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VOUCHING FOR VENTURES

New and established businesses spread the word about each other to find more work.

In the half-minute she is allotted, Carmen Carmenaty-Perez unloads everything she can think of about her catering business.

"I do parties, weddings, luncheons, you name it," she says. "The food is fresh. It's great. The best you've ever had."

Just before she sits down, Carmenaty-Perez cheerfully reminds her audience to stop by her booth at Saturday's Farmer's Market in downtown Brooksville to "sample my brownie chunk cookies."

Every Thursday morning, the 46-year-old former loan officer-turned-personal chef gets to deliver her 30-second "infomercial" to 37 fellow members of the Hernando County chapter of Business Network International known as Leaders by Design who, like her, are looking to grow their businesses.

At least some of the members are pursuing new ventures, having remade themselves after tough luck in the ailing economy that has been especially bad in Hernando County, where the unemployment rate on this Labor Day weekend stands at 13.2 percent.

Carmenaty-Perez launched her Ooh La La! catering business a little more than a year ago on a wing and a prayer. The weekly networking sessions, she says, have led to numerous referrals for anniversary parties, business lunches, holiday parties, even a wake.

"It's helped me a lot," she said. "I'm sure I've gotten business I wouldn't have without it. These days, you look for any opportunity to get your name out."

As the economic slump continues to hit small enterprises hard, networking groups like BNI have been gaining greater favor with both established and start-up businesses, said chapter president Renia Carsillo, a former bank employee.

"Right now, a lot of companies are having to rethink their business strategies in order to survive," Carsillo said. "When the economy was great, you didn't worry so much about it. It was like having apples falling from a tree. Now, you're having to climb the tree to get those apples."

Carsillo, a personal and business coach and owner of Hernando-based C2B Professional and Life Development, said that in many ways, business networking harkens back to the days when owners of small-town businesses routinely referred their customers to other businesses with whom they had trust.

"It's about familiarity and knowledge of the person whom you are recommending," she said.

Indeed, BNI members are encouraged to become familiar with the products and services of others in the chapter and to be ready to hand out their business cards to prospective clients.

Formed in 2005, BNI Leaders by Design members meet Thursday mornings at the Regency Oaks clubhouse, where Carsillo leads a fast-paced agenda that centers on members touting the products and services they offer and ways they are looking to establish new contacts.

For instance, an owner of a body shop may be looking to hook up with a company that owns fleet vehicles, or a rug cleaning company may be looking for an introduction to a motel owner.

And because local BNI chapters accept only one individual per profession, members don't have to worry about competing with other members.

Meetings close with a tally of referrals made the previous weeks, along with the number of member-referred deals that were closed. Carsillo said that so far this year, member referrals have yielded more than $2.2 million in transactions.

The structure of BNI may not fit every small trade owner. Carsillo said that the group's strict attendance rules and adherence to protocols are essential to making networking work.

"The bottom line is, in order to get you have to agree to give," she said.

Paul Flak said he was intrigued by what the networking group had to offer. A contractor whose construction projects are located largely in Canada, he has found time to develop a new local venture that involves building and installing solar hot water systems.

A recent addition to the group, Flak believes the word-of-mouth marketing approach may be the best way to spark interest in his new company, Florida Solar Energy.

"It made sense to me," Flak said. "These are intelligent business people who are out in the community every day in a way I can't be. If it helps me to sell the product, I'll be happy."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.

Fast facts

To get involved

BNI Leaders By Design meet at 7:30 a.m. Thursdays at the Regency Oaks clubhouse, 4445 Breakwater Blvd., Spring Hill. For more information on the group, contact Renia Carsillo at (813) 727-7980 or Tim McClain at (727) 376-8891.

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