How Getting Involved in Your Community Can Help Your Business

Sep 3, 2010

By taking an active role in your community, whether through community organizations, local government or other groups, your business can develop new customer relationships, find new suppliers and build its reputation.

Mike Cooper caught the eye of the Heber Springs Downtown Network, a group dedicated to preserving the historical sections of Heber Springs, Arkansas, when he purchased and restored three historic warehouses for Spanky’s Hot Rods & Customs, his customization and restoration shop.

“It all started with them recognizing what we were trying to do with our building, restoring it and trying to bring it back to life because we’re in the historical downtown area,” Cooper said. “They saw the attention to detail my wife and I were trying to achieve and needed that type of influence on the board, so they asked me if I would sit on the board and they voted me in.”

As a board member, Cooper, who moved to Heber Springs with his wife this year to open Spanky’s, feels he can help instill an appreciation for Heber Springs’ historic buildings within the community.

“The building that we restored, we had  to very [quickly] make a deal with the owners before a church in town bought it and tore it down for a parking lot,” he said, adding that the church has purchased and torn down other historic buildings in town, including the old jail and general store.

“I just wanted to make sure that I [did] all I could do to stop the demolition of the old part of town and let people appreciate [it],” he said. “I come from a big city where there’s not much history left. They tear down old buildings to put up new high rises.”

As a new resident and new business owner, Cooper has benefited from his involvement with the Heber Springs Downtown Network by getting to meet other business owners.

“My main benefit is getting to meet the other merchants of the downtown area and build a relationship with them that’s not a customer relationship, it’s a friend relationship,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat when it comes to working with the city and working with local governments, so we band together and get some things done.”

Getting involved in your community, whether through civic organizations, community clubs or business groups, is a great way for business owners to network with one another and raise the profile of their businesses.

“I always took it as if you give, you get back,” said Harry Weimann, director of WyoTech Blairsville in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, and former owner of a trim and upholstery shop. “I was always one that was very proactive with community-type service groups like the Rotary, the Lions and even the chamber of commerce.”

“I always tried to give them my time, and that’s just good networking,” said Weimann. “Many of those folks understand what you do and what you can do for them personally or as a community.”

Making a Difference

John Mickle, president and owner of Acme Car Co., a restoration and fabrication shop in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, got involved in local politics because of his business.

“Many years ago I was attempting to build a building and go through the process of subdividing the land and getting all the township approvals,” said Mickle, who also owns Acme Trailer Works. “I saw a bunch of things that I didn’t like as I went through the process, so I went to one of the then-township supervisors and told them I had never seen such a disjointed, lousy job in my life, and his challenge to me was, ‘We have an opening on our planning commission, so if you think you know so much, why don’t you volunteer for that position?’ which I did.”

Mickle soon became chairman of the planning commission and then ran for township supervisor. He’s now on his second six-year term as supervisor, a position informed by his experience as a business owner.

“[I bring] a completely different perspective on rates and taxes and services, because the average person has no clue what it takes to run a business, nor do the average public officials have any idea what the impact of some of their decisions are on a business,” he said. “What I bring to the table is an attitude about, ‘You’ve got to take into consideration what we have to go through,’ and then I make every effort to explain all of our decisions and situations based on the perspective of a local businessman.”

Mickle’s elected position, as well as his involvement with the Lions and the Masons, gains exposure for his companies in New Cumberland.

“I believe if you are a business   owner,    you have a certain obligation to the community in which you conduct business to be a part of that community,” he said.

“That can be through a volunteer organization or, like in my case, getting elected to office, because it raises your esteem as a person if you show that you are willing to volunteer some of your time and effort. We all know that we put in long hours as businessmen, but if you put in a little bit more, you gain the respect of the people you’re dealing with and, if you become involved in your local government, you have the opportunity to make a difference,” said Mickle.

Having that type of platform in the community can bring customers to your store and get people telling their friends about your business.

“The more you get involved, the more you have visibility and the more chances of getting referrals,” said Catherine Bell, AICI CIP, president of PRIME Impressions, an image consulting firm in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

There are three things necessary to getting referrals, according to Bell.

“The first is they have to like you as a person,” she said. “The second is they must know you personally. The third thing is they must understand what your business can do for them or for other people.”

Building Relationships

Involvement in an organization like a local chamber of commerce provides the opportunity for other business owners to get to know you and your business, and for you to do the same.

“We were being educated about different people’s businesses each week so that we [could] talk about their business,” said Bell, who’s belonged to a number of business and networking organizations. “They’re telling us about their particular service and maybe they have a unique angle as to what they’re supplying or servicing. If they tell us that, they’re able to educate us so that we can talk about them, so the business is going to benefit eventually from people coming to them and buying their product or service.”

Jeff Glaser, who co-owns Vancouver Hotrod Shop in Vancouver, Washington, with his wife Joyce, joined the chamber of commerce to connect with other local business owners. Since joining last fall, he’s gained new customers and has been introduced to people who have helped him run his business better.

“One of the chamber members is a marketing expert and he came out and spent two hours with me, for free, to go over the best ways to market our business,” he said. “I picked up some extremely valuable tips from him and [he] worked with me to develop some strategies on how to do a few things to market the business and how to target it.”

Glaser also met with a financial advisor from the chamber who worked with him on how to best set up the company’s books.

In addition, Glaser found a new printer through the chamber and other local vendors.

“We’ve changed our vendor mix quite a bit [and are] now using a lot of vendors  that we have met through the chamber, and in addition to having some personal  knowledge of these folks, we also get some discounts for being chamber members,” he said. “Financially it’s been beneficial from a vendor standpoint, and from a relationship standpoint it’s been very beneficial because now we have personal relationships with some of our vendors.”