Category: Co-directors of AERN

Hanninen First Came Up with the Idea for AERN

By Kirsten J. Barnes

After serving as director of The University of Alabama's Small Business Development Center for a number of years (he would never tell me how many) Paavo Hanninen was presented with an opportunity to take the work he was doing in Tuscaloosa at the Culverhouse College of Commerce's Center for Business and Economic Research to would-be entrepreneurs across rural Alabama.

Hanninen, along with Annette Watters, became co-director of the Alabama Entrepreneurial Research Network, starting with four counties and growing that number to 17 more than 11 years ago.

"We were presented with an opportunity and we came up with an idea to take some resources and use them with some initial counties," said Hanninen, who holds a master's of business administration from the University of Mississippi. "People got very interested in it. It's gotten great support from the top down and it's just a pretty good idea that gained traction."

Over the years, the program has expanded into the following 17 counties: Bibb, Butler, Chambers, Choctaw, Dallas, Fayette, Greene, Macon, Marengo, Marion, Monroe, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, Tallapoosa, Washington and Wilcox counties.

The concept was Hanninen's very own, pieced together through his many years of working with small business owners.

"It was based on the idea that we wanted to put the resources at the community level," Hanninen said. "We'd give them resources and tools to be able to help them in their own community rather than waiting for someone like me to come with a briefcase from 50 miles away. The idea is teaching folks to fish and not to just give them fish."

Most of the community agency partners are local Chambers of Commerce or libraries. Each partner agency is provided a toolkit of resources to encourage and assist potential and existing local entrepreneurs. The toolkit includes business reference materials, business planning software and computer technology.

The concept is not only popular across the UA campus; it is popular across rural Alabama.

"I just think that being an AERN partner agency is a plus in our area due to our population," said Sheryl Smedley, the director of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce. "Not every small city can have what we have here. We're very fortunate to have the resources provided by AERN."

It seems getting the word out about the program is the biggest challenge, but those who know about it are immediately interested.
"Everybody who comes in says they had no idea that we had anything like this in our community," Smedley said. "They go out and spread the word."

Smedley said not only has AERN helped several individual business owners in the Dallas County area, but that AERN also has helped her Chamber with training and business development programs.

"Paavo was like a support pillar," Smedley said. "If something needed to be done, he would see it through. If my board of directors needed a workshop, I could go to him. He helped me with a customer service workshop. I just told him what I needed and he put it all together."

Hanninen said this is the way the program is supposed to work. Business owners do not have to be members of the Chamber to qualify for the free resources. However, they do have to operate a business in one of the counties with an AERN partner.

"While I had been doing this, the schedule and resources were sporadic," Hanninen said. "I saw this as a way to create a permanent knowledge presence in the community injected at the community level in the chamber and other local entities we could identify."

AERN collects research on the companies it assists and the counties it operates in. Since 2006 it estimates 860 jobs have been saved or created at companies that used AERN resources.

Until a replacement is named AERN Outreach Coordinator Mary Patterson will coordinate the program.

"I have enjoyed working with Paavo and sharing his vision for AERN.  He has helped me to make the connections and learn the needs of entrepreneurs in rural Alabama," Patterson said. "Paavo is a great communicator and always knew the territory and the people of rural Alabama, and they welcomed his expertise and assistance.  He was very good at assessing the needs of the small business owner and getting the resources from the University of Alabama down to the ground level."

Hanninen placed emphasis on developing a network of community partners and said one of the challenges has been finding partners in every community who can take ownership of the project and discovering ways to tweak the concept to fit each and every rural community.

"Finding the correct partner locally is the key," Hanninen said. "It has to be someone who can take it and champion it and nurture it. We've got a lot of success in a lot of communities, but different things happen in different places."

But that's exactly what he likes most about AERN. It reaches people at the community level with the ability to offer immediate assistance.

"Through his vision and passion for AERN, the network has grown, and small business has prospered and added jobs to the local communities," Patterson said. "He has taught me well how to train the partners, and provide the seminars and workshops that are valued in areas where information is not as easily obtained as in a larger city."

Each location is in rural, middle-and-low income communities often left crippled by business closures.

His concept provides people with good information about launching or expanding a business enabling entrepreneurs to make meaningful economic decisions.

"I've always been kind of a guy who likes to get out in the community and meet folks and get to know them at the local level," said Hanninen, adding that AERN allowed him to get out into the community more than his previous position. "You get some satisfaction out of hearing the stories and it's just overall thoroughly interesting work."

Hanninen, who returned to AERN part-time after retiring in December of 2010 and stepped away again in January 2012, said he is not opposed to working with UA again or other agencies contractually as long as he can have the flexibility he needs for his teenage child.

"I have a 13-year-old child. I need flexibility," Hanninen said.

Watters' Vision of AERN Remained a Constant

By Kirsten J. Barnes

Annette Watters came to The University of Alabama as a freshman in the mid-1970s and until May 31, 2012, never left.

