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updated: 12/10/2012 6:02 AM

Leader says SBDCs should be part of business owner's team

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Dave Gay hasn't started packing yet: He doesn't retire from his position as manager of the Illinois Small Business Development Center at College of DuPage until June 1.

Yet it's not too early to engage Gay in a conversation about suburban small business needs and resources. He has successfully run the COD SBDC for 21 years and, after he closes the door for the last time on his office in Lisle, fully expects to "advocate for small businesses within the economic development community."

Perhaps part of that advocacy should be within the small business community, on behalf of the SBDC network. Cook and the Illinois collar counties are home to 18 Small Business Development Centers, nearly half at local community colleges, but Gay frets that too few businesses are aware of the generally free resources available within the SBDC system.

"We need to get the message out that we are trained, experienced professionals who can help (small businesses) rectify problems before they get out of hand," he says.

When we talked, Gay was returning from a Springfield meeting where awareness of Illinois SBDC services was a main topic, so the issue was fresh. My experience is that the SBDCs I know are well managed, knowledgeable about small business and creative in problem solving. Services range from one-on-one consulting to business plans and financial analysis.

Gay is right, however, when he says more small businesses should take advantage of the SBDC resource. For example, many SBDCs include units that can help local businesses tap into the international markets, on either the import or export side; additional services help businesses find and target government buyers, from local park districts to the U.S. Department of Defense, who might purchase their products or services.

SBDCs, Gay says, "should be viewed as a key part of the business owner's team -- just like the banker, accountant and attorney. We're the one place where a business owner can get purely objective advice, because we have nothing to sell.

"We're not your typical government or academic program," Gay continues. "There is lots of breadth and depth" within the SBDC network.

"The challenge we face is that we're not viewed that way. We're not a government agency per se, and we're not just for startups," Gay says.

There are options. SCORE offers free consulting from its mostly retired business executives base, for example, and the Illinois SBDC at Waubonsee Community College in Aurora has helped create a fledgling entrepreneurial center that serves Fox Valley businesses.

Although Gay thinks today's small business environment is "more difficult" than when he arrived at COD, he is positive about the future. Small businesses "historically have been quite resilient. They have found ways to overcome hurdles, and they will continue to do so," Gay says.

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at 2012 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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