UC Merced small-business center pays off for county entrepreneurs

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comNovember 20, 2013 

— The area Small Business Development Center, a UC Merced-based program that provides consulting, training and other resources for current and prospective small-business owners, may not be on everyone’s radar, but it’s making an impact on Merced County and its neighbors.

“I lived in town for 20 years, and I didn’t know about it either,” said Ron Lawrence, an independent consultant who now works for the center. “It’s the best kept secret in town.”

Lawrence, who retired after 38 years with J.C. Penney, is one of the 26 consultants who works with people looking for help in opening or expanding a business in Merced, Mariposa, Stanislaus or Tuolumne counties.

Small Business Development Centers, or SBDCs, receive funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The UC Merced center leads a network of development sites that covers 15 counties in the state, with headquarters in Fresno.

The development center helped small businesses in the state bring in $56.4 million in loans and equity during the last fiscal year, according to the Small Business Administration.

Records show the center’s network provided consulting to 1,873 small businesses, and 3,539 entrepreneurs participated in training events throughout the year. The center helped 124 new businesses open, which created 528 jobs.

A small business is generally any firm with 500 or fewer employees and no more than $21.5 million in revenues, according to parameters set by the Small Business Administration. There are some other exceptions, depending on the type of business.

“We don’t turn away very many businesses because they’re too big,” said Kurtis Clark, director of the Alliance Small Business Development Center based in Modesto.

Sixty-three networks exist throughout the U.S. and its territories, according to administration’s website. California, because of its size and population, has six regional centers.

Clark oversees the region covering Mariposa, Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties.

Business management, marketing, operations, accounting and human resources advice are some of the services a prospective or current business owner might look for from an SBDC.

“We have four different QuickBooks consultants,” Clark said, referring to the accounting software. “That’s very, very popular.”

Also popular, he said, are clients looking for help in securing a loan, as well as in developing a business plan. Clark said there is about a 60-40 ratio of clients looking to expand their businesses to clients wanting to open new firms.

A large part of the $56.4 million in loans and equity brought in by small businesses in the state, Clark said, is reflective of growth in the areas of Fresno, Bakersfield and along the coast. The economy in these regions has improved but is sluggish by comparison, he said.

“We’re not quite seeing it yet, but I feel like it’s headed in the right direction,” Clark said, adding that small businesses in the area were struggling in 2009 and 2010. “Many of them now are looking for money to grow the business as opposed to money just to keep the business going.”

There’s a long list of firms in the area that have received assistance through the local program.

Uday Bali, owner of the Bali Learning Center, was working on his graduate studies at UC Merced when he was introduced to Merced’s development center.

“It was clearly instrumental in helping me start my business,” the 27-year-old said. “If not, I don’t think I would have started one.”

Bali said he took some entrepreneurial classes, which included lessons on accounting and other skills needed for running a business, through the development center. Center staff also helped him find his first location.

Bali’s business has grown to 22 employees in Merced. He opened a second location in Turlock, which employs 12 people. Bali called his interaction with the development center “invaluable.”

“I think it’s a must for a first-time entrepreneur,” he said. “At the least you have somebody to brainstorm with.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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