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SMALL BUSINESS

Reaching Out

A new Los Angeles County agency aims to help small businesses here grow while saving the county some money.

September 03, 1997|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County has launched a new office armed with a Web site to increase business opportunities for small companies and to save the county some money at the same time.

It has a straightforward name--Los Angeles County Office of Small Business--and a straightforward purpose--to create jobs by helping small businesses grow as they increasingly share in the $4 billion that the county spends each year on goods and services.

"We care about the outreach to small business because the health of the county is dependent on the health of small business," said Edna Bruce, executive director of the small-business office, which has been gearing up since its birth in March for its full-fledged debut, scheduled for Sept. 11.

Doing business with Los Angeles County can be a daunting endeavor given its size (nearly 4,000 square miles containing 88 cities), its mass (37 departments and agencies with more than 80,000 employees) and its byzantine procurement process in which each department does its own purchasing, said Bruce, who has worked for Los Angeles city and county government for nearly three decades.

And unlike the city of Los Angeles, which has a long history of small-business assistance, the county has lacked the resources to cater to small companies and, instead, has tended to buy its goods and services through master contracts with large corporations.

The small-business office, created with a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, will steer companies toward contracts of more than $25,000 with its Web site (http://www.laosb.org), which is designed to list available business with every county department.

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The office also is acting as a clearinghouse for information on financing, certificating and technical assistance.

In that role, the small-business office already has won fans.

Magnespec, a 65-employee Rancho Dominguez company that produces magnetic devices such as transformers for the military, faced going out of business if it could not get a loan for new equipment to shift to commercial markets.

Bruce arranged a meeting between Magnespec President Harbant Sidhu and representatives of the business loan program of the county's Community Development Corp.

Magnespec is now in line to receive loans totaling more than $650,000 from a county-administered federal loan-guarantee program to help companies hurt by defense downsizing.

"They've worked really hard with us," said Curtis Peninger, who heads marketing and sales for Magnespec. The commercial arena "is very competitive, but we're making a go of it, and we've already hired a few extra people."

At the small-business office's Web page, companies are able to select individual county departments or look at contracting opportunities at all departments.

County departments are slowly beginning to post business opportunities on the site. Recent postings include one from the Sheriff's Department looking to buy white bedsheets and another from the public library seeking bids from bill collection services.

Bruce plans to add links to other small-business sites on the Internet as well as other government procurement and information sources.

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Businesses without Internet access will be able to use computers at the Montebello headquarters of the Los Angeles County Office of Small Business or at libraries.

Bruce said she hopes to compile a vendor list from companies using the site and to generally bolster outreach to small business as part of improving the county's procurement process, which a volunteer committee of county employees has been scrutinizing for more than two years.

Oregon and Michigan have set up similar operations. Oregon saved 8% of its procurement budget in the first year, and Michigan is projecting a 5% to 20% savings. Bruce said she expects at least an 8% savings for Los Angeles County, which would translate into $320 million on a procurement budget of $4 billion.

"All it's going to take is a little bit of effort from these departments," Bruce said, noting that she and her staff--made up of one other full-time employee and a few temporary employees--bear the responsibility of prodding county departments to update their listings.

The small-business office faces several challenges, Bruce said, and a big one is finding grant money to fund a second year of operation. After that, Bruce figures, the office will be self-sufficient.

In addition to the first-year $150,000 grant, the office has received $50,000 worth of space and supervisory support from the Community Development Commission. The Board of Supervisors had directed that no general fund money be used to sustain the office.

"This office is not going to be the ultimate answer, but it certainly is going to help" small companies navigate the county procurement system, Bruce said. "We believe it's going to be enormously successful. At least we're making the effort."

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