Helping business thrive

Tom Kindred, regional director of the Florida SBDC, and consultants help a client at the EDI
Tom Kindred, regional director of the Florida SBDC, and consultants help a client at the EDI build a successful business. IRSC PHOTO

Indian River State College’s entrepreneur institute revs up economic engine

BY DONNA CRARY

Step into the Dan K. Richardson Entrepreneur Development Institute (EDI) at Indian River State College and you will discover a hotbed of economic activity on the Treasure Coast. It is a thriving center where job innovators can meet, explore and develop their ideas at any stage of business. The institute is a place where entrepreneurs and education come together in a college setting — empowering individuals to shape their futures, create vibrant businesses and grow the economy.

IRSC understands the power of entrepreneurship and the vital role it plays on the Treasure Coast. Back in 2000, the college was planning to help develop a more diverse economy for the area. Looking into the future, leaders at IRSC recognized that the college needed to train and prepare an educated workforce for the local business community.

Spearheaded by Dr. Ed Massey, president of IRSC, leading minds at the college and its foundation collaborated to address this need. They brainstormed, held workshops and developed their best ideas to lay the groundwork for an exciting multi-faceted program.

What they created was an innovative, one-stop shop for business resources, assistance and training that has impacted the area’s economy.

“What we’ve done is build a secure and supportive environment where entrepreneurs who have ideas can come into incubators,” says Massey. “They can come into this whole level of wraparound services, to assist them in bringing an idea to fruition, and hopefully to commercializing that idea. To create the new business, create the new jobs and actually strengthen our community every time that this happens.”

Indeed, the EDI has given a helping hand to area businesses. Over the last four years, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the EDI has provided 19,000 hours of consulting to more than 1,300 regional businesses and has assisted them in acquiring $23 million in additional capital. It has also helped clients secure $32 million in government contracts through its government procurement program. After Hurricane Irma impacted the region in 2017, the SBDC distributed $2.7 million in emergency bridge and citrus loans to area businesses to help them rebuild, reopen and re-employ Treasure Coast residents.

“I am very proud that we stepped in after the hurricane and provided funding through the feds and the state to get people back online,” Massey points out. “These are services that have really meant a lot to many people in our community. It creates businesses and it keeps them going.”

POWERFUL PROGRAM
The EDI consists of the Pioneer Business Incubation Program, the Small Business Development Center and the Corporate and Community Training Institute. All of these programs provide valuable services to entrepreneurs on the Treasure Coast.

“Our purpose is to engage at every stage of enterprise,” says Tom Kindred, the regional director of the Florida SBDC at the college. “No matter if you’re a person with a new product, business, or service idea, or whether you’re a business that’s been around for two generations or 50 years — we have resources to assist you in supporting your business.”

If you’re an entrepreneur who has a new idea or is planning to start a business, then the business incubator is a go-to destination for you. It is an effective resource that provides business assistance and training for startups to improve their chances for success. Services from certified business consultants are free to clients.

“It’s a gathering place for entrepreneurs, a place where they can meet, collaborate and share ideas,” explains Kindred. “It offers that first step-by-step process to help an individual understand, ‘How do I start a business? How do I launch a business?’ We take you through a six-week program to master your startup. We teach you how to structure the business and give you high-level training.”

Studies have shown that about 30 to 40 percent of businesses fail in the first two years. But 87 percent of those who complete an incubator program have survived the first five years.

Hector Ezzidio used the incubator program to help him refine his concept for Varsity Maps, a service for parents that analyzes data by screening social media and other sources. It looks for trends and possible warning signs to protect children, particularly at schools. Confirmed alerts are sent to parents through text messages and e-mails.

“As an entrepreneur, getting the right help is key,” he explains. “There is a lot of brain power, resources and networking that it provides. It works by having somebody who understands where you’re at in the business, as far as your growth and objectives.”

Going through the business incubator has been a boost for Ezzidio, and he credits the knowledgeable staff that assisted him.

“Everyone I associated with is a teacher in some capacity,” he says. “It was like having my own consultant.”

