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Five Business Burdens

Oct 1, 2007

There are very few entrepreneurs who would trade owning their own business for anything in the world. That doesn't mean business ownership is easy, however.

Business owners admit that it can be a real headache sometimes. Here they discuss some of the most difficult burdens and challenges that could wreak havoc if not faced head on. While there are no magic cures, these owners have developed creative ways of coping.

  1. Handling Health Care
    Health care insurance can be one of an owner's biggest headaches. In 2003, Tonya Jones and four of her employees learned they were being dropped from the insurance plan they had since the early 1980s. Jones knew that finding a new plan would mean paying more, but didn't realize just how much.

    The first policy she researched would have cost her $700 a month per employee, for a total of $3,500. Her rent is $2,000 a month, "And they wanted almost double that for health insurance? It's as if all we are working for is health insurance, and that's ridiculous," she said.

    When they lost coverage in 2003, several employees were immediately able to find alternate coverage, either through their spouses' plans or on their own, for which Jones' Mark IV construction company reimbursed up to $280 a month. But up until two months ago, Jones and two of her employees had been uninsured.

    While searching for coverage, Jones said she tried to make up for the lack of health benefits in other ways. Besides the health insurance premium reimbursements, Jones contributed at least eight percent of her employees' annual income into pension plans, which amounted to several thousand dollars each year. "It wasn't the best deal, but it was the best I could do," she said.

    After four years of looking for new coverage and experiencing what she calls, "a really rocky roller coaster," she finally found a plan this spring. The plan, a PPO, is not as flexible as Jones had hoped, but it was the only plan her company could afford.

    Since finding coverage, some of those pension funds have had to shift to cover the cost of the health insurance plans, which she said might also affect the competitiveness of her company's pricing. "For every dollar I pay my employees, it costs me $1.53," she said. "In order to be profitable, I have to make up for that in other ways."

    Jones is not alone in her frustration. The cost of health care has ranked number one on the National Federation of Independent Business', "Small Business Problems and Priorities," list since 1986.

    When the next edition of the survey comes out in 2008, the problem of finding affordable health care is expected to top the list again. Luckily, Congress has caught on to the growing problem. In 2003, President Bush signed health savings account (HAS) legislation into law, giving small business owners a more affordable alternative to traditional health insurance plans.

    At the close of the 109th Congress, the president signed another bill, which enhanced the HSA program. But other sensible healthcare reforms for small business, such as Small Business Health Plans, tax incentives, relief from health insurance mandates, and transparency in healthcare costs, have yet to become a reality.

  2. Rising Gas Prices
    Rising gas prices don't just impact a small retailer's customer base. They also have additional impacts on the business. When gas prices started rising above the $1.50 a gallon mark in 2004, Patrick Nichting's bottom line immediately felt the sting.

    Like many businesses, Panco Food Service Equipment Corporation in Peoria, IL relies on its fleet of trucks to deliver commercial refrigerators, freezers and cooking equipment to its retail and wholesale customers. No matter how high the price rose at the pumps, the demand for deliveries stayed the same.

    "The margins in our industry are so small to begin with that I couldn't afford to eat the increases in gas prices," Nichting said. But raising prices wasn't an option, because it would price him out of the market.

    Cutting costs was not an option either, since Panco already operates on a tight budget. He had no other choice but to pass the cost on to his customers. Nichting started charging for delivery, a first in the family business' 25 year history. "There's just no such thing as free delivery anymore," he said. "And I hope my customers understand that."

    His competitors also charge for delivery, but he tries to make sure his are the lowest. "I don't expect gas prices to fall back down to $1.50 a gallon. If we don't adapt our business to this new reality, then we can't survive," he concluded.

  3. Retaining Cash Flow
    The past 12 months have been a whirlwind for Colin Roche and Bobby Ronsse, who in 2001 founded Pacific Writing Instruments, based in Pacifica, CA. The whirlwind comes from success.

    Their company's ergonomic pen, the Pen Again, is now carried in more than 2,000 stores, including Wal-Mart, Office Depot, Publix and FedEx Kinko's. They have found that business growth can be a double edged sword.

    "Before our product got into the big stores, we weren't selling as many pens, but business was steadier, the fluctuations weren't as big and the dollar amounts were certainly a lot smaller," Ronsse said. "If we needed $10,000, we could find it pretty easily from our own savings, a bank loan or a business line of credit. "But when you're selling 100,000 pens, and you have to pay your factory $50,000 before you get paid for those pens, then your sources for solving cash flow problems are a lot more limited." The key, Ronsse says, is to be prepared by lining up and weighing options way before feeling a cash squeeze. "There's always a way to get the money," he said. "It just depends on how much you want to give up. Money's not free, so you either have to pay interest or give up equity in your company to investors."

    Besides having investors by their side from day one, Ronsse and his partner worked out, "pay when paid," arrangements with some of their subsuppliers, including the factory that makes the pens. "It's a best case scenario, but not something you can count on," he said. His company was able to obtain it because it had a reputation for paying on time and providing a steady stream of business.

