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Roundtable discussion

Succeeding in tough economy requires focus on client, technology, business plan


The national economy still might be struggling, but for some small businesses in San Diego, things are looking up.

And those shop owners, who participated in a recent Daily Transcript executive roundtable sponsored by California Bank & Trust, said their success is a good indicator that other companies are thriving as well.

Jeremy Durant said his company, BOP Design, is on pace to double its revenue from last year because more businesses are willing to spend money on marketing materials — an area that was the first to be cut from most budgets when the economy turned.

Confirm Biosciences, a biomedical company that administers drug tests, has seen the need for its services increase as companies have more new hires to screen, especially in the construction and staffing industries, according to company CEO Zeynep Ilgaz.

And Evanco Realty Advisors Inc., a property asset management firm that manages approximately 1 million square feet, has experienced a leveling out of delinquencies.

"Our business has really grown," added Elizabeth Harris, who runs her own bakery — Elizabethan Desserts — in Encinitas. "Since I started, bakeries have become so popular now. Now it's (on) TV, and it's the new rock star/supermodel.

"As many bakeries as there are, how do you stay competitive in that scene? It's because the cream always rises to the top. [It's] always going to come back to the things you do the best. Quality is of upmost importance to us."

Part of the success of the small business can be attributed to the rise of social media and the popularity of sites like Yelp, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

Even without big advertising budgets, small shops can reach a large audience rather quickly through skillful use of the Internet and an engaged consumer base.

“My business is built on word of mouth," Harris said. "Without social media, without a P.R. person, as a sole proprietor, it's all on me. It's overwhelming at times, but I get up and go to work and make it happen. You have to stay consistent. You can still be innovative and create new things."

Durant agreed that today's technology-based economy has changed the game for businesses.

“Consumers have way more power now than they ever did," said Durant, who is principal of BOP Design. "It used to be, 'Hey as long as I advertise enough and imprint some idea in a consumer's mind of what my business is, that'll be enough.' Now you can spend all this money on paid advertising, saying something about your business, but that can be undercut immediately by one Yelp review."

Keeping those customers — the company's clients — happy is important if a small business is to survive, according to Craig Evanco, president & CEO of Evanco Realty Advisors.

"We need to make sure we don't forget who our faithful clients are that helped make us what we are today," he said. "And the other [important] clients are the new clients. We'd be stagnant if we just stayed with existing clients.

"Our clients really make us what we are today, tomorrow and in the future."

The roundtable participants also agreed that a company needs to take care of its employees in order to enjoy success.

"If employees feel happy, feel nurtured; if they feel like they have balance in their life, then they'll increase your sales and do whatever it takes to make sure that the business gets bigger," Ilgaz said. "When we hire, it's a really long process for us. We want to make sure it's the right person, first of all, for our culture."

Developing a business plan, putting it in action and updating it on a regular basis also is helpful, said Joe Molina, consultant for the North San Diego Small Business Development Center.

Confirm Biosciences revisits its business plan on a weekly basis. Recently, the company decided not to develop a new product this year, focusing instead on its existing products to cut down on costs.

"A new product means all the expense, from marketing to sales to (research and development)," Ilgaz said, explaining that it's easier to focus on a current product, especially one that services a niche market.

More and more aspiring entrepreneurs are running their business out of their home, on a part-time basis, while outsourcing some of the more general tasks, like human resources and accounting.

According to Lisa Gordon-Hosch, the small-business ambassador for the city of San Diego, of the nearly 98,000 small businesses in the city (defined as 12 or fewer employees), a little more than 36,000 are home-based.

The food truck industry is one that is experiencing an increase in popularity as people don't want to invest in a full-scale restaurant.

Johnnie Padilla, who, with his father, runs a plumbing business, John Padilla Plumbing Inc., said it's also important not to expand too quickly.

"You have to have controlled growth," he said. "You have to be careful of its highs and lows."

It's difficult because some entrepreneurs are tempted to take advantage of the relatively low real estate prices by buying up larger properties now and hoping to grow into them later.

"From a lender's perspective, the business has changed," said Chico Perez, senior vice president and small-business sales manager for California Bank & Trust. "We've (taken) more of an advisory role because there's so many bargains out there that business people are sometimes attracted by [lenders] they've never heard of before."

Perez said he advises people to carefully plan out their future and how big they want to expand. He isn't the only one to notice this trend.

"We also see people taking advantage of low interest rates, the bottom of the real estate market, and sizing up their operations by buying larger facilities," said Mike Owen, chief operating officer of CDC Small Business Finance, a community-based lender.

"We see restructuring of the debts," he added. "People already own the building but want to extend the terms."

While most companies find it a challenge to add to their payrolls, Cindy Erie, president of E-World Recyclers, said today's environment is an opportunity to increase the labor force.

“If we have the product, if what we're lacking is people to do it, why aren't more people hiring?" she said. "Why aren't we looking at labor, which is the most inexpensive thing you can add as a line item?"

She said when companies hire workers, it not only creates an economic stimulus, but also helps boost a person's confidence and give them hope. It's a way of addressing "the human element" of the work force, Erie said.

Roundtable Participants

Jeremy Durant, Principal, BOP Design

Cindy Erie, President, E-World Recyclers

Craig Evanco,President & CEO, Evanco Realty Advisors, Inc.

Lisa Gordon-Hosch, Small-Business Ambassador, City of San Diego Office of Small Business

Elizabeth Harris, Owner, Elizabethan Desserts

Zeynep Ilgaz, CEO, Confirm Biosciences

Joe Molina, Consultant, North San Diego SBDC

Mike Owen, COO, CDC Small Business Finance

Johnnie Padilla, Principal and CFO, John Padilla Plumbing, Inc.

Chico Perez, Senior Vice President, Small-Business Sales Manager, California Bank & Trust (sponsor)

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