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Mentors making a difference

BUSINESS mentors are providing a helping hand to fledgling small businesses.

These mentors are experienced business people who listen, communicate and guide rather than take over the running of the business.

The Small Business Development Corporation runs a voluntary mentor service that is provided free to the client and is always seeking new mentors.

SBDC managing director George Etrelezis said the program provided a valuable service to new and existing businesses.

"Owners of established businesses can experience isolation when trying to increase market share, take on new products or manage business growing pains," he said.

"These everyday business problems can seem less stressful if talked through with someone outside the business. Getting too big too quickly is also a time when strong management skills are needed and guidance can help to lower stress levels."

The SBDC has about 100 mentors on its books.

Business operator Ian MacDonald decided to enlist the services of a mentor in 1999 for his APC Group which makes and instals storage equipment such as pallet stacking racks.

He had bought the business from his father, who still remained involved.

"But then my father died and the company lacked wisdom. We were all fairly young people," Mr MacDonald said.

"I need someone to force me to look at my business differently.

"Because I was emotionally attached to the business I was only looking at it with one eye. I needed to look at it through both."

Mr MacDonald said he had approached the SBDC in the hope of finding a mentor with marketing experience as his company was just starting to expand its operations.

"I had no knowledge of what to expect," he said.

"My mentor forced me to identify facets of my business that I had taken for granted and had never actually sat down and thought about. These included the company’s strengths and weaknesses, the direction of the business, long-term planning, investment policies and critical investment opportunities.

"Basically I used to run my business by the seat of my pants and having a mentor forced me to look at it like a map, in a visual way that was easy to understand and follow."

Mr MacDonald said it was important to find a mentor who was a good match for the business.

"I would not have persevered if the match had not been right," he said.

Mr Etrelezis said being a business mentor did not need to take up a lot of time, which is why it often suited retired people.

"We suggest a weekly telephone call and a once a month face-to-face meeting to build a good mentoring relationship," he said.

"However, this is flexible and depends on mutual needs and commitments."

Retiree John Saint decided to become a mentor six years ago.

Originally from Perenjori in the Mid West, Mr Saint trained as a manual arts teacher before becoming a teacher trainer.

He spent nearly 20 years as a head of department in the Advance College at Melbourne’s RMIT University before retiring.

Mr Saint said the most important skill a mentor needed was to be a superb listener.

"The client knows their business far better than you ever will so it’s important to listen to the client talk about their business rather than making any assumptions about what the business should or shouldn’t be doing," he said.

"A mentor also needs to hear the words the client is using because they won’t be using the same language as you. And you need to be able to use their words to speak to them."

Mr Saint said the majority of clients were hard working and dedicated but their businesses were often going backward.

"Often they are not equipped with the management skills to understand fully what is expected of them," he said.

 

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