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VOL. 119 | NO. 145 | Monday, August 15, 2005

Small Business Initiatives Help Growing Work Force

By Andy Meek

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Small Businesses ...

Provide about 75 percent of net new jobs

Represent 99.7 percent of all employers

Employ 53 percent of the private work force

Provide 47 percent of all U.S. sales

Account for 38 percent of jobs in high-tech sectors

Across the county, the number of small business owners is climbing: According to a report issued this month by the Small Business Administration, small businesses provide jobs for more than half the private work force.

Increasing opportunities. Advocacy for small business owners also has received a boost. Last month, SBA administrator Hector Barreto applauded the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement by the U.S. House of Representatives.

"The high tariffs and onerous non-tariff barriers that have been stifling small business exports have been successfully eliminated, and greater opportunities for U.S. small businesses to export, grow and create jobs will now be realized all across our nation," he said.

A whirl of similar activity is taking place at the state and local levels. This month, Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski signed a law that gives small businesses in the state a say in the regulatory process. In July, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt signed a law that requires periodic review of existing state codes that affect small businesses to ensure they aren't burdensome.

Small Business Chamber. On the local front, the Small Business Chamber, which was launched last year to build partnerships among Memphis small businesses and offer a helping hand to business owners, is enjoying the success it has experienced in its initial year of operation. One thing the group is particularly proud of is how quickly its ranks have swelled - in its first year, more than 200 members have joined the chamber and benefited from its monthly events.

Continued growth is at the top of new chairman Austin Baker's list of priorities.

"My full intention is to double our membership by this time next year, so I want to see rapid growth," said Baker, 23, whose own company also has seen recent growth.

Early experience. Most board members of the chamber didn't realize Baker's age when they tapped him in June to be the group's new chairman. But it most likely wouldn't have mattered. Baker had already impressed them with his performance in helping market the group. And he has the experience: At age 19, he joined father Jim Baker, general partner and owner of Owen Brennan's restaurant, in starting EServ LLC, an employee benefits, communications and brokerage firm.

The 5-year-old venture now yields more than 75 percent closure rates and has developed a referral-based sales system. And Baker's experience in running the company helps him stay aware of the most pressing issues his chamber colleagues regularly face.

There are so many issues and projects competing for their attention, in fact, that another of Baker's aims is to shape the chamber into a hub of knowledge.

"Small business owners usually wear a dozen or more hats and are moving from one project to another," Baker said. "We provide an opportunity for a moment of pause to focus on their business in our seminars, an ideal place to network at our Chamber In Action events, and even a structured setting to help (each member) become a more effective networker in our speed networking sessions.

"We provide a hub, a place to learn, network and meet with fellow entrepreneurs so that they can aim for success."

Looking to grow. And now, the chamber is ramping up its marketing efforts and looking to expand beyond the Memphis area. The latter goal is one of the main responsibilities now for Robert Staub, past chairman of the chamber.

"My focus is on expansion, and part of my duties is looking into other markets - we're talking to folks in Jackson, Nashville and Little Rock," Staub said.

Down the road, Baker would like the group to expand even further. The group is working to perfect its organizational model so it can be duplicated across the country.

"We're a new and unique organization, and we're going to preserve the chamber's entrepreneurial spirit wherever we go," Baker said. "But right now, we're making sure we're going to deliver them a solid model before we expand. Two hundred members in less than a year is great, but we want to make sure we can hand them the book and say, 'This is how it's done.'

"One of the other goals we're working toward is just building an inclusive chamber of commerce. We've got people from all walks of life, and they all have one thing in common - that's that they're an entrepreneur and they all face the same challenges. So we're trying to create a hotbed of growth for small business, and we've got a very good group of people - you can really tell they're excited about what they're doing."

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