GREENCREST CEO and chief strategy officer Kelly Borth sat down with Don DePerro, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, for an episode of the Ignite Your Business™ Podcast to have a conversation about Columbus business, how it’s grown, and where it’s going.
Kelly Borth (KB): What do you think it is about Columbus that ignites business and entrepreneurial spirit?
Don DePerro (DP): There are really a number of things that have really propelled our economy over the years, and one of them is we certainly benefit by being the state capital. We have a lot of state jobs. Many or most of the departments of state government are based here and headquartered here, and that really helps the economy. Then on top of that, of course, we’ve got The Ohio State University, which is almost like a city unto itself — 50,000 students or more, 20,000 to 25,000 faculty and staff — it really also is a great contributor to the community. That’s a foundation, but what helps probably even more so is that we have a very conciliatory business climate here. The people work together. People are happy to help one another — even competitors.
KB: How many businesses call Columbus home?
DP: Great question. If you look at the reach, what’s considered now the Columbus region — which is 11 counties and is actually even slightly bigger than our metropolitan statistical area — we probably have in the neighborhood of, including DBAs and sole proprietors — roughly 45,000. That’s a pretty big geographic area.
KB: How has entrepreneurship in Columbus changed over the past few years?
DP: One of the reasons we’re such a great region for entrepreneurism is because we start our businesses. Businesses start here. There are a lot of entrepreneurs. A lot of people are willing to take the risks to go out on their own. You know, this was an agricultural region, and so a lot of our entrepreneurs were really born out of this region as a farming and agricultural region. They are accustomed to hard work, long hours working for themselves in central Ohio and all of that really blends nicely with the whole entrepreneurial culture here.
KB: Oftentimes, regardless of a business’s size, there are common issues that businesses face. What issues are keeping Columbus business owners up at night? What are you hearing?
DP: Small-business owners worry about whether their business manager has got a hand in the till. They’re worried about whether they’re going to make payroll that week. They’re worried about where their next sale is going to come from. They’re worried about whether their sales effort is robust enough. And more than anything else, they worry about whether they have the right people in place to do the job. And it’s making the hard decisions that oftentimes separates the successful entrepreneur from the unsuccessful entrepreneur. You know, there’s the old cliché about — and I’m full of them, Kelly — about if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s a challenge for small-business owners, especially when they’re not only the chief executive officer and the president, but they’re the chief operating officer, and the chief financial officer, and the V.P. of sales, and the human resources director. You know, they wear so many hats, and they have to work so hard. But you have to constantly assess your team, and then — if the tough decision has to be made — then it’s time to move on.
KB: So, the Chamber’s been a resource in the business community for many years. What programs have been designed during your two-year term at the helm to address the concerns of business owners?
DP: So, I’d like to go back a little bit because I do like something that was in place or was being worked in place before I arrived, which is really very much unlike how most chambers of commerce operate. Most chambers of commerce, and there are literally hundreds of them all over the country, have a membership dues system that’s built on the number of employees. And many chambers still do, but our Chamber moved to a multi-level Chamber of Commerce dues system based on the services we provide. So, it really is a value-based system, and I really like that. It ranges from about $775 up to $5,300, depending on what you want.
KB: Since arriving in Columbus in the mid-90s, you have been at the center of business in central Ohio — first as the publisher of Columbus Business First, and now as the president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. What advice do you have for listeners on how they can ignite their business?
DP: I don’t know if I’m even at the level where I can lend that advice. But I do like successful people, and the advice I would give would be to create an advisory board or a board of directors. Now, they don’t have to be a fiduciary board. By that I mean you as the owner don’t have to report to them — they can be a consulting and advisory board and serve in an advisory capacity. There are several things I would really encourage a business owner to do. Have outside help looking at your financials. Hire a good CPA. Hire an accountant. Find someone who really focuses on small businesses. There are dozens of them in our community. Have a good attorney. Have a good small-business attorney. I send every contract that crosses our desk of the chamber to our law firm. Sure, it costs several hundred dollars every time, but just that investment really can help you dramatically down the road. You know, a few hundred dollars today can save you tens of thousands of dollars tomorrow. Surround yourself with successful people. Success breeds success.