Monday, November 21, 2005

Helping Solano County Business Flourish

November 20, 2005

Helping Solano County Business Flourish -- Two Groups Build Relationships, Focus Dreams, Enhance Economic Growth
By Nathan Halverson

FAIRFIELD - What do a portable coffee shop in Dixon and biotech giant Genentech have in common?

The answer is a little office in Fairfield that houses both the Solano Economic Development Corp. and the Solano College Small Business Development Center.

From the same modest space, these two groups work to create new jobs and generate new revenue for Solano County and the seven cities within its boundaries.

But the groups operate dichotomously in two drastically different worlds.

The Solano College Small Business Development Center, under the leadership of director Charles Eason, works primarily with business owners who employ from one to three workers.

In contrast, the Solano EDC, with guidance from president Michael Ammann and vice president Sandy Person, works with companies such as Genentech, which employs upward of 9,000 people.

The scales are vastly different, but the overall mission is the same: Assist economic growth in Solano County.

Grassroots Entrepreneurship

A little before 6:30 a.m. Friday, Jacqueline Murphy pulled her conversion van into the Kaiser Permanente parking lot in Vacaville.

Construction workers from the adjacent project site began mulling around the van. They knew what was coming.

Soon Murphy would throw open her doors and sell the coffee, espresso and pastries she's become known for.

But this is a far cry from where she started. Murphy is a former IBM employee who long harbored the dream to open her own restaurant.

It was just under two years ago she began to realize that dream when she enrolled in a 10-week program hosted by the Solano College Small Business Development Center. The educational program, known as Next Level, helped Murphy focus her dream into a solid business plan.

"I needed a mentor, I needed someone to bounce ideas off of," she said. Along with a mentor, she got access to the center's business library, Internet resources and business specialists for free.

The Solano center receives 50 percent of its roughly $250,000 budget from the state, 40 percent are federal funds and 10 percent come from local government.

Every year it holds about 100 workshops, which have varying nominal costs, to assist small business owners. Last year, more than 1,800 people enrolled in its classes.

California business owners need all the help they can get.

The Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council ranked California the worst in public policy climate for small businesses.

"We'd like to see less regulations on small businesses. It's tough for small businesses to make it," Ammann said.

In the meantime, Ammann and his support staff work to help prospective and established business owners through the maze.

When Murphy, with help from the center, began to understand what she was up against she took a different approach to her dream.

"I love to cook," she said. "But when I started looking at the regulations and risk-factors to opening a restaurant, it dampened my desire."

Working with a Next Level mentor, she began looking more seriously at what had initially been an idea for a side project: A mobile coffee shop.

She could open this business without having to borrow money and the marketing research showed good prospects.

With the help of the program, she opened the business in May and has not looked back.

"I'm really having a ball," she said.

Growing Bigger Business

Solano EDC's Ammann hurried into the biotech conference. He sat front row as the co-founder of the biotech firm Renovis approached the podium.

Ammann was surrounded by scientists and corporate executives - the players of the biotech world.

Most of the faces were familiar to him, as well they should have been.

Since joining Solano EDC a little more than two years ago, Ammann has traipsed around the Bay Area, the state and even the country getting to know the big guns of the biotech world.

But it's not just biotech. Ammann rarely spends a whole week in the office. He's too busy networking with the leaders of various industries and professions.

He spends a good deal of time engaging the directors of corporate real estate agencies that are frequently tapped by large firms such as Genentech to find suitable land to build new offices or manufacturing plants.

When these directors begin brainstorming locations for their clients, Ammann wants his familiar face to pop into their minds. And more importantly, he wants the area he represents - Solano County - to always be considered.

"We facilitate investment in this community," Ammann said.

Solano EDC's Person provides the more lively assessment of what they do.

"We kiss a lot of frogs on behalf of the county," Person said.

They know one or more of these leads could result in the next economic prince of Solano County.

Genentech has become one such economic prince. The company employees more than 700 people at its Vacaville manufacturing plant.

Genentech opened the plant in 1998. But by 2003, the company was looking to expand, although not necessarily in Vacaville.

Communities from across the country, even other countries, were throwing millions of dollars in incentives at Genentech to open a plant in their area.

"The world is competing for biotech," Person said. "It has high-paying jobs, which is the creme de la creme."

The County's Advantage

While the world was competing for Genentech's blockbuster business, the state government was a mess. The recall was going on. Former governor Gray Davis had recently dissolved the California Department of Commerce.

There was little concerted effort by the state to retain Genentech, according to Ammann and Person.

"We don't control incentives. We don't control property," Ammann said. "But we had some things going for us that $100 million in incentives couldn't overcome."

Executives at Genentech knew Solano County. They knew Vacaville. They had already worked with business leaders in the area and there were fewer unknowns.

"It was the relationships that reduced the risk to Genentech," Ammann said. To the risk-adverse Genentech that made the difference, Ammann said.

Genentech announced it would expand its Vacaville facilities in April 2004.

Now the Solano EDC, which receives about 60 percent of its funding from private donors and 40 percent from public sources such as the county and cities, is working with other firms to help them locate or expand in Solano County.

The organization provides interested parties with detailed information on land, politics and the names and numbers of local business leaders.

This year, they will launch an electronic news list and make improvements on their online database and Solano Prospector, an online mapping tool for land research.

But ultimately, they're effort to build economic growth in Solano County boils down to one word: Relationships.

Nathan Halverson can be reached at 425-4646 X267 or

Info Box:

Shared Address: 424-C Executive Court North, Fairfield

Organization: Solano Economic Development Corporation
President: Michael Ammann
Phone Number: (888) 864-1855
Web site:

Organization: Solano College Small Business Development Center
Director: Charles Eason
Phone Number: (707) 864-3382
Web site:

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