Chuck Archambault was reluctant to sign up for last year’s e200 class, put on by the Small Business Administration in Helena.
Having successfully run his own business for four decades, the owner of Archambault & Co. — a small Billings-based firm specializing in engineering, land surveying and planning — figured there was little to learn and even less time to spare.
“But it opened up some doors,” he said. “And it identified things I had been doing wrong, over and over.”
Plus, he said, knowledge gained from the class is already saving him time. He points to the financial sessions that covered not only cash flow but taxes, insurance and accountant reports. By better understanding the latter, he’s already been able to reduce his workload.
“I could save time not duplicating something the accountant was doing,” he said. “I could stop that and use that time for something else.”
Last year marked the second offering of the Small Business Administration’s e200 class, a free but intensive business curriculum taught by successful business owners, bankers and others who offer know-how and strategies within their realms of expertise. During the six-month-long program, classes convene in Helena every other week for an evening of instruction.
Archambault, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe, was one of three Native American business owners from south-central Montana attending the second session. Joining him were Big Horn County Commissioner Sidney Fitzpatrick, who owns Apsaalooke Contracting, LLC, based in Crow Agency; and Kimberly Pryor Takes Enemy, owner of KTE Construction, also based in Crow Agency. Both Fitzpatrick and Takes Enemy are Crow.
Their commitment to the class can be measured in the miles they traveled and the hours they invested. Twice a month, they left Billings by 1 p.m. for the evening classes. Back home in the wee hours of the morning, they brought with them new expertise and business savvy.
“It’s a lot to ask,” said Mary Walks Over Ice, program manager for the Native American Development Corp. As part of her job, Walks Over Ice tries to enlist eligible business owners to apply. “It’s not only the travel but the time commitment. The biggest challenge we have is putting value to the program.”
In fact, measured in dollars, the value of the class has been estimated at roughly $10,000 per participant — all of which is covered by the SBA. But the value of the lessons learned, lessons that will benefit business owners for years to come, would be difficult to gauge.
Leonard Smith, executive director of the NADC, says e200’s focus on management is critical for many of the small businesses they assist. Many startups bring a skill set to certain tasks but not manage a business.
“It’s a big issue in Indian Country,” he said. “It’s a major reason a lot of businesses fail.”
Fitzpatrick, whose company specializes in industrial buildings and warehouses, says the e200 class was especially helpful in its coverage of government contracting and marketing. He envisions expanding Apsaalooke Contracting beyond the reservation and is already banking on insights and connections he made at the class to help him land contracts.
The class also offered him an opportunity to network. He now taps Promo West of Bozeman, owned by a fellow e200 classmate, for marketing materials.
Takes Enemy is the owner, accountant, construction estimator and project manager for KTE Construction, a family-owned business that specializes in plumbing, heating and air conditioning. Wearing all those hats, and as wife and mother of three children under age three, it was a challenge to juggle the demands of the class. But, she felt she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
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The financial classes offered her critical information for honing her financial management skills. She also praises the class for covering the how-tos of developing a business during trying economic times, as well as the importance of diversification.
Besides instruction, the e200 curriculum gave participants hands-on practice to identify their strengths and weaknesses.
“I noticed things my company didn’t have,” Takes Enemy said. “Like an employee handbook. Because we’re a family business, I didn’t think we needed it.”
For Archambault, the peer and instructor critique illuminated mistakes he had repeated for years. They pointed out small things, like talking too much, that might turn off a client and cost the company repeat business.
“They give you a chance to make those mistakes in class,” he said.
Likewise, the classes afforded participants an opportunity to “see” their businesses from the perspectives of bankers, lenders and other professionals.
“We got to sit down and listen to bankers without trying to chisel a loan out of them,” Archambault said. “They look at things we might not even think about.”
Such back and forth was not restricted to the classroom. During the time they spent carpooling to Helena, the three business owners covered assigned homework and mentoring sessions.
Now having completed the course, they join the ranks of Heather Long, owner of HL Construction, a Billings-based road contracting business. Long participated in the initial class offering in 2011 and is still effusive with praise, describing e200 as “one of the best business courses that anyone could take.”
She credits the class with a number of lessons that she has incorporated into her business. One already implemented is a better system for monitoring complaints, which seems to be appreciated by employees.
Another came as a caution about hiring family and friends.
“Sometimes, you feel obligated (to family and friends),” she said. “But if it doesn’t work out and they’re not doing their jobs, they’re not doing the business any good.”
When it comes to business, however, the bottom line speaks the loudest. And in that regard, the payoff from e200 could be considered significant.
As far as goals for the business, Long figures her business has increased its profit margin by $500,000.