SBDC changes name, keeps focus on businesses
Photo by Vincent Aiosa
On a sunny February morning in a greenhouse at Cloud Mountain Farm, some brand new trees are beginning to take root. They begin so tiny, but with care and vigilance they will flourish.
Cloud Mountain Farm has seen a similar metamorphosis from seedling to year-round prosperity. More than 30 years ago, Cheryl and Tom Thornton, the owners of Cloud Mountain Farm in Everson, transformed an old dairy farm into a successful venture that includes fruit orchards, a retail plant nursery, a vineyard, educational workshops and even landscape installation and design services.
While the Thorntons were extremely good at what they did and the business continued to grow, they wanted to get an outside perspective on their operation, however.
“I think it’s important to get that feedback because you can get too insular in any business. There are great examples of that locally and globally, of businesses that never got outside of what they were doing to realize that maybe the world had changed a little bit,” Tom said.
About 13 years ago, the Thorntons went up to Western Washington University to meet with Tom Dorr, executive director of Western’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which was part of a network of more than 1,100 SBDCs across the nation providing free business counseling to business owners.
Back then, the SBDC consisted of Dorr, a part-time secretary and a couple of MBA research students. But while SBDCs across the nation continue to be one-man offices, Western’s office has grown to 15 employees, including four counselors.
It has grown so much that last month Dorr announced it was changing its name to the Center for Economic Vitality (CEV) and ending its affiliation with the SBDC network.
“The traditional SBDC offers just counseling, and we have grown far beyond that,” said Dorr, director for the new CEV. “We have increased our research/economic gardening and special-projects capabilities, and those services are utilized by other economic development providers throughout the state of Washington.”
Since 1996, local business development advisors have helped 5,144 companies stay in business or expand, which saved or created 4,551 jobs and generated more than $160,467,118 in new capital investment in Whatcom County.
Name creates perception
The most important thing to remember about the name change to the Center for Economic Vitality is that no services will change whatsoever, Dorr said. The agency will continue to provide its core services: free business counseling, business research and special projects.
It has simply ended is connection to the SBDC network and rebranded itself to be more in touch with its core mission to advance the economic vitality of local communities.
Disconnecting from the SBDC network means the loss of $80,000 in federal funding, which Dorr said the CEV will attempt to make up through local funding partners and expansion of fee-based services, such as surveys for municipalities.
Dorr said too many businesses would decide not to see the counselors because they thought they might not be “small” enough to work with a small-business development center.
“The name creates perception and a lot of smaller businesses in our target audience would self-opt-out of seeing us,” Dorr said.
In fact, the CEV has always worked with the federal definition of a small business, which is a business with less than 500 employees.
“That’s about 99.9 percent of all businesses in Whatcom County,” Dorr said.
The road to economic vitality
Dorr said as he worked with businesses, he began to realize that the road to economic vitality was to take a community-driven approach and support existing viable small businesses.
“What we found was that the demand for our services far exceeded the resources that were coming from the federal level to support the needs of the community,” Dorr said.
So Dorr enlightened local public officials about the need in the business community and the potential for economic development among existing businesses.
“I took that message of frustration to our local funding partners and I told them the No. 1 impediment to economic development is that we are not adequately supporting our existing businesses here with technical assistance,” Dorr said.
Soon Bellingham, Sumas, Ferndale, Lynden and Blaine all stepped up as funding partners.
“All of them said economic development is really important to this region and the more we can create or save jobs here, the better,” Dorr said.
Another partner that stepped up was the Port of Bellingham, which is a taxing authority with countywide economic development responsibilities.
Dorr said, at that time, the port didn’t have a rural economic development strategy that reached all communities in the county.
“With the port’s support, and subsequently, the small cities’ support, we were able to fund eight satellite offices in Whatcom County,” Dorr said. “We would circuit ride through those eight offices taking our counseling efforts to our community instead of having them come here.”
Starting out, the Western SBDC was already different from others because of its research component that provided business owners with competitive intelligence to grow their business, also known as economic gardening.
This difference along with it’s expanding funding and services brought Dorr to the conclusion that it was the right time to break away from the SBDC network and become a local, community-oriented force helping local businesses to survive and thrive.
photo by Vincent Aiosa
Sitting down with a counselor
Eric Grimstead, a CEV business adviser for the past year, said the No. 1 goal of their business counseling efforts is to sustain viable, local businesses.
“Our goal is to help them through the process and the challenges they are facing, so the people they are employing can keep their jobs,” Grimstead said.
He said in a business’s first visit, a counselor is mostly trying to understand where the business stands.
“Hopefully in that meeting, we identify the most pressing challenges that they are currently facing because usually that is the thing that precipitates a call or visit,” Grimstead said. “The client has some kind of issue they are facing and they just need some help navigating the waters and figuring out what to do.”
Dorr said once the problems are identified, the business owner is placed with the counselor with the most expertise in that area.
“We take a team approach,” Dorr said. “We all have areas of specialties that we are stronger at than others. We tap into that support network back and forth.”
Grimstead said the CEV office is primarily focused on helping the client come to a decision themselves.
“It is more counseling than consulting,” Grimstead said. “So there is more of a focus on helping the client come to their own conclusions. However, people will ask for advice and sometimes we have to give what we feel is our best guess or advice on the subject.”
Grimstead said he gets a sense of personal satisfaction in seeing entrepreneurs succeed.
“I have a lifelong passion for entrepreneurial, spirit-driven people,” he said. “I love seeing people come up with a business idea and deploy it in the market place.”
Working with Cloud Mountain
When Cheryl and Tom Thornton first worked with Dorr, they had been in business for nearly 20 years, but wanted help creating a roadmap for expansion.
“We grow unconventional crops, so there wasn’t necessarily a formula for how we should operate,” Tom said.
Cheryl said she thinks most businesses get into something they have a passion for, but don’t usually have the business training necessary to know where the business is and where it is going.
“You start out by doing what you love to do and then suddenly the business part kicks in with records and analysis and spreadsheets and all those things, and you don’t necessarily have that training,” Cheryl said. “So you learn by the seat of your pants half the time.”
Cheryl said they knew the business was growing, but they were having trouble analyzing and interpreting the data.
“We didn’t know how to put the numbers together to know what we were even looking at,” Cheryl said. “That’s where [Dorr] came in and really asked the right questions.”
Dorr said what he liked about working with the Thorntons was that they were not afraid to embrace new ideas and were open to suggestions.
“I can’t help anyone that does not want to be helped,” he said.
As Cloud Mountain Farm has grown, the Thorntons have worked with Dorr to make sure all of its elements were cohesive under one business umbrella.
“There are so many components of what we do that [Dorr] was able to help us figure out all the different pockets and then how they all fit together,” Cheryl said.
The Thorntons said they have worked with Dorr and the CEV on and off for a number of years and have found them to be very helpful.
“[Dorr] is not coming from a point that he knows everything,” Cheryl said. “It is a real give and take. I think he is gaining from us as well and I think he likes that part.”
Dorr admits that while he only expected the job to last two years, 13 years later he is still excited about his work.
“Part of my longevity in this job is I am honored to work with people who everyday are passionate about what they do,” Dorr said. “My objective is to help them actualize their personal dreams. That’s fun.”