It doesn’t take an MBA to know that big business is big business. The comings and goings of large corporations make headlines on a regular basis. Yet the scaffolding of the state and local economy relies on small businesses and their owners.
The Small Business Administration defines a small business as one with fewer than 500 employees, while the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce considers companies with 50 or less employees to be small businesses. As much as 80 percent of chamber membership includes businesses of 50 employees or less.
“Small businesses in the Midlands are the largest job generators collectively in the community,” says Ike McLeese, president and CEO of Chamber. “They tend to get overlooked quite often.”
Small businesses purchase locally, shop locally, pay personal property, business and sales tax, and donate to local churches and organizations, according to Frank Knapp, South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “Small businesses impact the economy of every town and every state,” he says. “If you spend a dollar in a locally-owned business, it will have three times the impact on the local economy than if you spent it at a national chain store.”
A 2011 Small Business Profile, published by the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, says South Carolina’s small businesses are key to the state’s well being. In that report, the number of small businesses in South Carolina numbered 363,918 in 2008 (last year of data included in report). More than 81,000 of those were employers, and they accounted for 49.4 percent of private sector jobs in the state.
According to the same report, women and minority business ownership has grown significantly in the last decade. Minority-owned businesses increased more than 55 percent in the five year period from 2002 to 2007.
Dr. Brian Hurley is a minority business owner. Three years ago, Brian opened Illumination MedSpa, a cosmetic medical practice specializing in laser treatments, body sculpting and injectables like Botox. From his first day of medical school Brian wanted to be his own boss. But the rise of the HMO and organized medicine in the 1980s made his dream seem impractical. He worked for nearly 20 years in hospital systems caring for patients, but never forgot his wish to open his own practice.
When Brian finally was able to open Illumination MedSpa, he continued to work another full-time job. He employed just one person full-time, shared space with a cosmetic dental office and was open only eight days per month.
Now, the practice is his full-time endeavor, with seven employees, leased space all its own and a growing client base. Brian says, “It took a leap of faith, but it was a great strategy to start out small and slowly grow.” Finding his way, paying the bills and controlling overhead has at times been scary, especially with the recession. Despite the economy, though, the demand for minimally- and non-invasive cosmetic procedures continues, he says. “For me the whole adventure has been a learning experience,” says Brian.
Brian isn’t the only businesses owner who has learned along the way. Kenneth Shuler’s career started 53 years ago and has had its ups and downs. The barber-turned-businessman has owned shops, cut hair, set trends and even failed a few times. Now, he not only runs Kenneth Shuler School of Cosmetology, but he also sets students on a path to run their own businesses and learn a skill that never goes out of vogue.
Kenneth Shuler (seated) has schools across the state with a student body of more than 800, including (l to r) Devonia Hazel, Ashlee Bannister and Stephanie Walz-Britt.
Kenneth opened his first Kenneth Shuler Schools of Cosmetology in 1981. Today, he runs seven campuses across the state, including two in Columbia, with a student body of more than 800. Kenneth says he measures his success in part by the success of his students. He doesn’t just want them to learn to do hair or nails. He wants to see them succeed as well, by getting jobs and opening their own businesses. “It bothers me when graduates aren’t in the business three or four years down the road,” he says.
So Kenneth and his staff focus on preparing students as professionals and encouraging them as business people. His schools offer business fundamental courses, career counseling and placement.
South Carolina is the fifth top paying state for hairstylists and cosmetologists, according to the U.S. Labor and Statistics Bureau. “We teach them how to do hair and how to build and run their own businesses,” he says.
Building a small businesses isn’t always easy. It’s one reason advice from many businesses owners includes thecaveat, “Do what you know.” Debbie McDaniel knew women’s retail. So nearly 20 years ago, she took an idea, a little bit of information and a big bunch of retail experience and turned it into a small business. Debbie used her FordTempo as collateral on a $2,500 loan. She leased a newly-vacant space on Saluda Avenue in Five Points and opened Revente, a women’s consignment shop.
The first year she was the sole employee. Debbie worked six days a week in the shop. On Sundays, when the store was closed, she did the paperwork.
