As a consultant, Jonathan Field spends most of his day talking with entrepreneurs who run small businesses. He has become concerned as of late.
"At the beginning of the year, there seemed to be an increase in economic activity. (But) talking with people over the last six weeks or so, it's almost like someone has turned off the spout," Field said. "I wish I could tell you why and what's causing it."
A slowdown may be tied to stubbornly tight credit conditions and crimped cash flow, he says. Maybe it's part of the spring slump that is reverberating nationally, the European monetary crisis or the impact of economic slumps in markets like China and Brazil trickling down to Florida.
Whatever the cause, Field, 39, is not counting on a quick fix. The local economy, he predicts, will continue to limp along until at least the middle of next year.
As president of Tampa-based Emerge 180, Field oversees a dozen employees charged with finding ways for struggling companies to recover. He recently talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the biggest obstacles in this economy and why a business owner should sign every company check.
What's your background?
I went to West Point and after graduation spent 5 1/2 years in the (Army), leaving as a captain. I got my MBA in finance and management (at IESE Business School) in Barcelona. … I actually lived in Barcelona for two years and lived in Germany for three.
I worked in hospital administration and as an insurance executive. I was doing business consulting for small businesses primarily in medical and then took over Emerge 180 back in 2007, so I've been doing this just over five years.
What does the company do?
We work with small to medium-sized business around the country that are struggling financially. We work to essentially put them back on the road to prosperity so they can continue to not only employ people but also contribute to the economy. We have a pretty firm belief that small business is the lifeblood of this economy.
Right now, we have 12 employees. We're in a semigrowth mode. We need to add more people based on what we're seeing out there.
Is there a reverse psychology operating here — when things are bad in the economy, that's when business is good for you?
There is that part of it. … There are probably more businesses that need advice or need assistance in these times, but it doesn't necessarily correlate in my mind to our growth.
How big are you?
We're ballpark in that million-dollar revenue range. We have a sizable presence in Florida, but we also work with clients all the way from New York to California. We probably add about 40 to 50 new clients a month.
Is there a lot of churning with businesses that recover and no longer need your services?
Absolutely. And that's a common thing we talk to them about. Our goal is you never have to talk to us again.
Where's the economy headed?
What I'm seeing in the small and medium-sized business range is a lot of uncertainty. Small business by their nature are very entrepreneurial and optimistic; they're willing to take on risk. They're not willing to take risks now.
Is the bigger concern access to credit or that consumers aren't spending?
For small businesses, access to credit is always an issue. … The other thing that's really hurting them is these slow payments (from customers). They're getting into a cash crunch because in order to meet (new) orders, they're having to put out their own money if they have it.
There's plenty of speculation that a slowdown in Europe and South America, particularly Brazil, will impact Florida businesses.
Yes, it's the world economy overall. But in my business, I look at it from a micro level. I can't tell you how many businesses we've dealt with where there have been embezzlement issues, or personal health issues. Certainly, the economics of today have an impact, but even more so are finding solutions for those things that are not economic-based.
We have a client — and this is a sad story — whose daughter and son-in-law died in a fire. So in addition to watching the business, she now has to start taking care of her two grandchildren.
Any other crises facing businesses?
Certainly the (pending) increase in taxes. Whether it's the result of the health care law or the result of increases in unemployment taxes, people don't have a good idea of what their costs are going to be, so they can't plan.
Which industries are improving?
We're seeing a lot fewer construction companies and contractors. I take that as a positive sign. They've either left the market or gotten themselves under control so they can grow again. We're seeing less in the medical field than we had in the past few years.
In what industries are you getting more clients?
We're seeing more in manufacturing. The combination of lower margins and extended payment terms have put these companies in a severe cash crunch.
What's your top advice to entrepreneurs?
I always tell small-business owners — and this may seem like a small thing — but they should make sure they sign every check … so they know exactly where their money is going. So many times you run into owners that got into trouble because there was money in the checking account before, so everything was fine.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8242.