"I've been with the university since the late 1970s," said Watters who has earned a bachelor's and two master's degrees from The University.

Although she has worked in several areas of the university, since 1980 she has worked for the Culverhouse College of Commerce. The college runs the Center for Business and Economic Research, which operates the Alabama Entrepreneurial Research Network, where Watters served as director in addition to her duties as director of the Alabama State Data Center, a federal partnership program with the United States Census Bureau.

AERN was started 11 years ago based on an idea by her then co-director Paavo Hanninen, who also worked for the College of Commerce.

"I was just in the right place at the right time to be a mother to this program," Watters said. "I think maybe it had something to do with my personality. I am extraverted enough that I like to meet people and do things outside of the campus and I'm also introverted enough to write the grants and do the paperwork and keep the accounts. It was the perfect mix for me."

The program targets entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs in 17 rural, economically challenged counties throughout Alabama. Until her replacement is named, Outreach Coordinator Mary Patterson will oversee the program.

Patterson said she is glad to have been able to work with Watters.

"It has been a rewarding experience to work with Annette for the past year and five months, and to help her accomplish the goals of AERN," Patterson said. "She is dedicated, detailed and prompt in her responses to the needs of the rural partners and entrepreneurs; and I was always impressed at the many hats she wore within the College of Commerce and Business Administration."

Today the program, which started in four counties, operates partner agencies in the following areas: Bibb, Butler, Chambers, Choctaw, Dallas, Fayette, Greene, Macon, Marengo, Marion, Monroe, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, Tallapoosa, Washington and Wilcox counties.

"My favorite part has been getting to know people in rural Alabama," Watters said. "The interactions I've had with people who are tying real hard to make their communities a better place has been very rewarding."

Recently, Watters gave a presentation at the AERN Annual Meeting where she noted the recent accomplishments of the program. Having a background in collecting data for research, Watters' presentation focused on specialized information afforded those who take advantage of AERN. She cited nearly 900 jobs that had been created or saved using resources provided by AERN and the availability of more than 700 reports on industries, markets, economic trends, and other areas.

"There have been new jobs that have been created and there has been documentation of jobs that have been saved which has a discernible economic impact in the rural areas," Watters said. "There's been a lot of education that has gone into that. I think a good many more people in rural Alabama are now smarter about what it takes to run a successful small business in Alabama because of this program."

Most of the community agency partners are local Chambers of Commerce or libraries. Each partner agency is provided a toolkit of resources to encourage and assist potential and existing local entrepreneurs. The toolkit includes business reference materials, business planning software and computer technology.

Allison Tucker is the director of the Sumter County Alabama Chamber of Commerce, which houses one of the newest partner agencies that Watters assisted in establishing.

"She's been very easy to work with," Tucker said of Watters. "If I had any questions, I would just call Annette and she was really quick to respond. I haven't had any problems."

Sheryl Smedley, director of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, feels the same way about Watters and her efforts to assist the directors in finding resources and providing local business owners with options.

"I can't say enough about Annette," Smedley said. "If I got in a pinch or if somebody called and said they needed something, I could always go to Annette."

It's assisting the chamber directors and the individual business owners that Watters said she would miss the most.

"I will miss the interaction I have with our partner agencies in the different counties," Watters said. "I really like the people I have met in rural Alabama."

Watters can be sure her mark will be felt on the program for years to come.

"Her heart was truly in AERN, and she worked tirelessly to find funding for the program and to assist rural business owners with information and research to help them be successful." Patterson said. "Annette is a great leader and always enjoyed mentoring the success of rural businesses by bringing the University of Alabama's expertise to the community level.  As she retires, we realize the contributions she has made to the University of Alabama and to the quality of life in distressed rural counties."

In fact, before she retired one of her last tasks was securing a grant that will add two new partner agencies.

"We have a grant that will enable Lamar and Hale counties to come in," Watters said. "I'm glad to be leaving, knowing that this has been accomplished."

Although leaving the program, Watters knows she and Hanninen have laid a strong foundation for others to build upon.

"I hope that AERN can expand in a couple of different ways. I hope we can continue to add counties that are interested and that want to belong to this network, but I also hope we can integrate into the engaged scholarship of the University of Alabama in a permanent and deep way," said Watters, referring to a scholarship philosophy, which connects the development of sustainable community programs to research. "I think there are a lot of cross campus partnerships that we can forge if we get the momentum right. I think there are a lot of possibilities."

For now, Watters said she is looking forward to retirement and the chance to catch up on projects long neglected because of a busy work schedule.

"I think I might learn to cook three nutritious meals a day," Watters said. "Whatever I do it will be here in Tuscaloosa. My husband's not retiring."

Watters has been married to John Watters, who also works for UA, for 42 years. The couple has one daughter, Allison Watters, who is a UA graduate and works as a public relations practitioner in New York.