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Centers a free, confidential resource for small business owners, prospective entrepreneurs
  • Updated

Southeastern Minnesota has a wealth of resources available for entrepreneurs looking for COVID-19 relief and those wanting to start their own business or expand an existing one.

Small Business Development Centers, which operate under the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, assist in all three of these areas. Even before new business owners have a storefront, counselors through an SBDC, which has {span}offices in both Faribault and Owatonna,{/span} can help them navigate new turf. These services are free, confidential and come with no obligation to open a business following appointments.

“What we do is provide confidential, no-cost, one-on-one consulting services to start up businesses and establish businesses,” said Mark Thein, director of the Southeast Minnesota regional SBDC office in Rochester. “And we focus on business plan development, financial analysis, loan packaging, marketing assistance, budgeting, and cyber security and data analytics in addition to other services.”

Faribault and Owatonna’s satellite SBDC programs have a team of professional consultants, along with those at the regional office. Small business entrepreneurs sign up for services and get matched with the proper consultants to help with their needs.

The Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce houses the Rice County SBDC office. Business owners can register from anywhere in the county, and oftentimes the counselors associated with SBDC find a convenient place to visit with clients, sometimes traveling to their location.

“We put in about 200 hours of business counseling every year through the SBDC,” said Nort Johnson Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, who oversees the Rice County SBDC. “We’re also always willing to lend our thoughts and expertise as chamber staffers as appropriate, and sometimes making that connection with a supplier or customer can make all the difference. It’s in our DNA to help business in any way.”

Helping find solutions

About a dozen counselors in Southeast Minnesota, including up to three in the Faribault office, make up the regional SBDC network.

Royal Ross, a counselor for the SBDC in Faribault, said he meets with clients anywhere from one to 100 times, and it doesn’t matter as long as they find it valuable. He estimates the average client meets with him 10 times.

“I always like to stress that our services are completely free to them, they’ll never have to pay for it,” Ross said. “And it’s completely confidential. I’m not going to share their plans with anyone else. It’s a really good program and I think it really does a lot to help businesses all across Minnesota.”

In Steele County, business entrepreneurs have an SBDC program to turn to for guidance at the Owatonna Area Business Development Center. There, Executive Director Bill Owens is the only consultant at the office, but if he isn’t an expert in a particular topic, he finds other consultants to assist the client.

The first time connecting with the SBDC, individuals identify their businesses’ most important needs at that time. They’re then connected to counselors who can help find solutions.

“Some of them just really need help with the bookkeeping and accounting side; that’s most common,” Johnson said. “Understanding how to do a marketable and competitive analysis for a business is also a common need.”

Said Owens: “A common question is, ‘How do I open an LLC?’ And the state of Minnesota actually makes it very easy to do, but first I want to determine if that’s what they really want.”

In talking to clients, Owens tries to ascertain if they’re running toward a dream or running away from working for someone else. The latter frame of mind often doesn’t serve as a strong driver as opposed to the former, he explained.

Sometimes the most important work through the SBDC is helping an individual decide against the plan they have in place, Johnson said.

“In the time I spent doing business counseling I found that as hard as that is, sending someone back to the drawing board and delaying them from opening up is the best thing that can happen,” he said. “They come back with a better plan, and they’re more suited for success.”

What determines the success of a new business depends on a few different factors. From Johnson’s perspective, it’s important to understand the meaning of cash flow and to have a business model that provides the right amount of money for the business every month. That means taking every cost and fee into consideration. For restaurants and other food industries, knowing and understanding the different permits, regulations and licensing is another key point Johnson mentioned.

“I think that one key component is good record keeping,” Owens said. “It sounds boring, but you want to do projections and you need to have a starting point, otherwise you’re just guessing.”

Business owners also need to understand the costs associated with occupying a space, hiring staff at an hourly rate, and doing payroll correctly. These are all needs the SBDC can help entrepreneurs meet, Johnson said.

“The most successful entrepreneurs I see find they can make money doing something they love, whether that’s the art business, making food or sometimes they just love helping people with financing and small business accounts,” Johnson said. “What seems like work to one person is perceived differently by others.”

A regional resource

Apart from Faribault and Owatonna offices, the Rochester office also serves satellite SBDC programs at the Development Center of Austin, Red Wing Ignite and Community Economic Development Associates (CEDA). Clients from Winona also utilize the Rochester office.

Mark Thein, director of the SBDC in Rochester, said SBDC offices in Southeastern Minnesota as a whole connected with 523 individuals, business startups and existing companies in 2020. In the same year, regional SBDC offices helped small business owners raise over $17 million in capital funding and provided approximately 2,600 consulting hours to individual businesses.

These numbers aren’t the norm, Thein said, but the pandemic created an unusual situation for businesses.

“We helped almost twice as many business owners due to the pandemic,” Thein said. “We trained our consultants to work with small business owners and COVID-19 resources, and that was different. Then there was much more interaction between small business owners and the SBA (Small Business Administration) because that’s where a lot of the programs came from.”

Thein credits lenders first like the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) and Rochester Area Economic Development, Inc. (RAEDI) for helping businesses survive COVID-19, along with the satellite SBDC offices, which he called “our number one partners.”

“It was a team effort and still is — it’s not over,” Thein said. “It’s still very critical for small business owners if they need COVID-19 assistance to contact us. Small business owners should know about the Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, the Shuttered Venue Operation Grant program, and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund Program. Those are all SBA federally funded programs.”

After the pandemic passes, Owens is hopeful about the state of small businesses. His son pointed out the Renaissance in Europe wouldn’t have happened without the plague, so he expects a similar response after COVID-19: people bringing their dreams to fruition.