    As a backup, Roche said they also looked into a process called factoring, or accounts receivable funding. Like many retailers, the company could sell a purchase order at a discount to a third party lender (the factor), which would then be paid by the store that ordered the pens. This process would let Pacific pay for the up front costs of a big order, but would require them to take a loss on the profits from the sale. It isn't ideal, but it could save a business from a cash flow crunch.

    You can be a very successful company, be profitable and still go out of business, the partners noted. "You have to have quick access to capital. Nothing else matters if you can't pay your bills," Ronsse said.

  4. Finding and Keeping Employees
    Having trouble finding qualified workers is a good problem, because it signals that the overall economy is strong. But it's not good if you're a small business owner looking to fill a position fast.

    When Mudhouse Advertising in Albuquerque, NM landed its first big account, owner Mario Burgos needed to hire fast. Eager to fill positions, he placed ads in local newspapers. But New Mexico's unemployment rate is generally lower than the national average, and in this tight labor market, some of the applicants had fewer qualifications than Burgos was looking for. Still, he hired them.

    "We didn't really have the time to wait for the perfect person to walk through the door," he said. As Burgos knows firsthand, hiring too quickly can be just as detrimental to your business as not hiring at all.

    "When you don't have the right people, it disrupts the workflow more than anything," he said. "We're already working 12 hour days. So there's really no one to pick up the slack. If they can't do the job you need them to do, you have to find someone else who can."

    Burgos now relies on business referrals, and keeps qualified applicants on the radar, even when he's not looking to hire anytime soon. "It's good to have that network built up, so that when you do need to add staff, you have a list of prescreened candidates."

    Once he snags a star, Burgos knows he has to work hard to keep the employee from jumping ship. Unlike in a big business, where the ladder to success might be more clearly defined, roles in a small business, especially when it's growing, can be hard to see. "We can't compete with big businesses on that. Here, roles are always changing. And what your next position will be depends on our growth as a company, not necessarily on how long you've been here."

    To help offset those blurry job roles common in small business, Burgos offers generous benefits packages and tries to capitalize on what sets Mudhouse apart from its bigger competitors. "We give our employees the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles, which they might not get at a bigger firm," he said. "We try to involve our people in different decisions, both on the business side and the creative side. We also encourage them to not be stuck inside their job description," he added.

  5. Meeting the Tax Burden
    David Lee doesn't complain about the tax system because he wants to avoid paying taxes. He complains about it because, like almost every small business owner in America, he finds the tax system onerous and time consuming. Of the 20 full time employees at Lee & Associates, based in Harrisonburg, VA, it takes the equivalent of four of them just to comply with the company's tax requirements.

    Their productivity could be spent in other ways. Instead, it goes to Uncle Sam, because, Lee said, "We want to pay our fair share of taxes, but sometimes that seems like such a moving target."

    The tax burden on small businesses is not only a heavy one, it's also disproportional, said NFIB Tax Counsel, Macey Davis. "Small firms spend 67 percent more per employee on tax compliance than large firms do. Over the years, we've crafted a tax system that is so complex and burdensome that small business owners have no other choice but to spend valuable resources on recordkeeping and outside help on compliance, instead of using those resources to grow their businesses."

    NFIB has achieved some victories in the fight for small business tax relief. Among them are the reduction of federal income tax rates, an increase in the expensing limit for small businesses, and a temporary stay on the death tax. Earlier this year, NFIB worked to make sure that small business owners would be able to offset an increase in the federal minimum wage with a package of growth oriented tax incentives, including an extension and expansion of the small business expensing provision, the addition of the cash accounting method to the Internal Revenue Code, and an extension and expansion of the 15 year depreciation schedule for qualified business improvements. But the fight is far from over. At the top of Lee's list of taxes he'd like to see abolished forever is the death tax, which, while phased out temporarily, will return to its full 55 percent in 2011 if Congress doesn't pass permanent repeal. For Lee, whose grandmother owned an excavating business, the death tax really hits home. When his grandmother died, "the taxes were so immense that we had to sell the business," he says. "And it had been in the family for 50 years."

    Lee, who was instrumental in helping eliminate the Virginia estate tax, equates the death tax to, "killing the goose that laid the golden egg for one big fancy dinner." The government's not really collecting the revenue they think they are, he pointed out. "They may get a large check, but the destabilization that comes from the death tax creates instability in a small economy."

    In addition, NFIB's Davis says, the death tax discourages business growth. "The larger your assets, the more taxes you'll pay, or the more estate planning required to avoid paying the tax," she said, adding, "it's a very expensive process."

    While the decision to repeal the death tax is in the hands of lawmakers, Lee said it's up to small business owners to make sure they understand why the tax is so egregious. "Lawmakers can't be experts on every aspect of what goes on in your state. It's our job to educate them on what we need for our small businesses to remain healthy."

This article was edited from a story in My Business, the magazine published by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). For more information on NFIB initiatives, visit www.nfib.com and www.mybusinessmag.com.

Topic: Business Strategies

Related Articles: entrepreneurs  marketing 

Article ID: 352

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