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Management NEWS

Business students lend expertise to local business owners

by Nancy P. Johnson

March 18, 2009


Scott Kelsey loves running his used-bike shop and wants to sell bicycles to the end of his days. In the meantime, it's great to have some help to boost the business side.
 
A team of students from a class at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business is doing just that for Kelsey. The Microventuring class is working with seven local small business owners to help them run their ventures more efficiently and profitably.
 
The class, now in its third year, is offered through the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. The class gives students a live consulting opportunity: They have to be professional, and learn about the business and its place within the community. The students also develop a relationship with the business owner, demonstrating a willingness to listen and learn, thereby providing more thoughtful, measured assistance, said Social/Microventuring Programs Manager Melissa Paulsen. There is also the service aspect: their classroom skills provide a benefit to someone who couldn’t necessarily afford them.

 

Last fall, Paulsen and adjunct professor Frank Belatti looked for participants by networking in the community and meeting with agencies such as Downtown South Bend.  Criteria for the participants include passion about the business and its success, operational experience with a desire to stabilize and grow, work experience but no business training at the university level, inability to afford market-rate consulting assistance, and location in an economically distressed neighborhood.

Students interviewed the entrepreneurs, and at the same time learned about concerns in the community. In the classroom, students learn the basics of running a small business. Then teams consisting of four students forge relationships with one of the entrepreneurs, identifying problem areas such as budgeting, inventory, marketing or accounting. Together, the students and the business owner create a plan that gets implemented during the spring semester.
 
Those strategies already are working for Kelsey and his wife, Hannah. They are owners of The Avenue Bicycle Station in South Bend, which they’ve run for about a year. Neither of them have any formal business training.
 
So far, the students have helped the Kelseys conduct their first-ever inventory of bicycles and parts, and created a system so that each product is numbered. By looking up that number in a spreadsheet – also created by the students – anyone working in the shop can see the correct sales price, as well as what new parts or labor went into the bike. The students also helped the Kelseys determine a way to price each product to ensure a profit.
 
"Now, anyone working in the shop can look it up and tell the customer we put on new tires and new grips. This helps us know the bottom line," Kelsey said.
 
The bike shop team will help create a monthly budget, a comprehensive business plan, and a long-range plan. They also want to increase sales:  Ideas include holding a grand opening in the spring to draw customers to the store, a basic Web presence and possibly an eBay store. "They have a lot of unique items, like an antique tandem bike, that they could advertise online. This would open a new stream of revenue to them," said Brian Eskew, a finance major. 
 
Another business owner is Heather Yarbrough, owner of the Chicory Café in South Bend. The New Orleans-themed coffee house is in its third year, but sales aren’t what she would like, and the economy isn’t helping. “Cash flow is very tight right now, so to have help from the students who are focusing on things like marketing and business is priceless,” she said. 
 
Yarbrough’s team studied her operation, compared it with her competitors, and wrote an assessment of her needs. They plan to increase sales with a strategy “to build her brand as a gourmet coffee café and to align the entire operation behind her brand image,” said Chris Terschluse, a business major.
 
“I think the students will be able to give an unbiased, fresh perspective and probably discover ways to improve the business that I may have been blind to, since I’m so close to it and possibly too focused on the day-to-day to look at the overall picture,” Yarbrough said. 
 
Other participating businesses include Commercial Cleaning Plus, KJ's Main Cafe, CircaArts, and Ehninger Florist, all in South Bend, and the Red Purl knitting shop in neighboring Niles, Mich.
 
“We have an expectation that students do something important and worthwhile for the business,” said Paulsen. “One of the goals is for the students to benefit the business owner in a specific, measurable way, like showing them how to implement and use accounting software or interpreting financial statements and determining the drivers of the business. They also might help the business owner with a major decision, like whether to maintain a storefront or continue in another service capacity only, such as a Web presence. “

The students are enthusiastic about applying what they learned in the classroom in a real-world situation. “It is us working directly with the entrepreneurs. We are really getting into the nitty-gritty of keeping a business running day to day,” said Eskew.

Kelsey is very pleased with the help in organization, especially the newly inventoried products. "We hope it will help us be successful selling bikes, to be a successful business. I don't plan to do anything else," he said.