Nearly 20 years ago, Debbie McDaniel (left)took an idea, a little bit of information and a big bunch of retail experience and turned it into Revente, a high-end women’s resale store. Sara Beth Masek (right) loves to shop the deals.
Today, Revente thrives as a high-end women’s resale store offering name brand and designer clothing and shoes at a fraction of the retail cost. Contrary to when she started, everyone talks consignment these days, Debbie says. Some see it as a smart way to shop and be eco-friendly, reusing instead of just consuming. “Some people wear their steals like a badge of honor.”
Four years ago, Debbie expanded her operation and opened Sid and Nancy, just a few doors down from Revente. Sid and Nancy carries resale and new items geared to the hip and edgy. In 2010, she opened Revente’s Last Call, where items that do not sell at Revente are donated and sold at bargain prices. The net profits go to The Women’s Shelter in Columbia.
These new stores mean new jobs, new taxes and new opportunities to shop local and keep money and resources in the community. Debbie has seen consignment grow from little-known to Oprah-endorsed. Competitors have come and gone, “But we’re still going strong,” she says.
Going strong isn’t always easy. The economy, market trends and more affect small businesses. Commonly quoted statistics include a failure rate of 50 percent within the first five years.
Still, in an article in The State newspaper in May, Connie Evans, president and CEO of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, indicated that businesses of five or less employees make up 87 percent of South Carolina companies. “More people became entrepreneurs last year than at any time in the past 15 years,” she said.
Jim Reynolds (right), pictured with employee Will Andrews, says his companies, Comfort Services and Total Comfort Solutions, have benefited from workforce development. Young people have discovered career opportunities and technical programs available to them through job shadowing, internships, co-op work opportunities and school speaker programs.
Running a small business takes constant innovation, says Jim Reynolds, CEO of Comfort Services, a residential heating and air conditioning business in Columbia that employs 25, and Total Comfort Solutions, a statewide commercial HVAC company that employs 80.
His companies, with the help of the Chamber of Commerce and the Midlands Education and Business Alliance, reached out to local high schools to help students develop an interest in the HVAC field. Through job shadowing, internships, co-op work opportunities and school speaker programs, Jim’s companies have benefited from workforce development and young people have discovered career opportunities and technical programs available to them.
The impact could be seen at Midlands Technical College, where enrollment in the HVAC program doubled in a four-year period according to “Focus on the Workforce – Growing a Workforce,” an article published in Manufacturing Engineering, the official publication of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
Jim also understands that businesses large and small need each other. The focus on business growth shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, he says. “Both are essential,” Jim says. “When they grow their businesses it allows us to grow ours.”
John Denise, president of Advanced Automation Consulting, believes an increasing emphasis on creating high tech jobs and the knowledge economy would benefit our area. His Columbia company and its 40-plus employees provide information technology consulting and staffing to organizations ranging from medium-sized businesses to state agencies.
John Denise (left), president of Advanced Automation Consulting, is pictured with Lonnie Emard of IT-ology, a business partner. John’s company and its employees provide information technology consulting and staffing to organizations ranging from medium-sized businesses to state agencies.
He says he has no problems with the state trying to land large corporations, but he thinks the impact of small businesses and knowledge-based jobs has been ignored. “Forty of our employees make as much as 200 typical manufacturing employees,” says John. “Our people have disposable income. They buy more products and services and pay more taxes. All those things flow through the system.”
John sees the conditions for tech sector start-ups to be as good as they’ve ever been in Columbia. Yet he thinks there are plenty of things that could be done to encourage small businesses. One change would be to give preference to local companies in the procurement process for state government projects. Keeping jobs local, rather than awarding bids to out-of-state or out-of-country companies, means state funds impact the local economy, he says. No matter the challenges faced by small businesses and their owners, John says they will find a way to get the job done.
The power of the small business is found in the collective contribution to our community and local economy — through job creation, revenue, taxes, innovation and collaboration and so much more. “These are the people that are heavily invested in improving their community,” says Frank Knapp.