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SMALL-BUSINESS MAKEOVER

Student consultants teach firms how to get to the next level

Many colleges and universities provide low-cost or even free help to small companies looking for an edge during a lingering recession.

March 10, 2009|Cyndia Zwahlen

Empire Building Services owner Suzanne DeRossett still refers to the thick report put together three years ago by a team of student consultants from Cal State Fullerton for her janitorial firm.

She paid $1,250 for the semester-long consulting project, which helped her set up a new accounting system, streamline inventory management and create an employee handbook and new performance rewards.

The review came at the right time for her Santa Ana company, which was just passing the 50-employee mark.

"It's amazing how many small-business owners kind of think the same way when they've been in business for a while and hit a wall: Where do I go from here? How do I get bigger?" said DeRossett, who started her firm in 1982 and now employs 70 people.

Student consultants -- typically business school undergraduate or graduate students -- are an overlooked resource for small businesses, especially those looking for an edge during a lingering recession.

Many universities offer the service free through their business, information technology or engineering schools. Others charge, such as Cal State Fullerton, which asks as much as $3,000. Some projects are narrow -- a marketing plan for a single product, for example. Others can be much broader, depending on what the company needs and the school's resources.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, with the fourth-largest agriculture college in the country, tailors its programs to local agribusinesses, such as wineries and food suppliers.

Student projects include designing a healthful snack package to appeal to kids, testing broccoli labels in various languages and doing market research for a drinkable yogurt with immune-system boosters.

Niner Wine Estates in San Luis Obispo has tapped the school for market research into what consumers want in a wine tasting room. Students will present their findings this week.

"It's going to serve a real need for us because we are in a position right now, talking about the recession, where we don't want to go out and hire a marketing or PR firm to do this for us," said Allison Dana, marketing coordinator for the five-person business, which is building its first winery and tasting room near Paso Robles.

Cal Poly dairy science students consulted with Pinkberry on quality control when the frozen yogurt chain was smaller, according to the school.

At the other end of the spectrum, students from a variety of disciplines are working on nanotechnology, life science, information technology and telecommunications industry projects at Calit2. That's the nickname for the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, based at the San Diego and Irvine campuses of the University of California.

If a product whirs or involves circuitry, students can help build it in the Circuits Lab. The rooms in the Nano3 engineering facility are available for businesses to work on their technologies. Another program helps companies integrate their computer systems and software.

Student consulting has been around for decades, but as entrepreneurship education has boomed at universities, demand for real-life opportunities to exercise classroom skills has grown.

Cal State Sacramento's program started in 1969. Three years later the federal Small Business Administration set up a pilot program at a handful of universities called the Small Business Institute, which paired students with local firms. The SBA eventually dropped the program, but several schools kept the institutes going. The group's professional association is expanding to meet the need for student consulting resources.

"At the same time students are clamoring for more of this kind of engaged learning, small companies that might have been doing just fine in more of a growth economy now are struggling, looking for better ways to get a grip on what's going on with competition and to have more options," said Ron Cook, president of the Small Business Institute professional group and director of entrepreneurial programs at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Not every small business is a good match for a student consulting project. Although some schools are willing to work on start-ups or to help bring a company back from near death, most are looking for a firm with enough substance to give students something to work with. Schools are also wary of small businesses that are looking for filing or phone help.

Disputes are rare, professors said. And most schools require a formal letter of engagement that sets out rules and timelines for consulting.

Projects are overseen by a faculty member. Sometimes a successful outside business owner serves as a team mentor.

To learn what kind of services your local colleges or universities offer, check their websites first, then call the business school or other appropriate program. Southern California has dozens of programs spread among its public and private universities. Some have waiting lists.

Todd Lacher's business, Pool Engineering Inc. in Santa Ana, is just starting the process with a Cal State Fullerton student team.

"We would like to kind of tighten things up and do what we can to improve how we run our business, but without having to spend large amounts of money to hire a professional consulting firm," said Lacher, an associate civil engineer at the 17-employee family business his father started in 1992.

Taking advantage of the free or moderately priced advice available through local universities or colleges is a smart move, said Philip Romero, dean of the Cal State Los Angeles business school, where he plans to expand student consulting opportunities.

"To the degree that is not happening, small businesses are missing an important opportunity," Romero said. "And now is not the time to be missing opportunities."

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smallbiz@latimes.com

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