“We, meaning all of us consultants, are here to help, and the pandemic has put some people in difficult circumstances, and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help,” Owens said.

Center for Family Unity looking for permanent home

In its 36 years of operation, the Exchange Club Center for Family Unity has relocated a number of times.

Home base for the nonprofit that educates and supports families in five southern Minnesota counties — Steele, Rice, Waseca, Freeborn and Dodge — on the prevention of child abuse has included the basement of the current TPS Insurance building, the basement of Premier Bank, near Pizza Hut on Bridge Street, and its current location on Austin Road in Owatonna.

Tired of constantly uprooting both the organization and the families it serves, the three local Exchange Clubs that support the center have kicked off their 2021 capital campaign with the theme “A Home of Our Own,” aiming to find a permanent location by the end of their current lease in February 2022. Karen Hale, board member for the center and member of the capital campaign committee, said purchasing a location of their own will provide stability in more ways than one.

“Of course it will help with financial stability,” Hale said. “But having been in this cycle where we’re having to move every couple of years, for our families that rely on the center that move is just like another uprooting for them.”

The fundraising goal for the organization – supported by the Moonlights Exchange Club, the Exchange Club of Owatonna, and the Exchange Club of Steele County – is $250,000. Hale said if the building they purchase is less than the funds raised, the remaining amount will be placed in a fund for future repairs and maintenance projects after all necessary furniture and technology is purchased and installed.

Hale said the need for both a building of their own and a larger space was amplified over the last year as a need for the services provided by the center increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Unfortunately when it comes to child abuse, people were stuck in the house together, so we saw a rise,” Hale said. “The center largely looks to get ahead of that and be a preventative tool, but in the absence of that we have to get involved in the back end.”

Some of the services provided by the center include parent mentoring, parent circles or groups, supervised visitations and safe exchange. A large building will help the center maintain the confidentiality of the families they serve, according to Hale.

While the initial goal was to be in a building of their own by summer, Hale said they know it is a more realistic goal to be able to move in before their current lease expires.

Hale said ideally the center would remain located in Owatonna because that’s where the bulk of the families served reside.

Faribault 'a good fit,' says incoming STEM school director
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Wendy Reinsch Fisher didn’t know if she would stay in Minnesota for the long term when COVID-19 hit.

She had been visiting her son, daughter and son-in-law in the Twin Cities and couldn’t return to China, where she had been working as a leadership program coordinator for an international Montessori school.

The opportunity to serve at Great River School came up, and while she felt fortunate to land that position, she knew the school was in a transition stage and wanted to find a job a bit further away from the Twin Cities. That happens to be in Faribault as Cannon River STEM School’s incoming executive director.

“For me personally, I like to find a place that I call home,” Reinsch Fisher said. “[Great River School] has given me all the kinds of tools and knowledge and training to do good work in Faribault … It just feels like a really good fit.”

Reinsch Fisher will officially step into her role as executive director July 1, but until then, she’s been visiting Cannon River STEM weekly to get to know staff and students. She will succeed Theresa Gunderson, who has served as interim executive director since November 2020.

Deni Buendorf, who serves on the Cannon River STEM School Board and served on the Executive Director Search Committee, said Reinsch Fisher’s 20 years of experience with charter schools and Montessori schools was impressive. She was part of the original team that opened the first charter school in the state of Maryland and served as head of schools for Mountaintop Montessori in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We all felt strongly she was the best choice and recommended her to the board for hiring, and they fortunately agreed; it was unanimous,” Buendorf said.

What drew Reinsch Fisher to Cannon River STEM was the school’s emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, which she considers important in the current world, and for focus on the whole child and experiential learning.

“I think what I love about it is the teachers I’ve been able to meet so far seem so passionate and dedicated to building on things that are going well and looking at things that need improvement,” she said. “It’s the opposite of a place where people are stuck in their ways. I want to go someplace where I can partner with the community and make a difference.”

Reinsch Fisher currently has a home in Minneapolis, but a family friend owns a vacant house in Faribault where Reinsch Fisher plans to stay as she becomes more familiar with the area.

“I really, really enjoy being part of the community which I serve,” Reinsch Fisher said. “My experience in Charlottesville was so wonderful in that way … You really need to be a part of the local community to get that full experience and be authentic about ambassadorship for the school.”

Reinsch Fisher noted a couple of topics she’d like to bring to the forefront under her leadership at Cannon River STEM. One is a focus on social-emotional learning for students and how mental health, well being and relationships impact the ability to learn and succeed.

Although she doesn’t know of a school, organization or business that has perfectly mastered the delivery of these lessons, she said, “It’s something that’s exciting to me. It’s something where the next generation can be better than we are.”

Social justice is the other piece Reinsch Fisher wants to add to the equation. To her, that means empowering students to feel a sense of purpose by inspiring a sense of optimism in the next generation and finding excitement and hopefulness in the midst of challenges.

Reinsch Fisher’s favorite part of the school experience is the students. If a teacher has a family emergency and can’t be at school, she jumps at the chance to step in and work directly with students. Walkabouts are part of her daily routine, visiting classrooms to read to students, mentor gardening projects or simply say hello.

Of teachers, she said, “Those are my people.” Having taught for a long time herself, she understands the challenges and empathizes with those experiencing new struggles.

“I hope to have a long and fruitful relationship [with Cannon River and Faribault],” Reinsch Fisher said. “I’m just really excited to start meeting people, and with more folks getting vaccines and the world opening up more, to instill a sense of community in person. That’s important.”