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Originally published: 2012-09-28 10:46:30
Last modified: 2012-09-28 10:46:30

Branch-ing into business

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)

Many people every day are struck with an idea; a concept for a business that could change their lives and their communities for the better. At the same time, established business owners struggle with the logistics of taxes, bookkeeping and personnel. Many of these people do not realize that there is a resource in Avery County specifically designed to answer their logistical questions, get them the resources they need and help turn their concepts into realities.

Robert Branch, dean of Mayland Community College’s Small Business Center, sat down with The Avery Journal-Times to talk business in Avery County.

Branch operates the MCC SBC, a little-known resource to support those with an entrepreneurial spirit in Avery County.

The SBC network is a statewide program administered through the state’s community colleges. Designed to meet the needs of small businesses, SBC is the more locally focused counterpart to the federal Small Business Development Centers, a federal program administered through state university systems.

As residents of one of the three counties Branch serves, Avery citizens have full access to the resources of the SBC Network, which allows Branch to provide guidance and support for small businesses. 

What’s more, Branch provides some of the most comprehensive and effective support in the state, according to the state board of community colleges, which designated the MCC SBC the 2012 Western Regional Small Business Center of Excellence, due in part to statistics showing Branch’s impact on the community, which included helping entrepreneurs to establish at least 13 new businesses and creating or saving 58 jobs in his three-county region, including assisting Burnsville’s NuWray Inn with the grant applications that eventually helped preserve the historic site. Contrary to the stigma of academia, Branch has extensive real-world experience in beginning new endeavors, having established seven different business and two nonprofit organizations during his career. His combination of resources, experience and education makes Branch an unparalleled resource for anyone looking to start or expand a business in Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties.

According to Branch, whether they have nothing but a concept or an established business looking to expand, entrepreneurs of any level are welcome to seek his guidance in technical or conceptual matters. 

“My job description is very simple. It is to help people start and grow small businesses within the Avery, Mitchell, Yancey service area,” Branch said, explaining the specific services he can offer. “We do this through three services. We primarily act as an information resource. We share this information through classes and seminars on topics of interest to our local business communities. We also provide consultation services. The other thing I can do is provide third-party consultants who can offer specialized assistance.”

Branch explained that each of those three services actually encompasses a broad range of opportunities for current or potential business owners to explore. One of the primary methods Branch employs to share information is a series of classes offered through the MCC campuses, offering dozens of classes on topics such as “How to Write a Business Plan,”Financing Your Business” and “Preparing and Filing Quarterly Income Taxes,” all of which are offered at no cost to participants. Information on many of these SBC classes is available in the News Notes section of this newspaper on a weekly basis.

The second service Branch noted, consultation services, can cover an incredibly broad range of subject. According to Branch, he routinely assists clients with fact checking, research and development, arranging business plans, preparing loan applications, vetting business proposals and numerous issues surrounding human resources or personnel. Finally, the third avenue open to businesses seeking help is through third-party consultations, in which Branch can provide contacts with attorneys or a CPA at no cost for a limited time.

“I do not write business plans for people,” Branch said, noting that, as a consultant, he can offer advice, information and guidance, but the plan itself must come from the mind of the entrepreneur who will eventually invest the time, money and energy into the project.

In addition to those services, the Mayland SBC maintains a collection within the college Learning Resource Center that includes an assortment of written and electronic resources available to patrons with a MCC library card, which anyone can acquire with a simple application. Resources at the LRC include QuickBooks and software that outlines the steps of writing a business plan.

As with the library, all of the SBC services are available at no cost to anyone within its service area: Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties.

Branch also commented on Avery County Board of Commissioners efforts in the realm of economic development and the role of local government. 

“Local government is in a hard place. Obviously, you don’t want to put roadblocks in the way. At the same time, however, you have to be very careful about what you choose to put your support behind,” said Branch, noting examples such as Sugar Top Condominium. “You can debate the economic pros and cons of Sugar Top, but the fact of the matter is that Avery County’s primary asset for economic development is outdoor recreation and its scenic ambiance. If you allow every available privately owned acre of land to be developed, you are going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Branch also noted that the drop in the second-home market in recent years might create a lull in which leaders could prevent further losses of the ambiance that makes the area a desirable location.

“It gives county government some breathing room to step back and take a minute to think ‘do we want wall-to-wall condominiums and houses on every hill we’ve got?’” said Branch. “Unfortunately, it does involve having to deal with that political four-letter word: zoning.”

Branch complimented Avery’s commissioners for their forward thinking in establishing the position of economic development director and hiring Bret Gardella. Branch also expressed his admiration for the leadership of County Manager Robert Wiseman.

“He knows what he is doing,” said Branch. “He has the best interest of everybody at heart with everything he does in his job. If Robert didn’t have the job, and I had anything to do with making the decision on who filled it, I would want somebody just exactly like him.”

Branch also offered a bit of economic development advice to Avery County’s leaders.

“There is one thing that I think Avery County does need to put more attention to in economic development. Personally I would love to see a nationally franchised hotel and conference center in Avery County,” said Branch. “There are enough things in Avery County and the surrounding area, with its scenic ambiance, that I think a facility would stand a really good chance of doing well ... We need to be able to pull people into the county and get them to stay.”