Episode 7 | Building Small Business Success

Jan. 4, 2018

Show Notes:

In this episode of Catch Up With Chuck, Chuck is joined by the State Director of the Nebraska Business Development Center, Catherine Lang, who serves as a RFI Community Innovation Fellow.

Catherine Lang leads the statewide outreach for the Nebraska Business Development Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and works to build new collaborative efforts across the University of Nebraska system to support the Center’s mission.

They will discuss crossing institutional lines to create entrepreneurship and economic development opportunities across Nebraska. Join them as they talk business start ups, business transitions and broadband in rural communities.

Quick Links:

Full Transcript:

[0:05] Welcome to Catch Up with Chuck. [0:07] I’m Chuck Schroeder, Executive Director [0:09] of the Rural Futures Institute [0:11] at the University of Nebraska. [0:13] We do these periodic broadcasts from the institute [0:16] to look at issues that are critical [0:20] to those folks in rural communities [0:21] in Nebraska and the Great Plains. [0:24] We’re trying to go from where they are [0:25] to where they’d like to be. [0:27] One thing that we know about a rural community [0:30] and its capacity to thrive is that [0:32] there has to be genuine economic activity. [0:35] No fairytales, Rumpelstiltskin does not work there. [0:39] We have to build economic opportunity [0:41] for the families and the folks [0:42] that are gonna live there, [0:44] survive and thrive over a long period of time. [0:48] Typically that stems from locally grown small businesses. [0:52] So today we’re gonna talk about [0:54] ways in which the University of Nebraska [0:56] and its partners can help encourage [0:59] that kind of economic activity. [1:01] We’re fortunate to have my good friend, Catherine Lang, [1:05] with us here today, who is the director [1:08] of the Nebraska Business Development Center, [1:11] which is based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. [1:14] So Cathy, welcome. [1:16] Thank you, Chuck. [1:18] When it comes to business and economic development [1:20] in Nebraska, this ain’t your first rodeo. [1:23] That’s correct. As we say. [1:25] You’ve been a varsity player in this realm. [1:27] You’ve been in a number of different roles [1:30] in the public sector, private sector, [1:32] crossed all those lines. [1:34] Talk just a little bit about the history [1:37] of Cathy Lang that brings you [1:38] this very important role for Nebraska.

[1:40] Well, thank you, Chuck. [1:41] And it’s great to be here and visit with you. [1:43] I’m glad to catch up with you today. [1:45] I have been, had the opportunity [1:49] to serve the state of Nebraska for over 33 years now. [1:53] I started out at the State of Nebraska [1:55] as a law clerk at the Department of Revenue. [1:58] And I had taken a few tax classes [2:01] early on in law school, fell in love with tax, [2:04] and the Department of Revenue [2:05] was looking for a law clerk, [2:06] and I was lucky enough to be brought on board. [2:09] And one of the areas of focus [2:11] for my early years at revenue [2:13] was property assessment and property taxation. [2:17] Huge issue, oh my gosh. Huge issue, yes. [2:20] And served the State Board of Equalization and Assessment, [2:24] back in the day when we had [2:25] the State Board of Equalization and Assessment. [2:28] And because of that focus, [2:31] in 1996 I had the opportunity [2:36] to then begin to serve as the property tax administrator [2:39] for the State of Nebraska. [2:41] And I did that for 10 years. [2:43] And after 10 years, I felt that leadership change [2:49] was vital for the continued success [2:52] of the work that had begun [2:54] between the Department of Property Assessment and Taxation [2:58] and the county assessors and county boards across the state. [3:01] And I went back to the Department of Revenue [3:05] as the deputy tax commissioner for two years, [3:07] which was great to be back at my home agency. [3:10] And one afternoon I got a phone call from Governor Heineman [3:12] and we had a conversation and he asked [3:15] if I would be his commissioner of labor. [3:18] And I never turn an opportunity down, [3:22] and I felt that if the governor believed [3:26] that I could be successful as his commissioner of labor, [3:29] I was willing to give a try. [3:31] So in 2008 I began to serve as the commissioner of labor. [3:37] And it was at a time when the state of Nebraska [3:39] was just going in to the economic recession. [3:44] And the department was experiencing [3:47] incredible work activity because of the increase [3:50] in unemployment and unemployment benefit processing.

