Getting Down to Business…

Baiging Li played forward for two Chinese professional basketball teams in the late ’80s before he took advantage of a rare opportunity to come to the United States — and Springfield College — to study sport management.

Since graduating, he has become, as he described it, a serial entrepreneur of sorts.

He started by creating a business focused on teaching Tai Chi, a Chinese system of physical exercises designed especially for self-defense and meditation, and has successfully grown that venture, establishing classes in many area clubs, senior centers, and health care facilities. Later, he started another business featuring tours of his native country. Over the past several years, he has led hundreds of people, many of them Tai Chi students, on visits to different areas of China.

His latest venture, one that seems laden is potential, is called ChinaAccess. It specializes in China/U.S. business development, and focuses specifically on helping business owners make connections — and eventual partnerships — with Chinese manufacturers.

As he shaped each of those ventures, Li leaned heavily on the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network (SBDC). A state agency (the only one anyone knows of that is based in Western Mass.), the center provides a wide range of free, one-on-one counseling, training, and capital support to people who want to do everything from start a business to sell one.

"We act as an objective, experienced set of eyes and ears for people who need some help getting started or to the next level," said Diane Fuller Doherty, director of the SBDC’s Western Mass. Regional Office, located in the Andrew M. Scibelli Enterprise Center at Springfield Technical Community College. "We’re there to be a resource for people facing the many challenges of business today."

In Baiging Li’s case, the center helped with everything from business plans to obtaining a green card, said Fuller Doherty, who told BusinessWest that Li has always had entrepreneurial drive — and also many valuable connections in China. What he needed was some help with the details and the hurdles that challenge all small business owners, from initial financing to deciding how much insurance to carry.

Georgianna Parkin, state director of the SBDC, said the agency has become an effective economic development resource over its 25-year existence, as it works to both create and retain jobs. It addresses this goal through a network of offices, or consortium, that includes the Isenberg School of Management at UMass-Amherst (the lead institution) and also Boston College, Clark University, Salem State College, UMass-Dartmouth, UMass-Boston, and the Mass. Export Center.

"The statistics show that small businesses are the backbone of the nation’s economy," she told BusinessWest. "We work to strengthen that backbone."

In recent years, the SBDC, funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the state, and UMass and other consortium members, has worked to dispel the notion that it works only with, small mom-and-pop operations, said Parkin. She told BusinessWest that ’small’ is a relative term when it comes to classifying businesses. By some definitions, that word describes those with 500 employers or fewer, and by others, the benchmark is 100 employees, she said, adding that the SBDC has assisted companies in both categories.

Still, the bulk of its work, especially in Western Mass., is with companies with 10 or fewer employees. In many cases, the businesses are sole proprietorships, as is the case with Deliso Financial and Insurance Services.

Jean Deliso, founder, told BusinessWest that after years of working for a large financial services company in Florida, she wanted to return to her native Springfield and start her own business. She went to the center for counseling because, while she was confident in her ability to help individuals make sound investment decisions, she knew she could use help with such matters as marketing her business — and even picking a name for it.

"When you’re a sole proprietor, getting help is important; this is a lonely game," she explained. "I don’t have a board of directors, no business this size does. It’s great to have a resource like this with knowledgeable people who can say, ’yes, you’re doing it right,’ or ’no, you’re not.’"

BusinessWest looks this issue at how the SBDC has counseled business owners like Deliso and Li and, in the process of doing so, become a driving force in job creation has for the region.

Foreign Concepts

In two months, Li plans to lead of small contingent of Western Mass. business owners on a trip to the Shandong region of China. Located between Beijing and Shanghai, it is home to roughly 93 million people and businesses in fields ranging from agricultural manufacturing and production to auto making.

The purpose of the junket — with all or most of the expenses paid for by the Chinese government — is to help forge partnerships between Chinese industry groups and individual companies and U.S. business owners who are being advised, and in some cases told, by major clients to find ways to collaborate with China and other countries where the cost of doing business is considerably lower than it is here.

Keith Stone is one such business owner, and he may well be on the plane in October.

Stone, president of Agawam-based Interstate Manufacturing Company (IMC), and also a relatively new client of the SBDC, told BusinessWest that Hamilton Sundstrand, a division of United Technologies Corp. and one of his largest customers, wants him to partner with companies in India and China, in an effort to secure both high quality and low cost for its parts.

Stone is now working with Li in what promises to be a lengthy process to establish such partnerships. And Stone credits help from the SBDC with putting him in a position where he can take such a bold step.

Indeed, when Stone first visited the Mass. Small Business Development Center (SBDC), his business was a critical crossroads.

IMC was created to make tools and fixtures required for the assembly of parts — primarily for the aerospace industry. Following 9/11, virtually every company that did business in that sector was hit and hit hard, and Interstate was one of them.

