Amid all the resignations and terminations in state government recently, at least one holdover appointed by the previous administration is remaining on the job. And small-business advocates could not be more pleased.
David Dorff, whom former Gov. Joe Kernan tabbed in July to lead the state’s new Office of Small Business Advocacy, received word from Gov. Mitch Daniels in early January that he would remain on staff.
Kernan unveiled the agency last summer as part of a series of initiatives meant to benefit smaller companies. He named Dorff, 48, a Harvard University graduate and business consultant, to steer the effort.
“Everyone tells me you’re the person for the job,” Dorff recalled Kernan telling him upon their first visit. “He told me how important this was to the state of Indiana.”
Dorff is no Democratic insider or political stalwart. He had never held a publicsector job in his life and is, in fact, a selfproclaimed Republican. He’s quick to point out, though, that party loyalty should not be a factor when you’re working for the citizens of Indiana.
But whether his mission in state government will remain the same is unclear. Pat Miller, CEO of the new Indiana Economic Development Corp., which replaced the Department of Commerce, said IEDC leaders continue to evaluate his role.
“We’re still in ongoing discussions on what projects would be best suited for David,” Miller said. “Small business is a major factor in economic development, not only for Indiana but for every state.”
Dorff’s job in a nutshell is to serve as a resource for small-business owners and to determine whether any state regulations deemed burdensome should be lifted. But there’s a chance that he could be involved in other areas of the IEDC in which his experience might be helpful, Dorff said.
The Carmel resident seems to have won over skeptics who may have had doubts about whether his position would bring any substance to a sector often in need of nurturing.
Following his appointment in July, Jason Shelley, director of the state’s National Federation of Independent Business office, wondered whether the state had “created bureaucracy to eliminate bureaucracy.” Today, Shelley is a firm believer in Dorff’s purpose.
“I think it’s a good sign,” he said after learning Dorff would remain on the state’s payroll. “He’s made a big effort to find out what are the issues of small businesses. His ability to listen, as well as the knowledge he brings to the table, is key.”
Brian Burgsma, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s director of small business and economic-development policy, shared Shelley’s optimism.
“It’s certainly great news,” Burgsma said. “David’s just a tremendous wealth of knowledge. He truly has a heart to improve the economic climate.”
The Office of Small Business Advocacy has partnered with the state Chamber and the NFIB’s state chapter to offer Regwatch, an online service that provides small-business owners with information about new rules or regulations that are filed, and an impact analysis.
Dorff’s office also has been at the forefront of SmallBizU, an online information center for small-business owners that state officials have touted as the largest collection of entrepreneurial training resources available on the Internet.
Other priorities include surveying entrepreneurs’ access to capital and whether the state is meeting their requirements, and studying health care costs and what effect mandates have on the price of insurance policies.
Dorff is on the road almost weekly, sharing the office’s “message” while visiting cities such as Evansville, Terre Haute, Anderson, South Bend and Gary.
Perhaps most important to entrepreneurs is Dorff’s practice of returning every call within 24 hours. It helps keep him and his staff focused on what companies are facing, he said.
“When you’re a small business, you can’t wait one or two weeks for a response,” he said. “My responsibility is to watch out for those that aren’t big enough to watch out for themselves. We exist to make dreams come true.”
Dorff’s knowledge of customer relations is rooted in his retailing days as chief operating officer of the former Cincinnati-based U.S. Shoe Corp. He arrived in the first quarter of the company’s 1993 fiscal year to craft a turnaround strategy. The corporation recorded a loss of $22 million the first three quarters of the fiscal year but managed to eke out a $7 million profit for the year. Dorff left in 1995 after Nine West purchased the company’s footwear group for $660 million. The unit was on track to record a profit of $73.4 million that year.
Dorff, who was hired at an annual salary of $56,700, came to his state job from the Ohio-based Tom Peters Co., a business training and education company where he served as president and managing director, and surely made more money. But Dorff said it should be one’s civic duty to serve government when asked.
He arrived in Indiana in 1998 to become chief financial officer of Acordia Inc., the Chicago-based insurance brokerage arm spun off from Indianapolis-based health insurer Anthem Inc., now WellPoint Inc.
During his time in flux, after Daniels won the election, Dorff received three job offers from companies in the United States and another from an international firm. With their youngest child graduating from high school this year, the Dorffs had little interest in leaving.
As Dorff, a native Southern Californian, said, being a Hoosier is a state of mind, not a birthright.