Small Businesses Anticipate Strong Future in Columbus

If one thing was clear at yesterday’s Small Business Forum & Leader Awards, an annual gathering hosted by the Columbus Chamber, it’s that small businesses are a driving force in Central Ohio– and they’re planning to stick around.

In conjunction with yesterday’s event, more than 100 small businesses were surveyed on their perception of doing business in the region, their hiring and growth plans for the future, and the challenges they face as business owners in Central Ohio. The news was positive: more than half anticipate adding to their staffs in 2011 and nearly 70 percent plan to expand the products or services they currently provide in the next five years.

As a new entrepreneur who’s been involved in business and finance for more than two decades, the prediction of small business growth and expansion is music to my ears. These businesses, which employ thousands of skilled workers in Central Ohio, include everything from restaurants and financial institutions to specialty retailers and creative agencies. Like my own small business, these operations contribute not only to a stable and vibrant workforce, but they also provide valuable services to those in the community and beyond.

Many of the small businesses in the region, which are classified as employing 500 or fewer employees, have built long-term success in Central Ohio. More than 70 percent of the respondents have been in business for more than 10 years and 57 percent have annual gross revenues of more than $1 million. On average, they employ 44 full-time and five part-time associates.

Small business success in the Columbus region is no accident. Respondents to the survey identified three factors – stable economy, availability of qualified workers, and revitalization– as having a positive impact on their businesses. With 27 colleges and universities in the region boasting more than 120,000 students, there’s a pipeline of high-quality, educated employees right in our backyard. Additionally, the ongoing revitalization in the city’s downtown area has helped to attract current and potential workforce (and customers), creating a better climate for small businesses.

Another trait the Columbus region has going for it– impactful relationships. When asked to identify why they chose to set up shop in Columbus, more than half of the survey’s respondents cited pre-existing ties to the community. This could be family members in the region, a tie to one of the area’s educational institutions, or even a previous job at one of the thousands of companies located here. Respondents also pinpointed a strong economy, ideal location, community diversity, ample networking opportunities, and a reasonable cost of living as key strengths that make Central Ohio attractive to small businesses.

Although the outlook is good for the region’s small business, there’s always room for improvement. Survey respondents pointed to national and local economic factors as primary challenges impacting their businesses. Other top-of-mind issues were cost and availability of health insurance, availability of financing/capital, and state taxes. And although the region’s stable economy had a positive impact on small businesses, the recession, unemployment, slowed construction, and competition were all concerns for business owners.

So, what does all of this mean for Central Ohio’s economic development future? The anticipation of employment growth and business service expansion will benefit the entire region. More jobs and more businesses will attract additional customers and residents to the area, adding up to increased tax revenue and a higher quality of life for all of us.

To keep the momentum up, we must address some of the challenges these small businesses are facing and come up with effective solutions. Some of the resources already available through the Columbus Chamber include Contacts to Contracts, which helps to connect small businesses to bid opportunities with local corporations; Diversity Bridge, which provides a streamlined connection to targeted resources for minority and women-owned businesses; and internship guidance through informative workshops and access to the website.

Additionally, professional development is available on an ongoing basis via the Chamber’s special events and programs, like yesterday’s Small Business Forum & Leader Awards.

Thanks to all the small businesses that participated in, and partnered with, the Chamber to present the forum. And congratulations to our entire small business community, especially the 10 Small Business Leader Award finalists and recipients. We not only survived the storm of the Great Recession, but remain a significant and innovative sector that will continue to serve as the backbone of our local economy.