[3:54] At the same time, we were faced [3:56] with a financial situation that had developed [3:59] over many years, where we were, [4:04] we had some issues with our federal funds [4:06] and we needed to work our way through those. [4:08] So it was a very exciting time to be there. [4:10] It is as great agency with incredibly dedicated people [4:14] who serve those, that at the time many people [4:17] were going through unemployment [4:19] for the first time in their career, [4:21] and so it was very, very stressful for them. [4:25] Then in 2011, the governor became interested [4:28] in the synergies that existed [4:30] from what he was hearing from the business community [4:33] and from what he was hearing from young people. [4:35] The business community was telling him [4:37] we’re struggling to find a quality workforce. [4:40] The young people were saying [4:42] we need to leave Nebraska to be successful. [4:45] So he looked at the two agencies, [4:47] Department of Economic Development [4:49] and Department of Labor, and wanted them to work together. [4:51] So I had the opportunity to serve [4:53] as the director of both. [4:54] And in that– [4:56] You were the first person to do that, [4:56] I assume, that I know of. [4:58] I am the first person to serve two agencies [5:00] at the same time, so that was pretty unique. [5:02] But we also then developed strong partnerships [5:05] with other agencies to create greater collaboration [5:08] among all of our services [5:09] to better serve the state of Nebraska. [5:12] In 2014 I worked for a not-for-profit [5:16] called Accelerate Nebraska. [5:18] It was a policy think tank looking at [5:21] the education spectrum to workforce [5:24] and I was honored to serve with Greg Adams there. [5:27] And then in 2016, I came to the University of Nebraska-Omaha [5:31] to serve as the state director [5:32] for the Nebraska Business Development Center. [5:35] Well, it was a treat for me [5:36] when I came on board with the Rural Futures Institute [5:39] to get to work with you and Greg [5:42] and the work you were doing with Accelerate Nebraska [5:44] ’cause the two of you, again, [5:46] this whole partnership and collaboration theme [5:48] is important in all that we do in today’s world. [5:52] And I saw you doing that, and Greg, anyway. [5:54] I thought that was an important development.

[5:57] Well listen, you know Nebraska? [5:59] Yes. [6:00] In your various roles, you’ve been [6:02] in communities across the state, large and small, [6:07] you’ve heard the demographers tell us [6:11] that if a community is of a certain size, [6:16] that is smaller than certain populations, [6:18] if they are X miles away from the interstate, [6:21] or X miles away from Lincoln and Omaha, they can’t make it, [6:26] which means small businesses can’t be successful there. [6:31] Tell me about your observations in that regard. [6:34] That is not true. [6:37] In my experience, both with the State of Nebraska, [6:40] Accelerate Nebraska, and now especially, [6:43] at the Nebraska Business Development Center, [6:47] we know that communities and businesses [6:51] can overcome what might seem to be an obstacle to them [6:56] and be able to be successful. [6:59] And what it takes is the passion [7:03] and vision and strategy of the folks [7:07] who live in those communities to help drive it forward. [7:10] That becomes the most important aspect [7:13] of the success of a community. [7:15] And the Nebraska Business Development Center [7:17] is across the state. [7:19] We have offices across Nebraska and we are there [7:23] to serve and meet the needs of each of those communities [7:27] through their businesses. [7:29] So I don’t think it’s a limitation. [7:31] I think it’s an opportunity.

[7:33] Well, I know your orientation toward people versus things, [7:38] so that’s why I wanted to ask you that question [7:40] because we see the same thing. [7:41] And I don’t care if it’s business, health care, or education [7:45] it always comes down to who’s there, not where are they. [7:50] And I appreciate the approach that you take there. [7:54] Well listen, small businesses come in [7:57] all kinds of shapes and sizes. [8:00] They face a broad array of challenges and opportunities. [8:06] You and your team at NBDC [8:09] have to make some judgments about, [8:12] okay, what are the critical issues? [8:13] Can you talk a little bit about [8:15] what you consider to be the fundamental issues [8:18] that will help a small business in a rural community [8:22] be successful and kinda how [8:24] you and your team address those things?

[8:26] So the unique aspect of NBDC [8:29] and the consultants who work there, [8:31] is the services that we provide are one-on-one, [8:35] confidential, at no cost to the people we serve, [8:40] the folks, the clients that we are serving. [8:42] And what we do is we help guide them through [8:46] their thought process on either [8:49] creating and starting a new business, [8:51] or growing an existing business. [8:55] And for us, it’s that human interaction [8:59] with our clients together, as we help them move through [9:03] and look at the challenges that they may face. [9:06] Challenges of market. [9:08] So we provide market research. [9:11] Challenges of lending and capital [9:16] to either open or expand an existing business. [9:19] So we work with lenders and other service providers [9:23] that provide capital to businesses, [9:26] to try and package it together [9:27] so that they can be successful. [9:30] We are also looking at workforce. [9:33] And while we don’t directly work in the workforce area, [9:38] our connection to our partners in the ecosystem [9:43] becomes really important because we’ll refer [9:45] our clients to other service providers [9:48] for other services that those businesses may need. [9:52] We are never doing this alone. [9:54] We are doing it with our partners in this ecosystem. [9:58] And so we view ourselves as one piece [10:01] of an entire spectrum of service [10:04] that is available for individuals [10:06] who are going to start or grow their businesses. [10:09] And it’s those clients, those individuals, [10:14] those citizens of Nebraska, [10:16] that are the most important in all of this. [10:19] They’re the driver. [10:20] They’re in the driver’s seat. [10:22] They’re getting up every morning to make payroll, [10:24] to look for customers, to market their goods. [10:26] And so it’s really important for us [10:28] to support them in what they need, [10:32] not what we think they need, what they need. [10:35] So listening to our clients [10:36] is the most important thing we do.

