Posted by CDA Press: Wednesday, February 13, 2013

By Tom Hasslinger

To say adversity makes a person stronger is a cop out.  Adversity, trial, only exposes a person. It’s what one does after encountering it that defines him or her. It can strengthen, or it can obliterate.

The same holds true in the world of business, Bill Jhung, director of the Idaho Small Business Development Center, told a room full of North Idaho business professionals Tuesday.  For business, he said, adversity would be the economic recession of 2008. So to say the recession caused a business to go under is the same sort of cop out.  It didn’t.

It only exposed the business’s weakness. It showed that the business was average – or worse – since its beginning.  “Let’s acknowledge most businesses are average,” Jhung told the crowd of local professionals during the Coeur d’Alene Chamber’s Upbeat Breakfast. “Let’s help that business become extraordinary.”  The reason most businesses are average, is because most leaders are average. That’s to say, despite their titles, there are more manager types than true leaders who influence others toward positive change. In fact, probably 99.99 percent of people spend their lives living in a space Jhung calls the “Activity Level” – focusing on the daily grind of routine without taking steps for years down the line.  But more on that later.

The SBDC is a university-based organization offering no-cost consulting and low-cost training to help small businesses and entrepreneurs start and grow.  While the monthly upbeat gathering for local professionals is usually upbeat – as the name suggests – Jhung’s lecture at The Coeur d’Alene Resort packed a serious punch.  Yet some businesses are thriving here locally, even during the recession. And the region, like the rest of the nation, is crawling out of the economic basement slowly but surely, he said.  But the hard lesson the recession taught us is that North Idaho has a weak economic structure.  “We have too many local businesses,” he said. “And we have too few regional, national and global businesses.”

It’s not to say small, local businesses are bad, but that they need to grow.  A businesses that grows to a regional or national hub would bring capital into the region from outside the area, which is economic growth. Like tourism, it brings in outside dollars and also establishes professional jobs locally.  To get there, three things need to happen: Businesses need to identify “gems,” a product that’s marketable farther away than just North Idaho; the community must pool resources to accelerate growth; and leaders, true leaders, need to lead their businesses into tomorrow.

Gems, meanwhile, don’t have to be “high-tech” or “sexy,” like inventing Facebook. It can be something as seemingly simple as a painting business. Take Brian Taylor Enterprises, Inc. The local commercial painting operation grew 130 percent in profit margins in 2012 after reaching out to SBDC. Taylor has now worked up and down the West Coast.  But to get there, Jhung said, business owners must ask themselves if they’re taking their businesses and employees to a “better future.”

“Where are you taking them?” he asked the crowd.

Few people live in the other two stages Jhung classifies as “Strategic” and “Tactical” levels. At those levels people plan and take steps toward long-range visions. Then Jhung added a tough-to-hear “reality check.”

“Let’s acknowledge maybe our leadership isn’t as good as it could be,” he said.

A challenge, Chamber CEO Steve Wilson said after the half-hour presentation, that wasn’t lost on the group of businesses.

“As a leader, you challenged me this morning,” agreed Tom Johnson, Spokane Teachers Credit Union CEO.