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.