Back To School, With A Difference

A community college can be a small business' best friend

Dallas chemist Norman I. Bruckner certainly knew his business, having spent 30 years in product development at Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc. But when he set out to become a consultant last year after taking early retirement, he realized there was a lot he didn't know--how to write a business plan, for instance, orhow to patent the products he hoped to develop and market for clients. He sure didn't need to tack an MBA onto his PhD in biochemistry, though. What he needed was nuts-and-bolts information. So he turned to an institution long on practicality if short on snob appeal: his local community college.

At the Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development, part of the Dallas County Community College District, BrucknEr took five seminars over six months that ranged from basic business-plan writing to patent law--spending a grand total of about $100. But that's not all. At the college's North Texas Small Business Development Center, Bruckner learned that local patent attorneys had developed new software that could walk him through the patent application process. The lawyers charged Bruckner $280 for the software, then gave free follow-up counsel that helped him file his first patent application for a medical device. Next time, he will be able to go solo. His total outlay, including the $500 application fee: about $880--compared with the $7,000 he figures he would have spent on legal fees.

As Bruckner's experience shows, the help your business needs may be closer than you imagine--and found where you least expect it. Often overlooked and undervalued, community colleges can offer a treasure trove of free or low-cost resources. The reason? These colleges play key roles in many regional economic development efforts, and that public mission usually is supported with some combination of local, state, and federal funding.

Need help retraining employees or handling succession issues? Want to bone up on accounting or learn about import-export regulations? Depending on where you live, you're likely to find a range of services--classes and seminars, support groups, and professional counseling--tailored to local needs. For example, Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, Pa., set up a family business center to help the many family-owned companies in the region. Among its services are support groups for family business owners and classes on business valuation, conflict resolution, family dynamics, and succession planning. "Only 12% of [family] companies make it to the third generation because of succession issues," notes Ann D. Bieber, director of continuing education.

While community college programs vary from state to state, more than 90% of the nation's 1,123 community colleges have formed partnerships of some sort with industry or business groups, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And many, including Dallas Community College, serve as local offices of the federally funded Small Business Development Centers, created to foment entrepreneurship and reduce the rate of small-business failures. Last year, for example, the North Texas Small Business Development Center, of which the Dallas colleges are part, provided nearly 27,000 hours of free consulting to about 6,500 clients.

The consultants who work at community college programs are often part-timers or volunteers with small-business experience who can relate to your problems. What's the quality of their advice, teaching, and training? "Mostly, it's not rocket science that's involved," says David B. Thornburgh, who worked closely with community colleges while heading up the small-business development center at Wharton School of Business. "If you're Michael Dell at 19, maybe you're better off at Wharton. For 98% of small businesses, what the community colleges offer is efficient and practical."

LIFELINE. Some community college programs help you apply for state grants to build your business with the broader aim of boosting local employment. Kathy Bennett, vice-president of Bennett Packaging in Kansas City, Mo., a cardboard box manufacturer, initially contacted nearby Metropolitan Community Colleges' Business & Technology Center for help finding workers. The college did give her a list of names--and then directed her to one of its staff counselors, Eugene P. Fisher. He helped her win a $78,834 state grant from a fund specifically earmarked to bolster manufacturing businesses--and thereby increase job opportunities--in the state. Bennett matched that grant, which the college administered. In part, it paid for full-time consulting help to streamline production systems. The company just received its second, yearlong grant and is about to add another full-time counselor.

Bennett says that without Fisher's involvement, she never would have heard about the state grant program. Thanks to the streamlining efforts, she says, productivity has improved 20%, and unscheduled machine downtime has decreased 35% in the past year.

Community colleges can be a lifeline for small companies at various stages of their development. Susan M. Crinnian, a 46-year-old computer consultant in Phoenix, learned how to write a business plan at Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., before launching her company, CCI Networks, Inc., which helped clients set up internal E-mail systems.

After she moved her business from Tucson to Phoenix, she once again needed advice: Her clients had started switching to Internet-based E-mail. "Suddenly, my business plan didn't fit," says Crinnian. This time, she turned to Maricopa Community Colleges' Small Business Development Center in Phoenix for help refocusing her five-person company. At no charge, Crinnian met weekly for six months with her counselor, who helped her revamp her business plan and taught her how to bargain with distributors and software manufacturers. Now, Crinnian sells and installs intranet software for manufacturing and health-care companies and helps them set up E-mail security systems. Thanks to the free advice, she's bringing in about three new clients a month, up from just one a month, or less, two years ago. She predicts her revenues will rise from $1 million in 1997 to $1.5 million this year.

Community colleges also can help with retraining, a key concern in today's tight labor market. Programs often address specific local industry problems. Quinnebaug Community-Technical College in Danielson, Conn., for example, worked with local plastics manufacturers to create courses any single company would have found too expensive. In California, San Diego City College (a community college) retrains laid-off defense industry workers and helps companies convert their factories and technology to nondefense uses.

TEST DRIVE. Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, has teamed up with the University of Dayton to form the Advanced Integrated Manufacturing Center. There, employees and management of participating companies in the local tool-and-die industry have taken 12-week-long training courses tailored to each company's needs. "The thing I really liked was that they treated me like a customer," says David W. Dysinger, chairman and chief executive of Dysinger Inc., a 92-employee precision toolmaker in Dayton. The center also lets area businesses test-drive state-of-the-art manufacturing technology before making major investments.

Unfortunately, there's no central clearinghouse for colleges and programs that can help small business. You'll need to scout around a little to find what's most convenient and suitable. Chances are your local community college has a Web site. You can also check with one of the college trade associations (table), or call your local Chamber of Commerce. You won't find an Ivory Tower at your local community college, that's for sure. But you just might find the help you need.