Use down time to upgrade your business

Jamie Herzlich

Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

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All indicators point to a slow but continuing economic recovery.

Whether you believe that or not, the better you prepare your business for growth opportunities, the more nimble you'll be when the economic tide actually shifts, experts say.

"Small businesses need to plan to be successful by design not by accident," says Mark LeBlanc, author of "Growing Your Business!" (Expert Publishing, Inc.; $10) and president of Small Business Success, a Minneapolis business development advisory firm. "Now is the time to be more creative and innovative than ever before."

Sure, the economy isn't what it used to be, but locally it's showing some signs of improvement. Long Island had 10,900 more private-sector jobs in October than in the same month in 2009, representing the seventh consecutive month of increases, says Gary Huth, the New York State Department of Labor's principal economist for Long Island.

Still, the road to recovery is long, cautions Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of "The Illusions of Entrepreneurship" (Yale University Press; $26). Firms should still be "cautious about hiring and investment," says Shane, anticipating the recovery to be "weak at best" for small businesses.

With that said, there are still some conservative measures you can take to help position your company more competitively in anticipation of better times ahead:

Make a plan: If you don't have a road map, you won't know where you're headed, says Richard Noonan, a business coach and AdviCoach independent franchisee in Oakdale. Create a business plan and do a current analysis of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, he suggests.

Get your credit in order: You want to be ready to take advantage of new opportunities, so try cleaning up your credit as best as possible, advises Noonan. Try staying on good terms with your vendors and locate alternative vendors so you're able to respond to market needs.

Keep abreast of technology: Find out if there are technological efficiencies in your industry that could help you increase throughput or do your job better, says Noonan. Jeff Tempone of East Coast Refrigeration in Bohemia said this year the company invested $30,000 in upgrading technology and systems to automate many functions, including customer order management, vendor tracking and scheduling of technicians. This has resulted in increased revenues because the firm is now able to more accurately track time spent by technicians on a job and process orders more accurately. "We can respond to customer's needs more effectively," notes Tempone.

Execute new contact strategies:Look for ways to reach new customers through networking, telemarketing, direct mail, etc., says LeBlanc. Commit to a plan (i.e., send 1,000 pieces of direct mail every 30 days, attend two networking meetings monthly, etc.), he notes.

Leverage existing customers or contacts:Don't fall off the radar, says LeBlanc. Stay in front of your customers or contacts - say, via a newsletter or seminar - or someone else will.

Focus on your people:You may not be hiring presently, but you can have a pipeline of good applicants ready if and when you need to fill positions, says Noonan. Make sure current employees are equipped with the training they need to perform effectively, Huth adds. "You need to upgrade the skill level of your workers," he notes. East Coast Refrigeration understands this and this year instituted a formal training program across all departments, says Tempone, noting it "puts the employees in a better position to succeed and grow within the organization."


Outlook improving

The latest Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index survey shows increased optimism among business owners, with the Index score coming in at -4 for November, a 24-point improvement over the previous quarter (July 2010) when the Index hit its lowest score in the survey's seven-plus year history at -28.