Everyone can use a helping hand in gaining experience sometimes. In the olden days, an apprenticeship with a master professional fulfilled the function. The Manatee Chamber of Commerce Small Business Council fills the need with a business mentoring program that pairs experienced business volunteers with small business owners seeking guidance and a sounding board.

"We're looking at ways to fill a void in ongoing and meaningful mentoring," says Neil Spirtas, the chamber's vice president of public affairs. "Over the last three or four years, coaching has become more popular. Everybody is looking for a hero or a mentor."

The program, inspired by a similar one in Tampa, has been in place in Manatee County for eight years and has helped more than 20 small business people, says Spirtas. Most people learn about the mentoring program from the chamber's brochure. They then fill out an application detailing their business, product, number of years in business (somewhat established businesses are preferred to brand-new ones) and their mentorship goals.

A task force studies the application and, if they decide to take it on, tries to pair the "protegee" with a chamber member. "It's basically matching a small business owner with a particular need with a mentor who has a particular skill set," says Eleana Hall, a CPA with Shinn and Company, P.A., and chair of the task force. "It's a great opportunity for small business looking to expand to benefit from."

Once a match is made, both parties sign an agreement, which states they will meet at least once a month, and then the relationship is up to them, although Spirtas says he steps in if any compatibility issues arise. Generally, the relationships last roughly a year, and some protegees have flowered under more than one mentor during that time. In the past, small business owners have received help making the transition from a home office to a corporate setting, in learning how to manage personnel after an expansion, and how to obtain a loan from a bank for growth.

Brian and Debby Foster were among the program's first protégées. Having just started their business, Global Fire Engineering, they approached the chamber with their business plan and a list of goals. After they were approved, the Fosters met with Donald Lapp of Express Personal Services and Jim Stoufer of SCORE for a year and a half. Meetings were once a week initially, says Foster, and then dropped to once a month. Occasionally, he and Lapp still chat on the phone.

"It was important to give us a direction," says Foster, who was looking for help hiring personnel and creating a budget. "He gave us advice on employee benefits, and covered everything during those meetings. And it was a lot of moral support. There were things that came up over time and we were lucky to have someone there to talk with."

Since it opened, Global Fire Engineering, a fire protection engineering firm, has hired two employees, is looking for a third, and is about to open a second office in Plant City.

"Benefits accrue to both parties," says Hall. "The mentors have the satisfaction of knowing they've given back to their community," and small business owners get the benefit of experience and advice.

Hall says business owners hear about the program through chamber events, some newspaper advertising and word of mouth. Most of them, she says, are looking for help in marketing, finance and accounting, human resources and general business coaching-setting goals and strategizing.

For more information about the Manatee Chamber of Commerce Business Mentoring Program, call (941) 748-3411 or e-mail [email protected] 

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