The company fought successfully to avoid bankruptcy, and business eventually improved somewhat. But even this past spring, Stone wasn’t sure if his entrepreneurial venture was going to survive.

His visit to the SBDC and one of its advisors, Alan Kronick, was broad in nature, Stone told BusinessWest, adding that he was looking for some advice and direction on how to remain competitive in a changing marketplace. Kronick and other counselors provided assistance in several areas, but especially with the complex process of being positioned to bid for projects with defense contractors.

"Alan understood what I was going through, and he’s helped keep me focused on where I am and where I need to be," said Stone. "It’s great to have a fresh perspective on things on things like cash flow, projections, and different ways to cut expenses; he can see things that I can’t."

Stone’s story is typical of how the SBDC works to help companies get in business and stay in business, thus fueling economic growth in all regions of the state.

"Small businesses are truly the engine driving economic development, especially in Western Mass., said Fuller Doherty. "This is where most of our net new jobs are coming from; entrepreneurs are providing jobs not only for themselves, but many other people."

Over the years, the Western Mass. office of the SBDC has helped hundreds of individuals like Deliso, Stone, and Li. Between Oct. 1, 2003 and Sept. 30, 2004 (the latest statistics available), the office assisted 618 clients, providing more than 2,626.25 hours of counseling.

More than half of those clients sought assistance in the broad category of business startup, said Fuller Doherty, noting that there are many other areas of counseling, ranging from business plan and loan package development to strategic needs assessment and marketing/sales.

In general, the center helps small business owners stay on track, said Deliso, noting that entrepreneurs like herself are versed in their particular area of expertise — in her case, accounting and financial planning — but not necessarily in the many facets of running a business.

"Take marketing for example," she said. "They helped me develop a marketing plan and figure out where and how I should be spending my money. Those are the kinds of things small business owners need help with."

Name of the Game

Richard Green came to the SBDC last spring, when he was entertaining thoughts of opening his own insurance agency. A long-time insurance industry veteran, Green drafted a preliminary business plan earlier this year, and drew some encouraging remarks from his lawyer, who nonetheless advised him to seek a second opinion.

"He told me that I was in the middle of the forest and needed to find a way to see through the trees," Green recalled. "He said I needed another pair of eyes."

Those eyes turned out to be Fuller Doherty’s, and Green recalls that she didn’t sugarcoat anything about the process of getting his venture off the ground.

"They’re not there to pat you on the back, tell you everything’s great, and send you out there," he explained. "They ask the hard questions, starting with whether you have what it takes to be in business for yourself."

An evaluation process revealed that Green did indeed have the requisite desire, talent, and capital to start his own venture. Richard Green Insurance Inc. opened for business on Elm Street in Hampden earlier this summer; a grand opening is set for later this fall.

During the process of getting his business started, Green said he turned to the SBDC for counseling on matters ranging from office furniture — the center provided names of area dealers — to what to name his venture.

"Putting my name on the company wasn’t my first choice," he revealed. "But people at the center told me that I should use my name and then stand behind it."

Deliso said she faced the same dilemma. As she began the process of starting her venture, Deliso said she was wary of putting her family name on it. Her grandfather, Joseph Deliso, was a successful entrepreneur and founder of HBA Cast Products, while her parents started several other ventures, including Tool Craft and Pioneer Tool.

"That name was one of the reasons I left the state," she said. "I didn’t want to be merely my grandfather’s granddaughter; I wanted to do it on my own.

"But people at the center got me to see that this was a name that people associated with success, and it was a name I should utilize," she continued. "That was a real turning point for me; that was the right decision to make and they helped me make it."

The center has helped Li make a number of right decisions in his decade-long association with the agency. While some of his needs and challenges are unique — obtaining citizenship, for example — most are fairly typical.

"The center has been very helpful with all of my businesses," he said. "In the beginning, a lot of things were unclear to me, like how to make a plan, contact people, and follow through; they’re helped with all those things.

"They’re teaching me ways to look at the big picture," he continued. "That’s where my focus needs to be."

As for the October trip to China, Li said he is using the SBDC as a resource to help identify area businesses, such as Stone’s, that might benefit from what he called the ultimate learning experience.

"Through this visit, people will have a clear idea of how Chinese business operates," he said. "That’s important, because partnerships are how companies here and there are going to be successful."

Bottom-line Analysis

Assessing his entrepreneurial exploits to date, Li said that, like all business owners, he is continually reviewing his ventures with an eye toward continued growth and profitability. In other words, he’s not resting on any laurels.

"You can’t do that," he said, adding that the learning process that is part and parcel to being a successful business owner never really ends.

"I still have many things still to learn about business," he told BusinessWest, adding that he considers himself lucky to have a resource like the SBDC. "They’ve kept me going in the right direction."

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]