Five tools local businesses need in 2013

Companies strive to build on meager recovery

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“How’s business?”

That’s no longer a casual question or an ice breaker at Chamber of Commerce events. Local businesses want to know details. “How are sales?” “How did you find your new hire?” “What are you doing to cut costs and what about health care?”

Clark County is home to 33,000 businesses, and 40 percent are in the city of Vancouver. The majority are small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Many have operated on paper-thin margins for the past five years. They have been forced to cut staff, reorganize operations and aggressively pursue new markets for their goods and services.

The Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce periodically surveys its members about the current business climate. One-third of our members consistently report moderate growth in business sales. Their current staff and resources are strained by the increased demand. The remaining two-thirds of our members say sales have slightly increased. They continue to look for ways to contain costs, improve sales and expand their reach.

All in all, this may not be the recovery we had hoped for: the growth is small and slow. But this is our recovery, and businesses are making the most of the meager gains.

To maximize their success, businesses need these five tools in 2013:

• Timely and credible business news — What happens in Europe does affect us. We need to pay close attention to economic trends internationally and in our own region so we can seize upon opportunities and respond to potential risks.

• Strong business advocacy — Now more than ever before, businesses need to tell our local, state and federal officials how their policies will impact us and our ability to grow. Elected officials at all levels are looking for ways to replace diminished tax revenues with new taxes or user fees. Businesses must be vocal. Since small-business owners are busy running their companies, business-minded organizations such as the Chamber can carry the message to City Hall, the state Capitol and Washington, D.C.

• Access to capital — The credit freeze of 2008 made it next to impossible for most small businesses to expand or buy new equipment. Today, banks are eager to lend money for business expansion, making credit available to good credit risks. However, businesses that don’t have strong financials are sometimes still out in the cold.

• Predictable rules and regulations — Local government is making great progress in streamlining many of our region’s rules. In 2012, the Chamber worked with Clark County to simplify building occupancy regulations. However, much work needs to be done at the state’s Department of Ecology to make it less onerous for developers to build in Clark County. The Chamber has partnered with numerous business organizations across the state to advocate for such overdue reforms.

Health care reform also poses a tremendous challenge for small businesses. In 2013, business advocates such as the Chamber must be vigilant as the state writes the rules that will govern the new health care exchanges.

• Resources — In many small companies, the CEO is often also the CFO, the HR manager and the marketing director. Local businesses need to know where to go for good information and advice.

VancouverBusinessResource.org is a great place to start. Developed collaboratively by business groups and experts under the direction of the city of Vancouver, the online resource guide was designed specifically with Clark County businesses in mind.

This tough economy will produce a generation of driven and resourceful business leaders capable of adapting to changing conditions and maximizing the opportunities in any economy.

Kelly Parker is president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.