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Ken M. Clark and the U.S. Small Business Administration were both born in 1953. For almost 21 years, Clark has worked helping the 78,000 small businesses he estimates there are in San Diego County.
Clark counsels people running small businesses or looking to start them and coordinates workshops and seminars at a development center located at Southwestern College’s National City campus. He’s a counselor, but also at times a confidant and a problem solver.
“People and businesses have issues and struggle all day,” Clark said. The morning we spoke he’d helped an orthodontic lab trying to efficiently export dental impressions to Dubai.
We sat down with Clark, 56, to talk about what it takes to start a business, how he senses the local economy is turning around and how he feels about a resume that includes helping more than 5,000 businesses.
Could you describe a typical day?
I put out fires primarily. People call me generally when they have an issue. They want to know where to get money, they want to know “I want to add this new product or service to my business,” “I just hired my first employee, what do I do?,” “The marshal’s here taking the receipts out of the cash register, what do I do?”
I’ve got it down to “My compressor’s broken, what I do?” I said, “Call a mechanic.”
I help people access information. I help them make decisions, provide guidance, shoulder to cry on. There is an element of this job that is social service in nature. I get a lot of people that want to open a business because they’ve lost their job or “I’m recently divorced and I have to make my income for the first time in 30 years.” So those people are kind of thrown into this and they need resources to guide them through it. We try to avoid co-dependence on us. I tell them I’m not doing anything for them, I’m helping them get to where they want to go.
And what is important to you about doing that?
That people then make good decisions about whether or not they should start a business. A valid outcome of our services is that you choose not to start a business. Not every business makes sense: The market isn’t mature enough, it’s too competitive or they don’t have the real capital resources to participate. I get people all the time that want to manufacture a product. Well, that’s just not an easy thing to do without a lot of capital, and generally they don’t have any money and they’re coming from a situation where they just got laid off or whatever.
You said the other day “I have the best job because I get to help people realize their dreams.” Could you talk about that a little bit?
Their dream is for financial security for them and their families. They want to be their own boss, they want to be self-motivated and self-directed and empowered and when I can help somebody do that, it reflects well on the program and makes me feel good.
I’d be bored and dangerous if I didn’t come here and do this. I’m not looking forward to retirement. What am I going to do? I get a lot of satisfaction out of this. I like people. (It) makes me feel good that I can affect peoples’ lives and do a little good.
What are the things you’re most proud of in terms of success stories?
I’ve taken people who are on welfare to where they own companies that gross millions of dollars. They’re not making millions of dollars, they do a lot of sales. They make a good living too.
What’s some of the crazier ideas you’ve heard?
A lot of people come to me and say they’ve come up with something that nobody’s ever come up with before and then I go to the internet and go to the patent office archives and say “Whoops, somebody did that in 1968.” I’ve worked with people that have little things that hold plates while you’re having a drink at a cocktail reception? For your hands you know? I’ve had people do kite-winding stuff. People who do promotional products and throw things up in the stands.
What’s important about small businesses in the economy?
This is the major employer. Two-thirds of all jobs are created by small businesses. They’re a little squeezed now but everything’s a little bit squeezed now. The (local) economy has shifted to more of a service economy and hopefully we’ll capitalize on some of the biotech, high-tech stuff that goes along here, get a manufacturing base built back again. I’ve watched this economy be totally dependent on the military to less dependent on the military, totally involved with the manufacturers here. And those are just opportunities for us to train people to go on and find their new jobs.
Where do you see the economy going in San Diego? Do you see it turning around?
Yeah I can feel it turning around. A couple of people got loans lately, people aren’t complaining as much, people aren’t calling me to ask me questions on “What do I need to do to close my business down?” I’m getting existing businesses calling me asking to help them with opportunities. Those are great questions to answer.
And when did you start to see that turnaround?
Six months ago. It’s been bad, mainly because there’s been a lack of capital available. We are overleveraged. We’re not a society that saves very much money so businesses rely a lot on loans and things but they need to concentrate more on saving their money and having their own equity investments.
Do you feel lucky that you get to do what you love?
Yeah I feel I have a positive impact on people. This last year, we were all wondering what we would do — are we going to close the place down or whatever — and I just tell the people: “Who’s better equipped to go out there and find a new gig? Us.” That’s what we do, we help people start and go through problems. So if we have one, turn all that energy into yourself and we’ll be just fine. We all dusted off our resumes. When I got done with mine, I said I’ve counseled more than 5,000 businesses personally. Scores of millions of dollars in financing. Hundreds and hundreds of jobs. Looks good.
— Interview conducted and edited by DAGNY SALAS