Big Impact on Small Businesses

December, 2009

SBI students learn while helping local businesses grow

by Jennifer Philion

From business student to business owner: Nick Catsam '03G at the Newport Golf Club in Newport, NH. Jon Gilbert Fox photo.

When Nick Catsam ’03G decided to work on a student consulting team for the Small Business Institute as part of his MBA studies at Plymouth State University, he had no idea the assignment would lead to his owning and running a golf course.

“I’d never even considered it,” says the longtime construction professional, who now also owns and operates the Newport Golf Club in Newport, NH.

Catsam was on a team of students who spent two semesters analyzing and producing a business report for the then-named John Cain Golf Club in 2001, suggesting ways the club could return to profitability. By the time the report was finished, however, the course’s owners had turned it over to the bank, and the property was put up for sale.

In 2002 in an entrepreneurship course, Professor of Business Duncan McDougall encouraged Catsam to write an acquisition plan for the golf course as an assignment, because of his familiarity with the property. “I had met with the realtor two or three times before and he said, ‘You have a good understanding of the business. Why don’t you buy it?’” Catsam recalls.

Thanks to his familiarity with the business through the SBI project, Catsam believed it could be a good investment. And since purchasing the course with his brother in 2003, he has found himself in the interesting position of being able to take his own advice on how to turn the club into a profitable venture.

“On the student team, it was easy for us to see the things that needed to be done,” Catsam says. “In real life, they’re not as easy to implement, but the ideas really have panned out.”

The SBI at Plymouth State University focuses on assisting small businesses across New Hampshire, providing teams of graduate students who work as consultants to help these businesses reach a higher level of operation. Over the past 36 years, the institute has worked with more than 350 businesses and organizations around the state.

A “small business” is generally defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as one with fewer than 100 employees. “This country is built on small businesses,” says Craig Zamzow, who has been the SBI director at PSU for 11 years. “Ninety-eight percent of people in the U.S. work at a small business.”

Many of the New Hampshire businesses that approach the SBI for assistance don’t even come close to the 100-employee mark. “Often the people who come to us have small start-up companies, [from] two to three employees up to 15 to 20,” Zamzow says. “The owners come to us when they’re feeling maxed out, and they need to find a way to delegate responsibilities and grow the business, rather than doing it all themselves.”

Working with a business faculty member, SBI teams visit their client companies, define the scope of their projects, execute the tasks they agree to complete for their clients, and prepare and present a professional-quality formal report. Team members are usually MBA students, though any PSU graduate student is welcome to take part in the program.

“Our students provide a third-party perspective, giving new ideas or coming up with new ways to manage operations,” Zamzow says. “The reports they deliver are professional and thorough, containing a current analysis of the business, a look at any opportunities that exist, and recommendations on how the owners can proceed.”

The SBI now assists two to four businesses each year, and the list of names the institute has worked with over several decades shows an incredible variety of companies and local organizations. Among the program’s former clients are Tilt’n Diner, Badger Balm, Littleton Opera House, Main Street Plymouth, and Schumacher Equipment. “You name it, we’ve done it,” Zamzow says.

Doug Schumacher was one of several small business owners who attended a round-table discussion with U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen at PSU last April. Shaheen, who is on the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, was interested in how the SBI helps foster economic growth in the region. Schumacher explained to Shaheen and a reporter from New England Cable News channel what a student team had done for his business.

“This is a tough economy right now, so I’d be happy with any growth,” he said. “They wrote a plan that showed me how to double my business in three to five years.”

Shaheen spoke about the value of the expertise PSU students bring to these partnerships. “One of the business owners said if he had to go out and hire consultants to do the work these students had done, it would have cost several hundred thousand dollars,” she said. “That speaks volumes for the help they provide to small businesses.”

Zamzow believes it’s important for PSU, as a public, regional university, to be involved in assisting small businesses in New Hamp-shire. “It’s an essential part of our mission,” he says. “If we didn’t do this kind of outreach, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our obligation to our communities. We get great feedback, and we know that what we’re doing makes a difference.”

The SBI also helps PSU fulfill its obligation to students by providing an intense, hands-on experience that demands professional-level work. “The project gave me the opportunity to see the golf business from the inside,” Catsam says. “Later, when we were considering buying the course, it gave us a good insight as to what we were in for.”

Other rewards for successful SBI teams have come in regional and national competitions, as PSU student projects have captured either first or second place in national SBI Case of the Year competitions for each of the past 11 years. In 2003, PSU won the Showcase Award, given to the university with the nation’s best SBI program.

“We have strong national recognition,” Zamzow says. “Other SBI schools know Plymouth State as a program to be reckoned with.”

Zamzow says it’s the quality of PSU’s MBA students that makes such success possible. “Our students are an average age of 37 or 38, and almost all are working professionals who bring a lot of knowledge with them. When you have the right combination of students, and a client who gives us a real opportunity to contribute to their business, you have a winning combination.”

The prizes are great, Zamzow says, but the program’s true focus is on preparing students to succeed with their own businesses, and giving a boost to area entrepreneurs that can use a hand. “Seven out of 10 small businesses will fail in the first five years without help,” he says. “With help, their odds improve to 50-50.”

Although he understood this as a student, Catsam can now speak as a business owner about the help an SBI student team provides. “Several of the things the SBI report suggested, we’ve tried,” he says, such as redirecting a river to protect the interior of the course, and finding alternate ways to generate revenue by creating a venue for weddings, reunions, and other events.

“Another thing the SBI team had looked at was pricing,” Catsam says. “This is an economically challenged community. When we bought the club, we lowered the price of membership to what the SBI project had recommended to the former board of directors, and there was an immediate response.”

“We’ve gotten good feedback,” he says. “People seem happy someone local bought the club.” Catsam is so local, in fact, that the back nine holes of the course were built on land that used to belong to his family. “I like to tell people I bought the farm back,” he jokes.

He spent the first few years after purchasing the club working there full time to implement many changes and make needed improvements. Now, he has gone back to construction work, just stopping by in the mornings and afternoons to make sure the club is running smoothly. “Once we got to the point where it could pretty well run itself, there wasn’t a need for me to be there all the time,” he says.

“We’re in a good place to stay afloat while the economy turns around. And in a few years, this should be a profitable business.”

More Help for Local Businesses

The Small Business Support Center at PSU also offers assistance to current and prospective small business owners. The center is a cooperative effort of the local community and is supported and funded by Plymouth State University.

The SBSC offers walk-in consulting and advising to help businesses develop and update business plans, identify and apply for sources of capital, create marketing strategies, and more. For information, visit the SBSC Web site.

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