When Small Business is Big Business

USF’s Small Business Center is focused on helping companies grow and succeed in a changing global environment.


Small Business Development Center at USF consultant Kurt Forster, left, in his business suit, takes a paddle in St. Petersburg with Brody Welte, whose company Stand Up Fitness has consulted with SBDC.


By Kevin Burke

Special to USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 10, 2012) – An election year produces a lot of competing claims about the state of the national economy.


But, when Eileen Rodriguez talks about new business formation, investment, and job creation in the Tampa Bay region, you can take that information to the bank. Scores of people do.


“We don’t ‘extrapolate’ here,” said Rodriguez, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida.


Instead of relying on predictions by economists based on formulas and suspect data, Rodriguez and her team survey upwards of 10,000 entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives a year. The result is a lot of good feedback about real economic conditions in the 10 west-central Florida counties served by the center.


Although characterizing the recovery of the Tampa area’s business environment as “still a little slow,” Rodriguez said conditions are much improved from the crisis climate of just two to three years ago. Among the most immediate and positive signs is the center’s own increasing activity.


“We’re busier than ever; we’re bursting at the seams,” she said.


Located inside the Tampa Port Authority building in the city’s downtown and offering a broad spectrum of no-cost business consulting and low-cost training services — from accounting, business planning, and financing to taxes, technology transfer, and Web strategies — the center hosted nearly 6,300 people who attended 480 events held in 2011. During the same span, its certified business analysts also met with another roughly 3,900 entrepreneurs and small business owners seeking help increasing sales, reducing costs, winning government contracts and/or expanding into international markets.


The return on that investment, meanwhile, has been astounding. According to its surveys, 309 of the center’s clients in 2011 reported opening new businesses, while those with existing enterprises reported sales revenues increased by $113.7 million from 2010. That was augmented by $23 million in new government contracts.


All told, says Bill McKown, Rodriguez’s assistant director, the center has helped area companies secure more than $100 million in government awards since 2008.


Another positive gleaned from the surveys: more than 4,100 jobs were created or saved last year. That’s key for the region, especially in a state with the seventh highest unemployment rate in the nation.


In addition to those wins, Rodriguez and her colleagues point with pride to the results of this year’s preliminary round of selections for the national Small Business Administration’s annual Small Business Week awards. Of the seven individuals (representing five firms) chosen to represent the South Florida region during National Small Business Week May 20-26 in Washington, DC, four are clients of the SBDC at USF, and a fifth, Sara E. Moola, co-proprietor of Visual Awareness Technologies & Consulting, Inc., is a former SBDC advisory board member.


Expected in Washington later this month are VoltAir co-owners Julius Davis and Jorge Rivera, whose two-man engineering firm began six years ago with a single $40,000 contract and, with the center’s assistance, has grown into a professional firm of 11 engineers working on contracts valued in the millions. VoltAir is in the running for national designation as Minority Small Business Champion of the Year.


“It’s very time intensive,” Rodriguez said of the processes and paperwork required to help clients create business plans, access financing or, especially, apply for government contracts. “But, at USF we’re all about community engagement. So, I’ve told my staff we’re going to continue to do whatever it takes.”


Like securing two invitations to President Obama’s mid-April visit to Tampa, where the subject was international trade. Within a day’s notice of receiving the offer from the White House, Rodriguez and her team organized 10 interviews across regional radio, TV and print media to ensure that the small business focus didn’t get lost in the sea of messages surrounding the excitement of the event.


“Our key points centered on educating business owners about opportunities to diversify through trade,” said Rodriquez, adding that evidence shows businesses that export grow 15 percent faster and are 15 percent more profitable than strictly domestic companies. The implications of that for the Sunshine State are huge, she said, considering 95 percent of Florida’s exporters are small businesses.


“And, best of all, business owners can receive expert consultation from the SBDC at no cost to them,” Rodriquez added. “Because business owners spend all of their time working in their businesses, not on their business, we provide the linkage to help them succeed.”


Kevin Burke can be reached at 813-974-0192.