This is the text and photo appearing in the Fort Myers News-Press of October 20, 2009. Lorna Kibbey and Dan Regelski of the SBDC are interviewed in the story.


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Lutgert College of Business in the News


Good way to know the field is to join a networking group

Professionals reach out with meetings, Web site

BY LAURA RUANE
lruane@news-press.com


Jeffrey Schointuch, a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual Financial Network; Debbie Laites, of Coldwell Banker, and Trish Leonard, president and CEO of TLC Consulting, attend the Small Business Resource Network Thursday at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Estero. (Valerie Roche/news-press.com)


Seeking professional help can be daunting for small business owners who need it, but don't know where to turn or who to trust.

The Small Business Resource Network aims to fill that need, connecting its professionals to new clients - and also fostering business-to-business commerce among members.

"I've gotten a lot of referrals; most are business owners," said Barbara Melvin, vice president/small business banking, with Wachovia in Naples and a network member.

The network is an outgrowth of Small Business Development Centers in Florida, including the SBDC based at Florida Gulf Coast University. The regional network has about 30 members; statewide, about 300. The biggest regional network is based in Jacksonville, where the program originated, in 1991.

Members must apply, meet certain criteria, and work in one of six categories: Legal, insurance, banking/commercial lending, accounting, nonprofit/government agency or business consulting.

Being referred to a network member can provide "a good transition" for people who need resources beyond the SBDC's free counseling, said Warren Baucom. He's president of Southwest Florida's Small Business Resource Network and a staffer with Lee County Economic Development.

Bob Smoot, a Fort Myers-based business consultant and coach, said he's gotten work through the statewide network's Web site, sbrn.org. He's also used his membership in the local network to assist his clients.

"Before I send my best client to a CPA, I want to make sure that (accountant) knows what he or she is doing," Smoot said. He feels comfortable referring clients to network members, because he's gotten to know them through monthly "network after five" events, and knows they also had to qualify for membership.

Shelly Osterhout, president of Computer Specialists of America, wants to expand her service business, which currently is based at Fort Myers' Edison Mall. She's already planning a south Fort Myers location, but also wants to branch out to Bonita, Estero or Naples. She's a client of Smoot: He put her in touch with Melvin at Wachovia.

"I'm looking for a small business loan. Barbara's working with me now, to make that happen," Osterhout said. Osterhout was a guest at last week's network meeting, and is prospective member.

To join the network, professionals must have a minimum of three years' experience in their field and provide letters from three clients attesting to their competent service. A network steering committee votes on each application.

"We don't do (criminal or financial) background checks, but we check on licensure and certification to make sure it's valid," said Lorna Kibbey, regional network coordinator who also has a business in professional speaking, conference and seminar organizing.

Network membership costs $257 the first year, and $225 annually thereafter. Members pay $15 to attend each monthly meeting, which includes appetizers and a cash bar.

The yearly fee covers members' business listings in local and state directories online and in print, a 50 percent discount on all SBDC seminars; the opportunity to speak at or to sponsor a network meeting, and other perks.

Meetings typically alternate between pure networking with informal conversation cocktail party-style, and gatherings that feature an educational talk by a member-expert.

Guests are welcome; they pay $15 to attend a meeting, Kibbey said.

The regional network isn't counting referrals it has generated to date, but is working on a system Kibbey hopes to implement next year.

Business networks have become staples of local enterprise. They include chamber of commerce-based groups, Business Networking International, with about 20 chapters in Lee County alone, and The Bridge Networking Group. The latter has no annual membership fee. Instead, participants pay as they go to lunch or after-hours meetings, with admission running $15-$20.

Baucom believes the tie-in with the Small Business Development Center makes the 3-year-old network he heads distinctive, and an up-and-comer:
"People are waiting until they've got the cash flow to join," Baucom said. "We've got a good core group. As the economy turns around, we'll build on that."


Additional Facts

Name: Small Business Resource Network

What: Comprised of member-professionals providing services to small businesses.

Specialties: Legal, insurance, banking/commercial lending, accounting, nonprofit/government and business consulting.

Meetings: 5:30-7:30 p.m., the third Thursday of each month, at Embassy Suites, Estero.

RSVP: Go online to http://cli.fgcu.edu/sbdc/register or call 239-745-3700.

For a member referral: Go to sbrn.org

For membership application: Go to the above Web site or phone 239-745-3700.


Network shopping?
When checking out a networking group for possible membership:

  • Test the waters. Attend the first time as a guest. Groups with membership fees usually allow one or two try-out meetings.
  • Closely observe meeting participants. Ask yourself these questions: Are these the people to whom you want to sell your product or service? How do you feel about these people representing your product or service to others? Do these people present a professional image?
  • Consider whether you want to be in a group that includes rivals in your occupation or trade.
  • Donít swear off networking if your first experience isnít encouraging. Not all groups work for every business.
SOURCE: Dan Regelski, director, Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University


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