[10:38] Well, I know you’ve been doing a number of things [10:40] to try to reach out to new partners, [10:43] different partners than have perhaps been engaged [10:46] with NBDC over its time. [10:48] You’re only the second director [10:49] in the history of the agency, are you not? [10:51] That’s correct. [10:52] Am I correct about that? That is correct. [10:53] So anyway, driving change is not always easy, [10:57] but I know you really have spread the net [11:01] and made it clear to folks from Rural Futures Institute [11:04] and departments across the university, [11:07] to other non-profit organizations, [11:09] agencies of various kinds, as you put it, [11:11] lenders and others to let ’em know [11:13] that we’re all in this together. [11:16] And by the way, ought to look for opportunities [11:19] so as to have an impact. [11:20] So I think you’re doing some pretty cool things there.

[11:23] Cathy, in the weeks ahead, [11:24] we’re gonna be talking a lot about rural broadband. [11:28] Access to service, quality of service, [11:30] it’s become such a critical issue. [11:32] But I’d be interested in your perspective. [11:34] You’re out there all the time. [11:35] You know its impact on businesses and communities. [11:39] Talk a little bit about where you see us going [11:43] in terms of rural broadband. [11:44] Do you see communities that are finding their own solutions, [11:48] as we wait for this grand solution to come from on high?

[11:52] You know this stuff, so I want to hear from you. [11:56] The one thing that I think is so important [11:57] about that question is that it does relate [12:00] to the success of business. [12:02] Businesses cannot be successful if they are not selling [12:06] their goods and services to their market. [12:09] Without a sale, you don’t have a business. [12:11] And one of the things that we think is so important [12:14] for the businesses that we serve [12:16] and the businesses in all of our communities [12:18] is for them to have access, [12:20] as broadly as possible, to their market. [12:24] And in today’s world, their market is the world. [12:28] And two of the programs that we provide [12:31] to our clients are market research. [12:35] What is the available market for your good or service [12:39] locally, regionally, or beyond? [12:43] And then we also provide export assistance. [12:46] So where could you eventually market [12:50] your good and services to the world? [12:53] And to have broadband is going to be vital [12:56] for the success of those market opportunities [12:59] because you’ve got to be able to get to the market. [13:02] And the market is now in that virtual space. [13:07] Yes, brick and mortar, but the virtual space [13:10] is a huge opportunity. [13:12] And so broadband becomes very, very important [13:14] to communities to be able to have that service [13:17] so that their businesses can access [13:20] the broader market for their goods and services. [13:23] Pretty hard to expect these young people [13:25] that are coming from the University of Nebraska [13:27] and other places with an interest in a rural community, [13:29] pretty hard to expect them to go build a business there [13:32] if they don’t have that broadband access. [13:34] Absolutely. [13:34] Yeah, I’m glad you’re worrying about it. [13:36] And we are.

[13:39] Last week we had Dr. Lindsay Hastings here, [13:42] who made the point that we are coming to a time [13:47] in Nebraska and America, rural America in particular, [13:52] where there’s gonna be this massive transfer of wealth, [13:55] what we’ve not talked about so much [13:58] is the transfer of business leadership [14:01] and business ownership that comes along with it. [14:04] Is that something that NBDC worries about [14:06] or helps to address as well?

