Providing Expertise with True Enthusiasm

By Brad McEwen

Here in Southwest Georgia there’s simply no shortage of incredible businesspeople whose acumen and hard work have led to tremendous success and helped make this area of the state home to numerous prosperous and innovative businesses.


And while many of those strong leaders have made a name for themselves as owners and operators of flourishing businesses, at least one among that group, has not only helmed a thriving business of her own, but has had a hand in helping countless other entrepreneurs navigate the many ins and outs of starting and strengthening a successful small business.


Although folks around here certainly know area native Debbie Finney from her years at Bennett’s Home Place, a growing number across southern Georgia and beyond know her as the area director of our local University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, which has been an important resource for businesses of all shapes and sizes.


“To me, what we do every day, is consult with people that are starting a business, or thinking about starting a business,” Debbie explained recently when we sat down to discuss her work at the SBDC and why she so thoroughly enjoys working with varied businesses across South Georgia. “Primarily what we do, most of the time, and that a lot of people don’t understand, is we work with people that are in business.


“We are here to provide guidance and consulting and maybe have the opportunity to educate business owners, key managers.


“I think that’s what we do a lot of—provide that expertise to help Georgia businesses grow.”


Debbie has been helping Georgia businesses grow and prosper for nearly a decade now having joined the SBDC in 2010, after spending several years educating other potential entrepreneurs and businessmen and women as a part-time instructor at Darton State College, after retiring from Bennett’s Home Place.


When I asked her about that decision to get into education—which is essentially at the core of her work with the SBDC—Debbie explained that she felt as though she had a lot of knowledge and experience that she could share with others.


“I guess what I enjoy about the job the most is that I get to take my experience and education—and our job here is still education, with the University of Georgia—and provide guidance and consulting,” she said. “We provide a lot of continuing education for business owners.


“As a consultant I’m not the decision maker. Our role is not to do the work for a client that’s in business. Our role is to guide that client through making decisions or planning strategy or educating them on something that they need to work on. So that’s a really big difference (compared to running a business). It’s completely different.


“But, I guess I’m getting old because a lot of my business experience makes the job a whole lot easier because a lot of times I’ll think, ‘yeah, I’ve been through that,’ or ‘I remember that.’ It’s easier to identify with the clients.


“I think that’s what we, as consultants, bring to the job. It’s not just that we have an MBA. It’s that we have varied experience so it’s easy to share and educate.”


Of course, it also helps that in addition to all the experience she brings to the table, Debbie also has a genuine love of business—something that was evident from the excitement she exhibited not only during our recent conversation, but that’s been on display during every interaction I’ve ever had with her.


“I just think business is fun,” she said with a smile. “I think you have to think that running a business is fun and enjoyable and great work to feel that way.


“What’s really fun to me is to see someone that, you know, maybe it’s a business I know nothing about and then I learn about it and I just think, ‘oh that’s cool! I think it would be great to get up every day and have a job like this.’ It’s not that I’m going to change (what I’m doing), that’s just a great part about this job—you really get to see and share in experiences that other business owners have.”


Debbie said she also gets a thrill out of meeting with clients who are starting new businesses because there are so many things that those people have to consider before moving forward. In fact, she said people often come to her office not only needing to know what steps to take when starting a business, but needing a better understanding of what the SBDC actually does.


“We do an average and most consultants work with 100 people in a year, some more, but that’s a good metric,” Debbie said. “And it’s fun too because sometimes people will come here and they’re not really sure what we do and they think, ‘well, someone told me to go to the SBDC,’ or ‘a banker says I need a business plan; I need to go to the SBDC,’ and they don’t realize that we can develop a long-term relationship.”


As part of that relationship, Debbie said she and the other consultants in the Albany office—Heather Sharpe and Rob Martin—offer guidance in every possible aspect of starting and running a successful business.


“We have people that are interested in starting a business or have thought they’ve always liked to do that, and it’s just a concept, and we can provide education on how to take that concept to the next level,” Debbie explained. “We give people a lot to think about and research to do. You know you’ve got your, ‘I’m interested in business, I have this idea; will it work?’ And then you have the entrepreneur that is working on a business plan, is planning and researching and maybe they don’t have all the pieces but they have enough together that they just need some assistance in how to put it all together and go forward.


“For example, I can have someone sit down in my office and verbally tell me their whole business plan from how much money they think it will cost to start, to every other aspect like, ‘this is my customer, this is my product or service.’ And then they’ll say, ‘I was told to come here because I need a business plan and I don’t have a clue how to write it.’ Well you just told me your whole business plan.”


While the Albany office, which covers 27 counties in South Georgia, meets with plenty of fledgling businesses, Debbie said her team of consultants also assists established businesses that need help with any number of areas of operation—including things like getting a better grasp on finances.


“Most of us, even myself, we go into business, or are involved in a business, for a certain love or passion or service, but we don’t always know everything about every operation of business,” Debbie said. “For example, you know, not everybody’s an accountant, but you have to know about the numbers to stay in business.”


The SBDC consultants also help businesses with the development of better marketing strategies to help drive client engagement—something Debbie gets particularly excited about.


“One thing I found when I joined the SBDC is that marketing is an area that I work in a lot—and I always enjoyed that aspect of business—but I found out that not everybody enjoys that,” she said. “I’ve worked a lot in marketing, and particularly digital marketing, the last couple of years because there’s such a need for business owners to understand that developing a marketing strategy is still important.


“I say this when I talk, I've always worn a marketing hat in every aspect of business that I've ever been involved with, including teaching at Darton. But I think what's important and why it has been easy for me ... it's two things. You have to understand who your customer is. You have to know them. You have to know all about them. Marketing is not to everybody. You have to market to your best customer. And I think that's always been easy for me to understand who that best customer is. So I love to work with people on that.


