Sunday, September 21, 2003

Small businesses rid distractions with CEN



By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

NORWOOD - One of the most significant developments in business in the past decade is the trend toward outsourcing peripheral functions.

While outsourcing is common in large companies, small-business owners still tend to handle everything in-house.

The desire to help small businesses divest themselves of paperwork and maintenance issues was the spark that brought together the founders of Competitive Edge Network (CEN). Sandy Ping and Tom Hortel had worked in product development for Procter & Gamble. Evan Corbett is a software entrepreneur. Cameron McIntosh owns an investment firm and a logistics company. The men combined their skills and experience to offer a range of administrative services to small businesses.

"CEN's offering brings affordable resources and services to small business owners that, until now, have been available only to large corporations," Corbett said.

The services offered by CEN's contract affiliates are: lease administration; human resources administration and payroll; business valuation: and brokerage.

"We can become their entire headquarters operation," said Bill Maltbie, with whom CEN contracts for lease administration and related services.

Because CEN represents many small businesses, it can negotiate for group discounts with providers of those services, McIntosh explained, in the same way a business association can provide affordable insurance to its members.

CEN offers each client a "relationship manager," who acts as consultant and liaison for the client.

The company is also building a network of clients. Members of the CEN network can contact each other for advice and services, much like members of a chamber of commerce.

Ellie Alexander was one of CEN's early clients. Alexander was already operating one Curves for Women fitness center in Landen and was trying to obtain a second franchise. She had found a location in Mason but had not yet signed any agreements.

"When I opened my first franchise, I was very green and handled the lease and everything else myself. But I thought, 'There has got to be somebody out there that can handle this for me.' "

Through the Mason Landen Kings Chamber of Commerce, Alexander hooked up with CEN, and her CEN relationship manager brought Maltbie in to help with the Mason location.

"He even looked at my franchise agreement and secured the lease on the property," Alexander said. "I needed help, but I didn't want to go to an attorney because of the fees."

Maltbie was able to obtain three months' free rent while Alexander built her client base. He manages the payments for the rent and utilities for Curves each month. He addresses common area management issues and periodically reviews lease documents to make sure that the landlord is adhering to the terms and conditions of the lease. All documentation is compiled and saved in paper form as well as in an electronic file.

"Ellie now has her own lease department," Maltbie said.

"It's such a relief," the Curves owner said. "As a small-business owner, I can say honestly that a lot of times we're taken advantage of, especially if we're women. We either don't have time or don't know how to pursue problems or check out technicalities in the documents. So sometimes we pay for things that we shouldn't."

But CEN's owners say that the value of their services goes beyond the Web site development, the paperless payroll, the real estate scouting or the soon-to-be-available computer troubleshooting.

"When you first join the network, your relationship manager will come and figure out what you do, what problems you have, and what it would take to make your life easier," McIntosh said.

"We identify any relationships you may need," said Michael Washington, who is one of the company's relationship managers. "We try to guide those relationships, even if we have to go outside the CEN network."

McIntosh said the ultimate goal of CEN is to connect the company's members in a supportive web, to channel resources to them, and to become their advocates at the local, state and even federal level.

But it's often the immediate freedom from day-to-day headaches that clients appreciate most readily.

Said Alexander: "What CEN allows me to do is to run my business, motivate my people and be there for my clients."

E-mail jcallison@zoomtown.com.

Jeeves for the small business owner

Like P.G. Wodehouse's classic valet Jeeves, CEN's services are designed to relieve their clients of daily distractions.

A monthly membership fee of $20 CEN provides a small-business consultant, member-expert discussion forums, one-page Web site, member-to-member discount coupons, and access to discounted services: Lease Pro, Payroll Pro, HR Pro, Valuation Pro, BizBroker Pro, and later this quarter, IT Pro.

Services can be purchased either as a one-time setup or on a continuing monthly basis.

CEN plans a quarterly series of breakfast sessions for small business owners on topics of interest to them. The first is on Nov. 14 at 7:30 a.m. It's free for CEN members and $12 for others.

CEN is at 4750 Wesley Ave., Suite Q in Norwood.

Information: 354-0040.




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