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Illinois’ Small Businesses Drive State Economy

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) aims to launch 360,000 new businesses over the next five years as part of its economic development plan.

By Frederick Jerant on May 26, 2015

Illinois Small Business
Illinois / Courtesy of Zia Nzami

No doubt Illinois is a capital of commerce, a location that includes 33 Fortune 500 companies and 124 corporate world headquarters. But small business is also big business in Illinois, where 500,000 small companies are finding competitive taxes, affordable real estate costs, an educated workforce and numerous support systems to help them launch, grow and thrive. Now, Illinois is turbo-charging its small business growth engine. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) aims to launch 360,000 new businesses over the next five years as part of its economic development strategic plan. Illinois’ support of small companies has helped Vosges Haut-Chocolat grow from a one-woman kitchen operation into a business that sells premium chocolate products through some 2,000 outlets worldwide and in seven dedicated boutiques, and operates from a 43,000-square-foot facility in Chicago. “The Governor has been a big advocate of my work and my business, and Chicago is our strongest market,” says Katrina Markoff, owner of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, named one of the 10 Best Chocolatiers in the World by National Geographic. Markoff, named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007 by OPEN American Express and Entrepreneur Magazine, cites assistance she received from DCEO through the Advantage Illinois program, designed to spur institutional lending to small businesses and leverage private venture capital in startups and high-growth businesses.

“It gave us better terms than a traditional bank,” Markoff says. Support for entrepreneurial companies also comes from the Illinois Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), which provide everything from one-on-one consultation and business planning guidance to technology assistance and business training. Now in its 30th year, the Illinois SBDCs’ statewide network has helped numerous businesses succeed. Of the Illinois SBDCs’ 36 centers, 12 are designated International Trade Centers, with a focus on export development and global distribution, while five centers offer Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Specialty services.

“We can help startups and existing firms pursue a small-business research grant, file for IP protection or look at alternate sources of funding,” says Mark Petrilli, state director of the Illinois SBDCs. One-on-one assistance is SBDCs’ focus. “Our business advisers and directors provide guidance on an extended basis to identify areas where an entrepreneur needs to improve, develop and grow,” Petrilli says. “That personal assistance provides an excellent benefit to both early stage and mature companies.”

Illinois Home Runs

Todd “Dutch” Eschman, founder of Old Dutch Classic Bats, can attest. Eschman had already started building and selling his “hand-hewn” classic and modern baseball bats from his Swansea garage, but sought out the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s SBDC to make sure he followed proper legal channels.

“The insight of the mentors and staff has been a huge help to my business,” Eschman says.

“They pushed me to plan more than I would have on my own.” The SBDC staff encouraged Eschman to enter the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Metro East Start-Up Challenge. He won, and received $10,000 in non-equity capital, which allowed Eschman to add air purification and vacuuming systems and a lathe duplicator to his shop. “I can knock out bats a lot faster now,” he says. Galesburg-based B. Deo-Volente (BDi) produces wedge wire and profile screens used for agricultural, food and mineral processing, and other applications. Founded in 2004 by industry veterans Rick Dechow, Pam Wildermuth, Steve Gilles, and Mike Sweney, the company participated in a trip to South America in 2009 spearheaded by the International Trade Center at SIU. The foursome launched their business with the help of Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association’s Galesburg Business Incubator. “The incubator has been great for us,” Wildermuth says.

“The reasonable lease terms have allowed us to focus on getting the business off the ground.” Hard work has allowed BDi to expand from 17 to up to 28 employees, with clients worldwide. “We also started at a time when Maytag and Butler Manufacturing closed, so we offered some positive reinforcement to Galesburg,” Wildermuth says.

Forward Thinking

If all goes according to plan, Illinois will have many more companies like BDi on its roster. To help facilitate its five-year economic blueprint, DCEO is working to increase small-business access to the state’s job-creation tax credit, reduce LLC filing fees and increase regional business plan competitions, among other efforts. DCEO will collaborate with business, civic and government leaders at the regional level to incorporate ideas and implement the plan. “We have to continue to support and grow the small to medium-size businesses,” Petrilli says.

“They employ almost 50 percent of the state’s workforce and create more than 60 percent of new jobs. They continue to be vital to Illinois’ economy.” Find more about technology investors in Illinois.

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