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Zapp: A guide to small business assistance in Savannah

  • Ken Zapp
  • Tony O’Reilly

Having volunteered at Savannah SCORE for six years, I have often wondered whether we and other organizations dedicated to help small business owners duplicate our efforts?

Or do we offer a diversity of resources which could best serve businesses if they only understood our unique abilities?

If I could not answer this question, how could prospective clients know where to go to solve their unique challenges?

This is my attempt to help people navigate through the maze of helping organizations. I asked Tony O’Reilly, president of the Small Business Assistance Corporation to be my guide. SBAC manages a portfolio of business loans ($2,500 to $5.5 million) and evaluates loan proposals from applicants who had been mentored by all our local service organizations.

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The similarities

O’Reilly identified three organizations which are prepared to assist potential business owners to develop a business plan from an idea: The Savannah Entrepreneurial Center, the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, and SCORE Savannah.

The Entrepreneurial Center (811 E. Gwinnett, 652-3582), funded by the city of Savannah, is led by MarRonde Lumkin-Lotson who manages a staff of six people. Last year they served about 2,700 people, mostly through their non-fee courses which are in person and on-line. Most intensive is a 12-week, 24-part course on starting a business. In it the cohort of participants is led through the process from an idea to the development of a business plan. One-on-one consultations are also available. Completed plans are then submitted to the SBAC for possible loans. The center seems to have two unique strengths. First, it provides needed services for women and minority owned businesses. Second, since many of their clients suffer from poor credit histories, they partner directly with the Consumer Credit Counseling of Savannah so that credit scores may be improved before loan applications are made.

The SBDC (531 E. Oglethorpe Ave. Ste M, 531-3200) is one of 17 locations of the University of Georgia’s business development system. Though they may assist people with only ideas, 80 percent of its clients have established businesses. Many are referred by banks who need to see more detailed projections before a loan application can be thoroughly reviewed. In fact, they seem to offer two specific advantages for their clients: their network of consultants who work throughout the state and their access to professional data bases which are needed to make the marketing and financial projections lenders require. The SBDC also offers a series of fee based professional seminars which earn participants Continuing Education credit. They range from an introduction to Quickbooks to the more sophisticated (and expensive) focus on business growth strategy for firms in business at least three years. They do work with potential business owners who present a clear idea, usually supported by direct experience in the field. People with less well-developed ideas, however, are usually referred to SCORE.

SCORE Savannah (111 E. Liberty Ave, 652-4335) is one of 300 local SCORE offices around the country. Initially developed by President Kennedy during the early 1960s to link retired business people with clients who needed help in either starting or improving their business (the acronym was Service Corps of Retired Executives), SCORE is now a national non-profit organization. Our local chapter has 24 mentors who volunteer their efforts to facilitate clients’ attempts to develop a business plan to start a business or to improve their existing operations.

Though most of the work is done through one-on-one mentoring, the chapter also offers courses such as Boots to Business for personnel planning to leave the military and a one day introduction to starting a business. They also offer a wide range of workshops locally and online.

All mentoring is free of charge as are most of the workshops; nominal fees are applied to full day events which include materials and lunch. SCORE clients benefit from the extensive hands-on experience of the local mentors and national list of experts which may be accessed on-line at no cost.

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Specialized services

At the Georgia Tech Savannah campus (210 Technology Drive, 966-7922), Larry Blige, procurement counselor, runs a series of seminars under the title “Understanding the Process of Doing Business with Government.” Here, current and prospective business owners learn how to contract with local, state and federal government agencies. His services include individual counseling.

More engineering advice is also available through the Advanced Technology Development Center which is located in Atlanta but offers programs locally. Professional education is offered in a wide array of technical subjects; go to Gatec.edu/savannah-campus.

At Armstrong State University, the Small Business Institute provides local businesses with teams of advanced business economics students who develop consulting reports for their real world clients. Last year one of the reports won third place in the national institute’s competition. Sadly, the merger of Armstrong and Georgia Southern is causing significant disruption in both the faculty ranks and the local curriculum. The future of the institute is not clear.

Savannah State University’s College of Business Administration offers AACSB accredited undergraduate and masters programs in business. It also hosts the Advancement of Creativity and Entrepreneurship Center which prepares prospective business owners to make funding proposals through their “Fast Pitch” competition.

Savannah Technical College (443-5700) offers courses and continuing education through two divisions, Economic Development and Business and Technology, which are valuable for potential business owners Especially useful are courses in accounting and marketing which are essential for success.

The Creative Coast, a local non-profit, supports the development of new companies from creative ideas. Their Geekland and Innovate SAV programs encourage local creative types to transform new ideas into business proposals.

SEDA, The Savannah Economic Development Authority, has a clear mission: to create, grow and attract jobs and investment in the Savannah region. O’Reilly called their work “location services”. To attract (or keep) businesses here, SEDA provides workforce training programs, infrastructure, available properties, incentives including tax abatements, utility and permitting assistance.

The US Department of Commerce office in Savannah (111 E. Liberty 652-4204) provides assistance to local businesses which seek opportunities for exporting their products (or services).

Networks, lobby

Three organizations provide opportunities for new business owners to develop professional networks, in addition to providing policy proposals for government. These are the Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Business Association.

O’Reilly’s own organization, SBAC, may be the region’s most influential player in fostering business development here. Most of the people interviewed for this article identified it as the place to go for new venture funding. SBAC staff attempt to match each applicant’s funding needs with the best combination of loan sources, including commercial banks. The organization seems to focus on each applicant’s unique needs and potentials when developing a package of credit sources. This individualized approach and not being limited by any one source’s requirements, has helped many firms open their doors (or their websites).

Kenneth Zapp, is professor emeritus at Metropolitan State University and mentor for SCORE Savannah.

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