SANFORD - When Cleo Blue started searching for a small business loan to refinance his commercial building, what he found was a whole lot of frustration.
With credit restrictions becoming tighter every day and documentation requirements going through the roof, the president of Blue Associates LLC was struggling to arrange the loan he needed to put his insurance company on a stronger financial footing.
That's when he turned to the Small Business Center at Central Carolina Community College, which quickly cut through the red tape and secured the kind of loan he wanted.
"I happened to be reading the Sunday paper and there was an article in there about the Small Business Center that listed the contact, so I cut the article out and put it aside," recalls Blue, who has spent more than a decade helping people throughout eastern and central North Carolina plan for retirement and secure their assets. "When I went to some banks and they weren't willing to help me refinance the building, I picked up the phone and called Terri Brown.
"She listened to my story and said, 'I think I can find someone to help.'
"And I was on my way."
Brown is coordinator for the Small Business Center in Lee County and works free of charge with more than 100 clients a year. Some of them are trying to flesh out a brand-new idea. Others are guiding long-established companies through the challenging twists and turns that all businesses face.
Many people are familiar with the center's long list of seminars on topics ranging from finance to marketing. Sessions on Quickbooks software and social media always seem to fill up, but some of the more-obscure offerings can be helpful, as well. Brown says the oddest thing she ever saw was the sale of an $80,000 business online as a result of a small business seminar titled, "The Basics of Selling on eBay."
But while seminars are what most casual observers see, it's a fraction of what the Small Business Center actually provides.
Behind the scenes, trained counselors are working with business owners to help their companies succeed and entrepreneurs are sifting through the center's resource library to gather ideas and expertise. Brown says networking through the center helps people build valuable business relationships and there are even specialized programs designed to help small businesses pursue lucrative contracts with the U.S. government and strengthen their own commitment to the environment.
Best of all, Brown is quick to point out: Everything is provided without charge.
For Blue, the goal was to secure that small business loan, something Brown says is a fairly common request. When financing like that is needed and conventional loans cannot be arranged through banks, the Small Business Center works confidentially with business owners to sort out their particular situation and find the best available option.
"Actually, a lot of companies need special help with financing and there can be a lot of reasons for that," Brown says. "It could be because of credit issues. Or maybe they don't know how to develop the kind of detailed business plan that banks require. Or sometimes the loans are actually too small for what banks like to finance.
"We don't do the financing here and we don't finance investment property, but we do have resource partners that can help in most situations. And we work through the same process with business owners on loans, whether they need $500 or several million dollars."
Blue says he's very happy with the loan he secured -- one with no balloon payment or variable interest rate -- and says the entire process went much smoother with the Small Business Center. "They're about helping a small business that is trying to grow and expand when the owners are actively working in the business," he said. "They helped me out and they are very good to work with."
No matter what small businesses need to succeed, Brown urges owners to see how the Small Business Center can assist. "We help companies who are already in business or people who are trying to start a business for about 10 employees or less, whether they need a finance plan or training on social media," she says. "We're a real one-stop shop."
For more information on the Central Carolina Community College Small Business Center, call 919-718-7544 in Lee County, 919-545-8013 in Chatham County, and 910-892-2884 in Harnett County.
Terri Brown is CCCC Small Business Center Coordinator in Lee County.