After about seven months without a leader, the Indiana Small Business Development Center network has found one in Jeff Heinzmann.
An attorney by training, the 39-yearold is charged with getting the statewide system of 11 regional centers on track in their efforts to help entrepreneurs get started and grow.
Despite their connection, the Indiana centers for the most part have operated independently, and some-like the central Indiana office serving Marion and the surrounding counties-have struggled for stability.
Heinzmann aims to change that, getting the centers on the same page while enlisting the help of private-sector professionals such as lawyers and accountants.
"We want to try and create a program that connects small businesses with the right services and right partners in the private sector as quickly as possible," he said. "That will free our counselors to target and work harder with small businesses that have larger growth potential."
Although the centers get some funding from state and federal government, they also rely on contributions from other sources, including university partners.
Heinzmann, who started as the new SBDC state director late last month, said the network has done well helping entrepreneurs create and evaluate business plans. But there's still room for improvement.
New federal rules lower the sheer number of clients that center counselors must meet with, but increase the number of hours they're supposed to spend per client, a shift Heinzmann hopes to capitalize on.
When Gov. Mitch Daniels took office in 2005, the conversion of the Department of Commerce into the Indiana Economic Development Corp. consolidated several state business-development programs under one roof. Heinzmann said the change should allow the SBDC network to become a onestop shop for small-business resources.
Instead of just offering counseling, he envisions the centers doing things like connecting promising entrepreneurs with the state's 21st Century Research & Development Fund, giving them access to state grants for promising high-tech research.
"We want to leverage the power that unity has brought to become the front door for all the state programs," he said. "We're talking about building the SBDCs so they serve more as a true statewide network."
Heinzmann's predecessor, Debbie Bishop Trocha, was dismissed in July because of the network's "lack of progress," said Bruce Kidd, IEDC director of small business and entrepreneurship. Kidd acted as the interim director and helped determine what it would take to strengthen the network.
The plan was to make the centers more efficient-including making better use of online tools-at answering simple questions from clients so more time and money could go into mentoring small businesses with high growth potential.
"We'll help anyone who walks through the door, but higher-growth companies demand more assistance," he said. "We only have so much time and money and talent in our SBDC network. You want to use that for the highest potential impact."
After reviewing hundreds of resumes and identifying three finalists, officials hired Heinzmann.
"He understood [the new vision] without prompting," Kidd said. "He really got the dynamics we were looking for."
With Heinzmann in place, some long-considered reshuffling is happening.
For example, the East Central SBDC is moving its headquarters from Richmond to Muncie, a more centralized location that will capitalize on a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College and Energize East Central Indiana, an economic-development group there. A smaller branch office will remain open in Richmond.
Also, the Northwest Indiana SBDC may be moving from Highland onto the campus of Purdue University Calumet to partner more closely with the university.
Heinzmann could have his work cut out for him making the centers the focus of a strong entrepreneurial base in the state. Small-business owners have a plethora of resources available, but little spare time to participate. As a result, aid must be quick and on target.
"The system probably needs a breath of fresh air and a fresh look to make it more effective," said J. Cameron Carter, vice president of small business and economic development policy at the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.
Victoria Hall, executive director of the central Indiana SBDC, said she hopes Heinzmann works "with each center to identify best practices" and "bring consistency of services across the state."
Hall took over the central Indiana post in October after its former director was asked to leave. The position has seen a lot of turnover in recent years, but Hall said she'll focus on stablizing operations.
Some observers say that, while most of the centers do good work, it's been hard to gauge whether they're hitting the mark.
State Sen. Johnny Nugent, a Lawrenceburg Republican and chairman of the Senate's Agriculture and Small Business Committee, said he often refers small-business owners to the centers but doesn't hear whether they got the help they needed.
But with a new state director, that may change. A big push of the Daniels administration has been making sure every program measures its progress toward specific goals through quarterly progress reports.
Heinzmann said the federal government already requires some of that, tracking how many clients the counselors meet with, but he wants to make sure additional measures are in place to track performance and to glean best practices.
To do that, Heinzmann will have to visit all the centers statewide and become not just their school principal but their cheerleader as well. It's a role his former boss thinks he'll handle well.
"Jeff is a very positive person," said Connie Nass, former Indiana state auditor. In Nass'office, Heinzmann was a deputy auditor and counsel, overseeing legislative affairs and media relations.
He also managed the state's deferredcompensation plan, the public-sector equivalent of a 401(k) plan, and in that position he oversaw a campaign to get more state employees to participate in the plan. Enrollment doubled.
"[Heinzmann's] always sure that things are going to go well," Nass said, and the strength of his attitude carries others along with him.