Survey describes business pluses, minuses


Area business owners think the quality of life here and quality customer service are keys to their success, a recent survey shows.

Some say they want more opportunities to provide employee training.

The survey "gives us a lot of food for thought," said Jerry Waltari, who co-chairs the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce committee that requested the survey. "(The results) were pretty positive. Now we have a big challenge. The challenge is the committee has to do something with it."

Finding ways to increase acess to training is a high priority, he said.

Waltari, a Havre certified public accountant, said the first thing the Business Development Committee will do is compile a summary of the results to send to the people who responded.

The survey will be used to help area businesses and will be given to a Montana Economic Developers Association resource assessment team that will visit Havre and Hill County in November, said Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp. Bear Paw conducted the survey for the Chamber's Business Development Committee.

The assessment team will hold meetings Nov. 18 and 19 to prepare a report about the strengths and weaknesses of the community, Erickson said. The team is assembled, and now the details of the visit are being finalized.

Erickson said the survey showed both good things about operating a business in Havre and where improvements can be made, like how to improve the labor pool in the area.

"To help the business community, you have to know those kinds of things," he said.

A surprising response, both Waltari and Erickson said, was that many business owners said their business has improved in the last year, despite low agriculture prices and a lackluster economy.

Of the 139 responses, 42 percent said business was better and only 13 percent said it was worse, Erickson said.

"I think that's extraordinary," he added.

Of the 141 businesses that responded, 82 said they had been in business more than 15 years. Thirty-three said they had been in business seven years or less.

That shows that there are a substantial number of businesses that have been successful a long time, and that community members are creating new businesses, Erickson said.

"That's a plus," he added.

Most of the respondents have a small number of employees, with 71 saying they have zero to five.

Erickson added that the U.S. Small Business Administration defines a small business as one with fewer than 500 employees. Northern Montana Health Care and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway are the only businesses in Havre with more than 500 employees, he said.

Thirteen businesses said they have more than 20 employees. Fifty-three said their number of employees has increased in the last five years, with 28 saying that was due to an expanded share of existing markets.

The highest response to a question asking respondents to identify the best things about the area for business was the quality of life, with 55 responses. The quality of the work force was second, with 43 responses.

A question about the strengths of the respondent's own business received 138 responses. Of those, 88 percent, or 122 responses, said good customer service was a strength. Knowledge of the market received 83 responses, and the ability to change with the market received 63.

Erickson said a very interesting result of the study was that four businesses said they had products they think they could sell outside of the United States, and were interested in receiving help learning how to export products.

Waltari said a primary reason the committee did the survey was to prepare for the resource assessment team. The survey will provide valuable information to the team, he added.

"It's coming right from business respondents, what they think of our community," he said.

The teams, organized by the Montana Economic Developers Association, visit communities and hold meetings to talk with people from the community. The team then files a report, with sections written by each member of the team, listing strengths, weaknesses and possible projects to improve the community.

Reports have been done for Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, Liberty County and Chinook as well as Big Sandy. Erickson said the idea for the survey came from one done in Big Sandy to prepare for a team's visit last spring.

Mike Evans, co-owner of Valley Furniture and Serv-Ur-Self Furniture, said he thinks the efforts to find the strengths and weaknesses of the community will be a help to business. He said he expects the resource assessment team to also be very beneficial.

"It will be good to get someone from outside looking in and to be open-minded and honest about what this community is doing that's good, and maybe not good, if we're all open-minded and say, 'Here's our strengths but here's what we need,'" he said.

Erickson said the return rate of the survey was fairly low, but that he is pleased with the results.

"Most that responded would be recognized as successful businesses," he said. "Some very competent, successful business people took the time to take the survey."

The rate was 141 of 420 surveys sent out, or 33.6 percent returned.

The Chamber survey had some seemingly contradictory responses, Erickson said. For example, 61 percent of the surveys rated their business' employees as excellent, and 55 percent listed good customer service as the most important part of their business' success. At the same time, 61 percent said they would like to see customer service training provided.

Evans said he thinks additional training, in customer service or otherwise, is always beneficial.

"I think you learn something every day, and if there's a tool out there that would help our employees and people do a better job with customer service and relations, I think it would be great," he said.

Waltari said many business owners identified training they would like to have available for their employees. He said the committee will work to provide more training as well as make business owners aware of many programs that already are offered in the area.

Erickson said the survey showed a need to increase awareness of what's already available. Customer service workshops and classes in business planning and computer skills are available, and the business owners need to be better informed about them, he said.

The same could be done with services and products, Erickson said. Some respondents said some products and services are not available in the area or are too expensive, and some research and marketing might change that perception, he said.

Evans said marketing local products and services would reduce the perception that businesses need to shop outside the community. His businesses do all of their shopping locally, he said.

"I don't see why you'd have to go outside of Hill County," he said.


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