Small businesses are a key component of the Columbus region's economy. These businesses-which include everything from financial institutions to restaurants and creative agencies-help to keep our thriving economy afloat. They employ thousands of skilled workers in Central Ohio and provide valuable services to those in the community and beyond.

The Columbus Chamber continually seeks the perspectives of business owners to help inform new products and services that support local existing businesses. This fall, the chamber surveyed its small business members to gain insight to key challenges, where they see opportunities and strengths in Central Ohio, and their perspective on hiring and growth moving forward.

In addition to providing insight into the perceptions and challenges of small businesses, the survey gave a snapshot of what the typical small business-or those with fewer than 500 employees-looks like in our region. More than 70 percent of the respondents have been in business for more than 10 years, and 57 percent have annual gross revenues of more than $1 million. On average, they employ 44 full-time and five part-time associates.

What Business Owners Say

Respondents are optimistic for the future. Fifty-three percent anticipate adding to their staffs in 2011-promising news considering the unemployment worries that have plagued the nation recently. In the next five years, nearly 70 percent plan to expand the products or services they currently provide, and more than 60 percent plan to establish or enhance their companies' ability to offer products and services over the Internet.

The majority of respondents identified three factors-stable economy, availability of qualified workers and revitalization-as having a positive impact on their businesses. The region's 27 colleges and universities, boasting more than 120,000 students, have helped to produce a steady pipeline of highly skilled employees. Recent Downtown revitalization has boosted the region's attractiveness to current and potential members of the workforce, ultimately creating a better climate for small businesses.

The survey also provided some insight as to why small business owners choose to set up shop in Columbus. Preexisting ties to the community encouraged more than half of the respondents to house their operations in the region. A strong economy, ideal location, community diversity, ample networking opportunities and reasonable cost of living were all identified as key strengths that make Central Ohio attractive.

One of the survey's main focuses was pinpointing the challenges that small businesses face. Not surprisingly given the recent recession, national and local economic factors were among the top-of-mind issues. The cost and availability of health insurance, availability of financing and capital, and state taxes rounded out the top five.

Respondents identified funding, taxes and availability of financing as Central Ohio's greatest weaknesses as a location for starting or owning a small business. Although the region's stable economy had a positive impact on these companies, the recession, rising costs (including taxes and health-care rates), unemployment, slowed construction and competition were all concerns.

Chamber Commitment

If the survey is any indication, Central Ohio's small businesses are a driving force that is here to stay. These businesses-which already make up a healthy percentage of the region's total number of businesses-have weathered the most recent recession and plan to grow both their operations and the services they offer. They also anticipate growing their staffs, which benefits the entire region in terms of employment and tax revenue.

The Columbus Chamber is committed to serving and supporting our region's businesses through information, programs, services and connections. The chamber's Small Business Council, a 21-member committee of small business owners chaired by Parker MacDonell, principal of Invergarry Partners, counsels the chamber on the needs of small businesses.

As a result of discussions by the council, the chamber now offers specific programs and services, including:

• Contacts to Contracts: This initiative helps to connect small businesses to bid opportunities with local corporations.

• Diversity Bridge: Minority and women-owned businesses can make connections to targeted resources.

• Internship guidance: Small businesses can learn how to supplement their staffs with an internship program from the chamber's in-house consultant, and connect with high-quality undergraduate candidates via www.columbusinternships.com.

• Professional development: Special events and informational forums provided a venue for discussion and learning.

In addition, the Columbus Chamber honors and celebrates the achievements of small business leaders in the region at its annual Small Business Forum and Leader Awards program. We are proud to recognize Mike Figliuolo of thoughtLEADERS; Ron Stokes, Lavita Stokes and Mark Hall of Three Leaf Productions; and Stephanie Leader of leaderpromos.com as the 2010 Small Business Leaders.

Jack Partridge is president of Columbia Gas of Ohio Inc. and serves as chairman of the Columbus Chamber Board of Directors. He can be reached at (614) 460-5953 or goahead@columbus.org.

Reprinted from the January 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.