[14:08] Oh, absolutely. [14:09] And working with our economic development partners, [14:12] whether that’s a development district as a region, [14:15] or individual communities or counties, [14:17] or our public power districts, [14:19] we are all looking at that issue [14:21] of what we think of as that business transition piece. [14:25] So the Nebraska Business Development Center [14:28] does have staff members who are credentialed [14:33] in business valuation, business transition, [14:37] and exit planning. [14:39] These are services where we do charge a nominal fee. [14:43] So we’re very careful about the services [14:44] that we provide at no cost [14:46] and the services that we do provide at a charge. [14:48] This is an area where we do provide services at a charge. [14:52] But what’s so important about it is that, [14:55] first of all, if you’ve owned a business for 30 years [14:59] and you are thinking about the opportunity to transition, [15:02] you’re going to be very, very quiet [15:04] about it to begin with. [15:05] You’re not gonna share that news with a lot of people. [15:08] And what we see as important steps [15:12] is what is the value of your business? [15:15] What is the realistic value of your business? [15:18] Could you potentially think about transitioning [15:21] your business to employees? [15:23] And some of the work we’ve done with business transition [15:26] has been to an employee ownership of the business, [15:29] to continue its continuity in the community. [15:32] If you’re going to sell it, [15:35] how can we without violating confidentiality with you, [15:40] help to find a potential person to come on board? [15:44] One of the things many of us [15:46] in the economic development community [15:47] are thinking about right now is [15:49] is there a way to create a matchmaking opportunity? [15:53] We know that we have young people [15:55] who are interested in opening their own businesses. [15:57] You see them every day We do. [15:59] Here at the university coming through with your programs [16:02] or with the programs, such as the Engler program, [16:05] and if we could find a way, [16:10] and we’re thinking about this, we’re not there yet, [16:12] but we’re thinking about this, [16:13] if we could find a way to create that connection, [16:16] wouldn’t be that wonderful? Sure. [16:17] The business wouldn’t close. [16:19] The building wouldn’t be vacant. [16:21] And it would still be a thriving [16:24] job-producing opportunity in our communities. [16:28] We think that’s an incredibly important opportunity for us. [16:32] Along with our partners, again, [16:34] we will never do this alone. [16:36] Sure, sure.

[16:37] Well, and we absolutely see that [16:38] as a great opportunity for Nebraska [16:42] and for our communities that have young people. [16:48] You know, we survey young people in our communities, [16:51] we’ve done this for some time, [16:53] and we know that in spite of the notion [16:57] that our kids in rural communities [16:59] just wanna get through high school [17:01] and then get out of town [17:02] on the best paved road as fast as they can, [17:05] we know that 56% of them are saying, [17:07] I would like to come back to my community, [17:09] start a business, raise my family here. [17:13] This is where I would like to live, [17:15] for some very, very legitimate reasons. [17:16] So I think creating that opportunity [17:20] for linkage to those businesses in transition [17:24] really could be a great step toward our future.

[17:27] And that’s why I’m so excited [17:28] to be part of the Rural Futures Fellows [17:32] and to be part of your organization together [17:35] because what you are doing is you’re actually helping [17:39] young people see a pathway back. [17:41] Here they are at the university. [17:43] They’re going through your student serviceship programs. [17:46] They’re going back to see the opportunities, [17:48] either in there or a similar community across Nebraska. [17:52] They’ve being connected [17:53] with business leaders in their community. [17:55] They’re seeing the potential for their future there, [17:58] and we’re there. [17:59] We’re there to then be a supportive service to them. [18:03] The more they know about us through you, the better we are. [18:06] And then you’re also bringing in the research [18:09] and the expertise, not only from Nebraska, [18:12] but the nation and around the world [18:14] about the opportunities for supporting [18:17] and continuing the growth of rural America.

[18:20] Well listen, it’s important for our audience to know [18:22] that Cathy is part of our inaugural class [18:25] of Rural Futures Institute Fellows. [18:28] Obviously, she does not come [18:30] strictly from the academic realm. [18:32] She comes from real world impacts. [18:36] Comes from this remarkably interesting background [18:39] that you shared earlier. [18:41] And Cathy is really an example [18:43] of the intellectual fire power [18:45] and the get it done capability [18:49] to have an impact on rural communities, [18:51] that we’re trying to bring together [18:53] in this universe of folks [18:54] who will help to achieve that thriving, [18:58] high touch, high tech future [19:00] for rural Nebraska and the Great Plains. [19:03]

So Cathy, we’re proud to be associated with you [19:05] and the leadership you’re bringing to NBDC. [19:08] Anything you’d like to add? [19:09] No, this has been great. [19:11] It’s been wonderful to catch up with you. [19:12] And I look forward to continuing to work with you [19:15] and everyone at Rural Futures [19:17] for the benefit of our great state. [19:19] Thank you. [19:20] Well listen, we’re gonna be back in the weeks to come, [19:23] talking with other people, looking at places, [19:26] innovators, thinkers, doers, [19:28] folks who are creating rural communities [19:31] that are a legitimate best choice for worthwhile living. [19:34] Thanks for being with us.


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