Driven to Distraction

JACKSONVILLE, FL – April 25, 2008NORTHEAST FLORIDA — Most everyone has a few things that keep them occasionally tossing and turning in bed. But small-business owners can have a full night-time workout with their worries.

The concerns vary from finding good employees to having enough money to retire, according to a national study of 1,700 small-business owners conducted by the Jacksonville Business Journal’s parent company, American City Business Journals.

Following is a list of the top five issues that keep small-business owners up at night. The worry-meter indicates the percentage of entrepreneurs who said an issue is a concern.

The cost of health insurance/benefits

The issue: After a potential employee asks about salary, the second question likely will be what health insurance and benefits are available. Knowing this, small-business owners have to offer packages that are competitive with larger corporations, unless they want to risk losing good help. The sucker punch is that small businesses on average spend 18 percent more for the same benefits bought by large businesses, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. And without a human resources employee on staff, the options aren’t always clear to owners not versed in medical and insurance jargon. About half of small-business owners offer health insurance to their employees.

The gripe: The cost is one thing, but the annoyance of having do deal with insurance matters, when he could be focusing on his trucking business, rubs Gary Ayers of Jacksonville the wrong way. “I feel like I work as an agent for the [health insurance company] because I have to act, but don’t get compensated,” said Ayers, who owns Jacksonville-based Arlington Heavy Hauling Inc.

Putting them at ease: New U.S. Senate proposed legislation encourages states to set health care purchasing pools for small businesses and self-employed. If the bill passes, insurance companies could no longer base premiums on a company’s claims history or employees’ health status, meaning they couldn’t jack up premiums if one employee of a small business has serious health problems. Small business experts suggest shopping around before committing. Creating programs that promote a drug-free and safer workplace can cut premium costs.

Worry-meter: 69 percent of small business owners

Finding/keeping good employees

The issue: The only way for a small business to expand is to grow through its employees. But unlike larger corporations, a few deadwood employees can drag the whole business down. Changes in how employees view their employers makes the challenge even trickier. Younger employees are more likely to jump ship for better opportunities and some even lack the old-fashioned work ethic. The unpredictability of interviews makes determining who will fit on your team even harder. Putting on the human resources hat, for many small-business owners, is far more challenging than they expected.

The gripe: “As a talent scout, I can’t afford to hire one-dimensional people,” said Harold Boyett, owner and president of Blue Streak Couriers Inc. in Jacksonville. He’s looking for people who don’t just show up for work every day, but put in a similar energy to what he puts into his business. It’s not always easy. Boyett has found success hiring ex-UPS employees, who know what it takes to run a courier business. But even with a top-notch team in place, Boyett still worries about his team of about 140. ” I recognize that several hundred families rely on my leadership,” he said.

Putting them at ease: The increased need for training and development has spurred an industry devoted to getting companies the right people and helping create a workplace where they want to stay. Of course, offering good insurance and benefits and options can go a long way in making that possible. Giving employees a chance to develop their skills and providing them flexibility on work schedules can also help, experts said.

Worry-meter: 59 percent of small-business owners

Rising costs of doing business

The issue: There aren’t many things more frustrating than watching your profits get guzzled up as fuel costs rise. The natural instinct is to get outside funding to cover the increased cost of doing business, but sometimes this just means the business get pulled in deeper. Or sometimes businesses raise the price of services or products in the hopes customers won’t notice. Most often they do.

The gripe: With 42 trucks in his fleet, you can count on Zabatt Inc. CEO Jose Sabatier checking the price of fuel every morning. But despite the threat that rising fuel costs can put him out of business, Sabatier balances the idea that there isn’t a whole lot he can do about stabilizing national oil markets. He can, however, make sure his drivers are making the most of their mileage. Another option is to increase efficiency as Blue Streak Couriers owner Boyett did by adding Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles to his fleet.

Putting them at ease: Before hiking up prices, make sure the increase is appropriate. Keeping good financial records and having good cash-flow management can help you find a way to tighten your functions and possibly allow you to hold off on price hikes. Look at rising costs as a challenge but also as an opportunity, said Pat McManamon, Sandler Sales North Florida owner. “This is the type of environment that causes them to look at these things and cut some of the fat out.”

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