J.D. Collins became state director of the Grand Rapids-based Small Business Development Center in mid-December. He spent years at larger organizations — Fifth Third Bank, Amway, Spectrum Health — working as a technologist and innovator “before I really found my niche.” Collins also ran his own consulting firm, Collins Innovations LLC, and was chief innovation officer at a heavy equipment technology startup. Based at the Grand Valley State University Seidman College of Business, the SBDC provides consulting, training, market research and other support for entrepreneurs and small businesses across the state. With a staff of 90, the organization offers services to more than 5,500 small businesses annually. Collins spoke with MiBiz about his plans at the SBDC.
What attracted you to the position at the SBDC?
Through (Collins Innovations), I ended up with a number of clients over the years and really found my love affair with helping out small businesses. What attracted me to the SBDC is that I could take my influence and multiply it times the resources that we have here. My client list has gone from a dozen to over 5,000 on an annual basis. The position has this altruistic feel to it, meaning that we’re working on something bigger than ourselves on behalf of the state of Michigan to drive that small business economy.
How does your background help you in leading the organization?
The big business component really helped me hone my leadership style, my communication style, because that’s a lot of what is required of running a lot of larger organizations. What I got as an entrepreneur and a small business owner was some of these skills I can lend to our consultants to say, ‘a small business is these things,’ and also to help them focus around the clarity of our services because small business owners are pulled in a million different directions. If we can be very concise and to the point with our advice and counsel, they’re going to be miles ahead of other organizations.
What are your priorities for the year ahead?
I’ve come up with these strategic pillars in my first weeks here. They revolve around diversity and inclusion, making sure that our services remain relevant in an emerging economy and emerging technical economy, and trying to bake efficiencies into the system because there’s so much we could be doing. The demand for our services is very high right now, and we have to make sure the wait to come see us and have a face-to-face, one-on-one interview isn’t multiple weeks. How do we become more efficient at the triage and getting people in to see a consultant as quickly as possible?
What’s driving up the demand for services?
What we see is a correlation between the economy and the demand for some of our services. It’s economy-driven. But when you look at areas that have traditionally depressed economies, we’re having the most demand for our services in places like the Upper Peninsula right now. Their numbers have been very, very strong for the last five to 10 years.
How is the role of the SBDC evolving?
When we talk about remaining relevant, we have to be focused on what are the emerging trends. As we focus on those emerging trends, how do we keep our services relevant with that? We’ve done that recently with some new programs around cybersecurity and technology commercialization, as well as export assistance. What we have to do is keep our finger on the pulse of those trends and continue to innovate our programs.
What are some of the emerging needs you’ve identified in your early days?
We are a dispersed group across the state and how do we share best practices internally. We’re working on some internal communications components so we can share those best practices and successes internally. From our services standpoint, we are looking at those trends and trying to make sure our services match what the market needs. Whether that’s in artificial intelligence or technology-based services, we want to be at the ready for that. With some of the changes in tariffs that are going on right now, our export assistance is obviously something that has been of increased visibility.
Where does the SBDC get involved in M&A and transition planning for business owners?
Our number-one course that we offer is a buy-sell course, and that is all around transition planning, typically from generation to generation of family business ownership or family business owners that are looking to exit and those that are looking to enter into that space. So that is perhaps one of our success stories from the last few years. Those services are highly sought after right now.
The top issue for so many businesses right now is attracting and keeping qualified talent. How can the SBDC help out in that area?
Part of our service is to help new businesses get their start, and part of that is helping them with organizational plans and whatnot. I would see our role as establishing the right roles, the right seats, and ensuring that they find the right talent to fit those needs. Beyond that, it’s really on the business’ need to execute. We are an advice, counsel and planning arm for them. We can certainly help them with that planning component because so many times employee dissatisfaction comes out of the wrong fit, and perhaps our biggest role is helping find the right roles and guiding them toward the right fit for the individual.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.