MAKING A PITCH
Once entrepreneurs have fine-tuned their startups at the incubator, they may participate in pitch panels, a shark tank approach of pitching their business to seasoned, successful experts. The panels provide real world, candid feedback to improve their business model with the hopes of attracting investors.

“We teach that pitch is an important element,” Kindred notes. “We not only screen our clients, we work with them. They will have practiced their pitch 50 times before they go before a panel.”

A business incubator client demonstrates his product
A business incubator client demonstrates his product to experts at a Pioneer Pitch event held at IRSC.

Pitch panels are held at all IRSC campuses, three to four times a year. The constructive criticism given by investors is helpful to budding entrepreneurs.

“It’s really valuable to get that kind of exposure,” says Ezzidio. “When you do the pitches, the investors ask questions that they care about. But I get to ask them questions, too. I always leave those experiences more excited and more knowledgeable about what my next step is going to be.”

The pitch panels have produced some successful products, including a set of segmented golf clubs that fits in a backpack, a collapsible boat ramp for handicapped boaters, an innovative vertical gardening system and a new design for hurricane shutters.

GROWING BUSINESSES
The SBDC is one of the prime features of the EDI that assists small- to medium-sized businesses so they can successfully grow. Businesses using that program are already operating, have employees and are generating revenues.

Here entrepreneurs can receive free, customized consulting from specialists who are experienced and have advanced business degrees. They can help businesses grow revenues, expand, prepare for financing, create strategic plans and build better teams.

Kindred, who previously owned and operated retail and restaurant businesses for 25 years, explains how the SBDC could have benefited an entrepreneur like himself.

“I was the kind of business-person guy where they could have really performed,” he reflects. “They would have said, ‘Tom, let’s build a five-year plan. Where do you want to be? Let’s review your balance sheet; let’s review your sales department; let’s review operations. How are the departments communicating with each other? What are you doing in government contracting? That’s an area where we can help you expand.’ This is where the SBDC shines.”

Scotty Wilson, a government procurement specialist for the SBDC, helps businesses secure government contracts.

“We help clients walk through the different levels of government agencies, whether it be the city, county, state, or federal,” he says. “Each one has a different mechanism for procuring goods or services that they need. So, we try to stay up to date on the different protocols and procedures, especially with the federal government. It’s always changing.”

Through the Small Business Administration, the federal government sets aside contracts that are awarded to small businesses. Some of these set-asides that the government supports include veteran-, minority- and women-owned businesses. Part of Wilson’s job is to assist clients in obtaining these particular contracts. He helps them by cutting through the red tape, getting them qualified and certified, so they can land those opportunities.

The SBDC also offers capital access assistance with locating, preparing and obtaining loans. The SBDC does not issue loans or grants itself. But it has certified banking consultants who can guide clients with putting together the right bank package.

Additionally, the SBDC provides other specialized services that include growth acceleration, international trade and aid with emergency preparedness and disaster recovery.

Clients of the SBDC can access many databases free of charge that usually would cost them a considerable fee. IBISWorld, ReferenceUSA, BidMatch, and BizMiner are some of the valuable resources that can aid businesses.

One of the keys to building job success is having a good business plan. The staff at the SBDC stresses the value of researching and writing a well-thought-out plan before launching a business.

Kindred explains that a thorough plan would take about 100 hours to complete and helps the entrepreneur avoid some problems that may come up down the road. It can be a useful guide throughout the lifetime of a business.

The staff does not write the business plan for the client but gives them the tools to create it.

BUILDING SUCCESS
Venergy Group, an SBDC client, is a general construction company that specializes in design, construction and renovation of health-care facilities, universities and various federal facilities throughout the world. Some of its projects include military bases, the Jupiter Lighthouse and a veteran’s hospital. Corey Clive, founder of the company, is a U.S. Navy and Coast Guard veteran who strives to employ and train military vets.

Clive approached the SBDC soon after he started his business in 2008 and said it helped him get on the right track.

“The SBDC gives you open, honest and constructive feedback,” he says. “They are listening and taking in what you provide. ‘Is there an opportunity for me to exist in this environment?’ That’s probably the most critical item that you can face as a business owner.”

