Omaha B2B Quarterly Magazine article

Volunteers Help Small Businesses S.C.O.R.E.

Shane Menshik has been a computer technology whiz since he was a teen-ager. But when he started his own computer maintenance company, he realized information technology expertise doesn’t translate into knowledge about running a business.

Rory Sherman, on the other hand, had years of success running his water treatment equipment, service and supplies business. But when Sherman’s company reached a plateau it couldn’t surpass, he realized help was needed to revitalize his company’s business strategies.

Like many others in the Omaha-area business community, Menshik and Sherman found the entrepreneurial advice they needed from the Omaha chapter of SCORE, an organization comprised of current and retired business executives who volunteer to help small businesses succeed.

SCORE, an acronym for the Service Corps of Retired Executives, is well known to many business entrepreneurs, big and small, through its 389 chapters nationwide. SCORE is a U.S. Small Business Administration nonprofit association created in 1964 with the goal of providing “entrepreneurial education and the formation, growth and success of small businesses nationwide.”

SCORE chapters help businesses by offering free one-on-one counseling by appointment, free use of its Business Information Center and low-cost workshops and seminars.

After a relationship is established with a client, SCORE assigns one of its members to serve as the client’s mentor. Seminars and workshops cover business operation topics such as creating business plans, securing financing, marketing, accounting and taxes.

The SCORE chapter in Omaha is among the most active nationwide, says Gene Knapp, the retired founder of Bellevue Data Communications Inc. who became the chapter’s chairman in September. Business people with all types of backgrounds can benefit from SCORE members’ advice, Knapp says.

“If you know 90 percent of what you need to run a business, that’s great,” he says. “If you know 10 percent of it, that’s great. We will just help you sort out your issues before you begin.”

Menshik worked with Knapp to establish his computer maintenance and repair business. He then turned to SCORE again in 2001 when he launched 2710 Studios, a Website and business software application development company based in Council Bluffs.

“Basically, I learned the basics of starting a business” says Menshik, who graduated with a management information systems degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2000. “We covered everything from incorporation to accounting to the legal documentation of contracts.”

Unlike Menshik, Sherman had a well-established company when he turned to the Omaha SCORE chapter for help. Sherman is the president of United Distributors Inc., which has operated from its offices in Millard since 1984.

Sherman was paired with Bob Balzerick, a retired General Motors executive, who taught Sherman business procedures and principles that apply to all businesses but can be customized to meet an entrepreneur’s specialized needs.

“It wasn’t like we didn’t know how to run a business,” Sherman says, “but we got complacent. We lost some of the enthusiasm. So, when someone like Bob comes in and is excited about your business … it kind of rekindles that enthusiasm and makes you think that maybe we do have a great opportunity here.”

Balzerick helped Sherman identify ways to take advantage of United Distributors’ existing markets without overextending into new ones, he says.

“The key is working smarter and harder so we can penetrate the market that’s right in front of us,” Sherman says. “It got us to really look at our goals, where we were at and where we wanted to go.”

The economic downturn of the past three years has not discouraged many Omaha-area entrepreneurs from starting businesses, Knapp says. In fact, he says, SCORE worked with about 3,000 clients in 2002.

Roughly 80 percent of clients are business startups, and 20 percent are established businesses looking for help, Knapp says.

“In a down economy, when large companies are laying off workers, you see a lot of activity,” Knapp says. “You get a lot of people who are in danger of losing their jobs, so they decide they want to get into a business they really love.”

Entrepreneurs come to SCORE with questions ranging from very simple to complex. Some people have a great business idea, but don’t know how to put together a business plan. Others can put together a solid business plan, but lack knowledge on a certain topic that holds them back, Knapp says.

SCORE also is an important resource because when a business fails, the impact extends far beyond the business owner, Knapp says. He cites the example of an Omaha company that was “wildly successful” in providing services to elderly people, but whose problems with incorporation issues, insurance and recordkeeping threatened to sink the company. SCORE volunteers helped the business solve its problems and continue to thrive.

“It’s a situation where if they go under, 40 people lose their jobs plus there’s another 40 or more who never get hired,” Knapp says. “The economic benefit there is huge.”