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updated: 3/25/2013 6:08 AM

Outside advisors talk numbers, business intelligence, listening

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An outsider's perspective doesn't always lead to one of those "Eureka!" moments, but observing what others observe in the small business community can be helpful.

That's why I asked three advisers who focus on small businesses to share what they see in today's small business sector -- and share suggestions they make. Each has solid experience and entrepreneurial skills; two are CPAs.

• Tony Battaglia deals with pain, most of which is balance sheet related. "That's the trigger," says Battaglia, a CFO adviser at Vernon Hills-based BIK & Co., a CPA and business consulting firm with additional offices in Palatine and Lake Zurich.

Business owners "have been focused on what was needed to get by," Battaglia explains. "But now they're wanting to clean up the balance sheet.

"There comes a point when the owner says, 'These numbers can't be right.' You can make decisions from your gut, but it's better to have some numbers."

It happens that those numbers may have gone beyond the ability of internal staff "hired to do 'accounting' when the business had $2 million in sales but struggling now that sales are $10 million," Battaglia says. In such situations, Battaglia's role as a temporary CFO typically incorporates training to bring staff up to date.

• Gary Teuber Sr. was one of those "bullheaded owners who knew everything." Now, as principal of Abacus Business Leaders LLC, a Deerfield consulting firm, his experience helps him connect with business owners.

Therefore, we probably should pay attention when Teuber says the biggest problem he sees "is margin. Sales maybe are all the way back to 2007 levels -- maybe -- but margins are tough."

Awareness that comes with database business intelligence -- good CRM management, for example -- can help. But, Teuber says, such a system likely should be individually developed. That's a realization that came when Teuber "couldn't buy a shrink-wrapped package to run my (printing and marketing) firm" and had to build his own database.

He also suggests a self-awareness review of your business' strengths and weaknesses, essentially a SWOT analysis, to assess company capabilities.

• Sometimes, John Lafferty says, business owners "need a listener. They want someone who will listen, and respond, when they talk things out. They need some direction."

Lafferty, founder of CFO-Pro, a Naperville business that provides on-demand CFO services to small businesses, provides both the ear and, more importantly, financial input.

Many business owners, Lafferty says, are "looking for money to change the nature of their businesses. They have an idea, but they're not sure of what to do."

What to do often needs a business plan, especially if bankers are involved. Lafferty won't write the business plan, although he does provide an outline of factors to include, but "I'll build the financial projections" every good plan should have, he says.

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at 2013 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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