“Then you have to have a well thought out plan and strategy. If you don't, then you're just throwing things out there to see what sticks and that wastes time and money and it doesn't work.”


Not wasting time or money also factors into the work the SBDC does to help clients develop better processes to increase efficiency and help reduce the workload of owners or key managers and employees.


Debbie said a challenge for many small business owners—that the SBDC consultants spend a lot of time discussing with their clients—is figuring about better ways of managing the day to day operations of a growing business. As a business progresses through its lifecycle, there’s often a need for the owner to delegate things so as not to get overwhelmed.


To that end, SBDC consultants offer a state-wide program called Grow Smart for established businesses.


“We talk about a book in Grow Smart called ‘The E Myth,’ and it talks about how often times businesses are started because of the passion or an interest of the business owner,” Debbie said. “And when we start a business we’re doing everything, all the things. Business owners work really hard so the challenge is … that eventually systems and processes have to be designed so that the business owner can work on the business and not have his or her hand in absolutely everything.


“So I think the challenge is, and it’s always been a challenge for me too, it’s easier to do it myself. Even as area director, a lot of times it’s easier to do it myself. But we know as managers and business owners that we have to let go and manage other people and processes.


“The challenge is learning how to develop systems and processes that make the work/life balance better, that make the business run smoother, make my office run smoother, when I can step back and get the right people in place and let everybody do their job and have those systems and processes in place.”


Debbie said the biggest obstacle for helping business owners let go of certain functions comes from the fact that successful business people are driven and passionate by nature—characteristics, fortunately, she can identify with.


“It’s probably not for everybody to run a business,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of responsibility, lots of long hours. I think we all agree that you probably never leave it 100 percent, even when you’re off. But if you really enjoy that entrepreneurial spirit, that makes the job even more fun I think.”


For Debbie, that love of being involved in business goes back to her childhood, having grown up around a family business, where she eventually learned some valuable lessons she can pass on to others.


“I was born in a family business,” Debbie told me. “My dad is Jim Bennett. (After college) I came back and worked in the family business, Bennett’s Garden Center.


“My grandfather and grandmother started Bennett’s Supply Company and then my dad, and actually my grandmother, in the beginning, I think, before I was born, started Bennett’s, which was then Bennett’s on Slappey. That’s just what they called it—Bennett’s on Slappey, as opposed to the other Bennett’s.


“I never had a vision that I would come back and work with my dad. I just asked him one day what he thought about it, ‘could I try it?’ And we worked together for over 20 years.


“Family business is probably very different, but you’ve always got a partner. You’ve always got somebody that’s got your back even if you do things differently or don’t have defined roles. Being involved in family business, sometimes your roles aren’t as defined and if I had to give somebody some advice I’d say, ‘define those roles.’ But you’ve always got somebody who has your back. You’ve always got somebody that is as passionate. I did.


“So it was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. And I feel fortunate to have had that.”


Interestingly, Debbie told me that despite her background, a lot of what she learned about business came from her experiences as a teenager working in places other than Bennett’s—where her childhood involvement was very minimal. In fact, she said that aside from going into business with her dad after she and her husband—local business attorney Fred Finney—moved  home to Albany after graduating from UGA, a lot of her early lessons in running a business were learned outside of the family business.


“When I turned 15 and was old enough to get a job, to me (working at Bennett’s) wasn’t a real job,” she said. “I thought, ‘oh that’s just my dad, that’s not a real job.’ So my first real job was working for Mr. Gates at Burger Chef.


“And talk about learning. I learned a lot from Mr. Gates. It may not be interesting to anybody else but he actually put in a salad bar. Salad bars were new at the time. And I asked him for a job and he said, ‘well, I’m putting in this salad bar and I need a hostess,’ which was new for him.


“And then of course I learned a lot, I did other things too. I did, you know, behind the counter and all that. I learned a lot from Mr. Gates about business.”


Debbie said she also learned a lot—perhaps even one of her most important lessons—as young person working with her aunt, who is part owner of a venerable local business.


“My aunt is Barbara Pippin of Pritchett Pippin,” said Debbie. “I worked a year with Ms. Peggy (Pritchett) and my Aunt Barbara and same thing—I learned so much. You just learn so much when you work for other people at that age I think. And I think one thing that I learned along the way is, it’s a gift to have a job that you love.”


Loving her job is certainly something Debbie can identify with, as it’s impossible to spend time talking about her work at the SBDC without seeing how much she enjoys doing what she does. And part of that love comes from the fact that she’s helping passionate and dedicated business owners find success doing any number of awesome things, right here in South Georgia.


“Well, it makes you feel good to see people succeed,” she said. “But I’ll tell you the best thing is that you get to learn about so many different kinds of businesses. I can tell you, particularly in South Georgia, with 27 counties and a lot of them rural, it’s really cool to see the different types of businesses that people have and the skill sets and services they provide.


“I would say even in a downturn economy I always have a positive outlook because you can see and meet innovate business owners providing great products and services in South Georgia. One of my colleagues calls that ‘finding the pearls.’ But that’s, to me, a real perk about the job. We always talk about metro Atlanta, or big cities, or whatever, but we do have some good, strong businesses in South Georgia.


“And it’s fun to work with them.”


Based on the enthusiasm and expertise that Debbie is able to provide them, I have no doubt that those business people who are fortunate to get a chance to work with her feel the same way.


And as someone who has a vested interest in the success of Albany and the surrounding area, I can say with full conviction that having Debbie Finney leading our SBDC team gives me continued hope for a bright future.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen