Consulting coordinator helps local businesses flourish

By Mitch Blomert

Even in a recovering economy, small businesses in downtown Athens are managing to keep their heads above water, and Anne-Marie Johnson’s consultants may be part of the reason.

Johnson is the Program Coordinator of the Small Business Development Center in Athens, and is responsible for the arrangement of consulting among Athens’ locally-run businesses that dominate the downtown economy.

“We are about building stronger, more educated business owners,” Johnson said. “The more powerful they are, with knowing how to better their business policies and having the best business practices, then that trickles into the community.”

Under Johnson, the SBDC helps business owners by offering continuing education for first-time entrepreneurs—including classes on marketing and QuickBooks accounting software—as well as confidential consulting by experience business informants.

“All the consultants here have an MBA, and experience working different fields—sales, marketing, human resources, accounting, and things like that,” Johnson said.

Since its founding in 1977, the SBDC has grown exponentially, now operating 18 offices across Georgia.

The Athens’ location is especially important because it is the original branch of the organization, having been founded W.C. Flewellen, former dean of what is now the Terry College of Business.

Its proximity to the University of Georgia also makes it an often-used starting point for recent graduates and new business owners in general.

“If you go on our website you can see that we’re located at seven universities, or right on university campuses,” Johnson said. “So I think the dynamic culture that the University environment creates does lend itself to making SBDC vital.”

Because all of the SBDC’s clients remain confidential, Johnson cannot exactly describe the range of her clients’ backgrounds.

But Johnson says that the organization does consult recent graduates and even current University of Georgia students looking to establish their business.

“We don’t share who our clients are and talk about that,” Johnson said. “But we do have graduates. Several other UGA grads have come here while they’re in school, and even when they graduate.”

Johnson was once one of them, as a UGA graduate herself.

Prior to joining the SBDC, she and her husband operated their own local business for 10 years and received consulting from the organization.

When they opted to downsize their business, Johnson opted to stay within the SBDC’s program.

“There was an opening here, and the mission of the Small Business Development Center is something I feel strongly about,” Johnson said. “So I took an opportunity to work and we ended up selling our business, actually.”

Johnson is coordinating the SBDC during a time when downtown Athens and is seeing change from a small business standpoint.

Aside from the usual openings of new bars and leisure venues that dominate the downtown area and cater to the enormous University clientele, other entrepreneurs are shaping their businesses online and benefit greatly from consulting.

Brandon Boyer, a senior Management Information Systems Technology major in the Terry College of Business and a freelance graphic designer, has used consulting to kick-start two of his business ventures, both of them online.

Boyer founded BBThemeDesigns in February of 2009, where he designs custom-themed backgrounds and icons for the BlackBerry Storm smart phone users.

By managing his business through the help of consulting, he has made over $15,000 in profit from the company.

“It was my first business, so I talked to a lot of people before I made any major decisions with how I ran it,” Boyer said. “I think back and realize that it was really crucial that I did that. Now I’m fortunate to say that I’m confident in how I manage things.”

Boyer also connects with the downtown Athens economy as a founding designer of Fruug.com, which generates a list of daily drink specials among downtown bars.

The website was founded in January and is still in its early stages but is already profitable through on-site advertising—a result of strong consulting.

“When you’re dealing in relations with so many different clients, you have to know what direction you’re headed,” Boyer said. “It’s really big that we have insight from experts who can point out where we can improve.”

Based off his positive experiences with business consultants, Boyer plans to work as consultant himself with Ernst & Young in Atlanta when he graduates this summer.

The decision wouldn’t be a surprise to Johnson, who believes the SBDC’s close ties with the University has helped imaginative students and Athens citizens alike become successful with help from strong business consulting.

“Not only is it important just to the environment in general but it’s really important here, this being it’s the birthplace in it,” Johnson said.

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