Venergy Group continues to use the services from the SBDC. Consultants provide insight, tracking the company’s progress and helping them find growth opportunities.

“They’re not telling me that I don’t need them anymore,” he points out. “They’re coming to me and saying, ‘How can I help you? What are your weaknesses that we can focus on, so we can help you grow? What are your strengths that we can also add value to? Where do you get those kinds of services for free?’ It’s a huge win-win.”

Adams Ranch, a cattle business founded in 1937, encompasses 40,000 acres of Florida pasture and is the 12th ranked cow-calf ranch in the country. Headquartered in Fort Pierce, it is widely known for its superior genetically-controlled cattle that are heat-tolerant, disease-resistant and require no antibiotics or hormones.

Around 2015, the ranch began marketing its natural beef brand to Whole Foods grocery stores. It was so successful that the chain began distributing the beef to its other stores throughout Florida. About the same time, the ranch began looking to market its beef to restaurants and other select outlets. Operators met Spike Schultheis, a growth acceleration specialist at the SBDC, who developed a business strategy to implement their plans.

He helped the ranch trademark the names of the different brands of its beef through the U.S. Patent Trade Office. He also assisted them with putting together labels for the meat, as well as brochures describing the product to better inform consumers.

“We had not done this before — it was new to us,” says LeeAnn Simmons, corporate secretary of Adams Ranch. “That’s where the SBDC was a big help. They still are.”

Schultheis also brought the fourth-generation business up to speed by updating its website. This has helped their dealings with Whole Foods and with their annual cattle auctions. Now, the website has upgraded features for a live auction online, so purchasers who cannot attend in person can participate over the internet. It also educates consumers about the ranch, its history and the high-quality beef it produces.

The business plan that Schultheis helped Adams Ranch create opened new doors for the 81-year-old business to build on its success.

“Even being an old business like we are, it updated how we’re doing it,” says Simmons.

CORPORATE TRAINING
The Corporate & Community Training Institute (CCTI) provides corporate training on various topics for businesses of any size. It offers professional development training for employers seeking to improve job performance in their workplace. Some courses include customer service, effective business communication, team building, Excel, Word, diversity in the workplace and grant writing.

The CCTI also offers certification and business licensing training. Some courses include medical coding and medical billing certification, insurance, real estate, and advanced manufacturing certification.

Corporate training for businesses can be implemented in different ways. Clients who are interested in customized training can select the topic, location, date and time, and the CCTI brings the training to them.

Employers can also choose open enrollment training where the CCTI offers the topic, picks the location, date and time, and runs the program. The CCTI also provides online courses for clients who want convenience.

There is no cost to discuss training options and plans with the CCTI team. Training courses are given for a reasonable fee.

Maverick Boat Group is a recreational boat builder that sells high-quality fishing boats on the Treasure Coast. The company understands that good training enhances job performance. Beginning in 2014, Maverick’s employees received hazardous materials and forklift training from instructors through the CCTI.
The company contacted the institute again in 2015 to set up harassment training for their employees.

“We felt that it would be nice for our employees to hear a different voice and add more emphasis to what we’ve been telling them,” says Stephen Farinacci, vice-president of finance and human resources at Maverick. “Sometimes you hear the same voice over and over again, and it doesn’t necessarily register.”

The teaching sessions held at the boat business turned out to be a hit. The instructor worked out so well with their employees, says Farinacci, that the CCTI consultants custom-designed Management 101, a training course for their managers.

“As any business grows — and we’re growing — you want to develop your people,” he explains. “You want to look at what you have in-house, to promote from within. It’s one thing to be a worker. It’s another thing to be working side by side with these people to now supervising them. You don’t want to throw someone in the fire without giving them the tools necessary to be successful.”

Maverick continues to be engaged with the CCTI. Consultants recently created a special curriculum called the Maverick leadership academy for their employees. For the next year at the company’s site, instructors will teach on different topics, once a month, to improve managerial skills.

“Down the road, if we think something needs to be addressed, we can call them up and address it,” says Farinacci. “They’ve been very flexible and tailor it to what is important for our employees.”

For more information about the EDI, visit www.irscbiz.com

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