of starting and growing a company.While SCORE does not provide loans, its counselors do help business owners prepare for meetings with banks and other lenders.Unlike some of the other business resources in the state, the size of SCORE Manchester’s client list has stayed about the same as last year, said Roody.”Some 359 people have attended our workshops this year, compared to 346 last year,” he said. “Our caseload, however, has seen a minor increase to about 523, up from a little over 500, and about half of our clients are women.”He said he has seen more “follow-ons” – clients who had sought counseling before and have come back after some time for further guidance on an existing or new venture.Because SCORE is comprised of virtually all volunteers, it hasn’t seen the same issues with overhead expenses as some of the other business resources around the state.”If there is one thing I want New Hampshire business owners to know about SCORE is that we are very interested in working with existing businesses, not just start-ups,” said Roody. “We’d also love to have more women business counselors.”The Granite State also is home to several business incubators.Julie Gustafson, president of the Amoskeag Business Incubator in Manchester, and MaryAnn Kristiansen, executive director of Keene’s Hannah Grimes Center – two of the state’s business incubators – said they have both seen enormous growth in service requests from their organizations.Kristiansen said Hannah Grimes’s membership rose some 800 percent last year, and this year is 200 percent above that.Gustafson said ABI’s micro-offices are full, with 22 full-time tenants and eight part-time affiliates and a waiting list of prospective future tenants.”The increases are due to people being laid off,” said Gustafson. “They are now looking at what they can do, if they have the skill set to be self-employed, or maybe it’s time to pursue a dream.”However, even for the business incubators, business has been anything but usual.For example, both incubators have actually added courses.The ABI is working on developing more connections to funding.”We’ve just doubled our board from six to 12 to help us connect with the angel/VC community,” said Gustafson.And ABI is looking into the possibility of leasing more space as office requests keep coming.She said ABI also is establishing an international advisory board that, along with grants, will help it develop it into a “soft landing destination” for foreign companies looking to start business in America.Gustafson said the ABI’s funding is “fine for this year and 2011 looks good” with several grants already lined up, although it is “constantly looking at how best to offer services.”Toward that end, Gustafson said the ABI is also considering holding fund-raising events.Hannah Grimes, too, is solidly funded for the rest of this year and heading into next year, said Kristiansen.”We’ve added a staff member,” said Kristiansen. “We have $463,000 toward our capital campaign of $703,000 and are on track for meeting our goal.” Related article:Reborn WBC eyed for N.H.Cindy Kibbe can be reached at<