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Smaller Business Create Economic Boom

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 4:30 PM

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Dr. Mark Gamalinda

Can small businesses really grow enough to help the overall economy? Our Changing Gears team has been looking at magic bullets - the big ideas that can solve our economic crisis. Changing Gears Niala Boodhoo takes a look behind something you hear a lot of talk about - helping our small businesses.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

Obama: We genuinely believe small business is the backbone of America, it’s going to the key for us to be able to put a lot of folks back to work.

That’s President Obama earlier this year. Warm feelings about small business come at all levels, and on both sides of the aisle. Here’s Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Synder this summer:

Synder: Talk about the jobs you’re creating, even if it’s one job - that is the backbone of the reinvention of Michigan.

Or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last week at the SmallBizExpo:

Emanuel: Nothing is more important to our economic expansion than the small business of Chicago and the small business of tomorrow that will be in Chicago.

It’s more than just political talk. Michigan exempted most small business from its 6 percent corporate tax rate. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County is shifting its economic development strategy to help small to medium sized businesses.

All of this got University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst thinking:

Hurst: Is is true that most small businesses contribute to job growth? The answer is no.

He teaches at the Booth School of Business. Hurst just published research based on an analysis of federal government and foundational data about small businesses.

First though - here’s one important distinction. The Small Business Administration defines small businesses differently according to the type of company -for example, in the case of manufacturing, the SBA thinks a small business is anything with less than 500 workers.

Hurst uses a definition of small businesses of having one to 19 employees. That’s actually what 90 percent of the businesses in this country are - they have 20 or fewer workers.

In Illinois, three-quarters of the one million small businesses are made up of just one person - people who are self-employed.

Hurst’s research also looked at intentions of small business owners - and this is the big thing - a lot of them don’t want to grow.

Hurst: The vast majority of small businesses are in a very few handful of industries, like your local dentist, your local plumber, your local shopkeeper, and most of them never grow. And ones that do grow - the Googles, the Groupons, the Wal-Marts, are very rare of small businesses that start, and moreover, most small businesses like your local dentist, have no desire to either innovate or grow.

(Dentist suction ambi; Dr. Gamalinda: close your lips again)

Dr. Mark Gamalinda has had a dental practice in the North side Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville for almost 25 years.

Gamalinda: It was just me, myself and I for the first year and just slowly growing the practice and then um using more and more staff as the practice grew.

(Bring up calm music)

Dr. Gamalinda seems like the perfect dentist for nervous patients. He’s quiet, his office an oasis of warm, golden walls. Quotes from people like Emily Dickinson are painted inside patient rooms.

Gamalinda: So I have to trim the tooth done a little bit - I think if you’re willing to wait a few seconds I don’t have to numb you to do it.

And his practice has grown, with a patient base up to almost four thousand people, and three assistants, a hygienist and a receptionist.

He goes to Costco to buy supplies. He supports small, local business too. He sends out some work to a local lab, and uses another company that makes crowns and other dental prosthetics he can’t make himself.

And now that he’s 50, he’s thinking about adding one final worker - another dentist who can eventually take over his practice.

The Andersonville Chamber of Commerce says the few blocks that make up its business area are 93 percent locally owned like Dr. Gamalinda’s. Ellen Shepard is in charge of the chamber.

Ellen: When we think about the model for economic growth, I think we have to think less of the growth of the wealth of the economy and more towards the growth of self sufficiency, internally, within communities.

It’s clear those big companies - those Googles, and Groupons - and yes, Wal-Marts still are the biggest drivers of the economy, and of job creation. But Shepard says that doesn’t mean we should count out even the one-man business - because maybe a healthy combination of both is what the new economy should be.

For Changing Gears, I’m Niala Boodhoo.

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