Open to new ideas: Program
teaches ways to strengthen businesses

Henderson Johnson has operated Toyo Automotive in Conyers for five years and is receptive to new ideas about running his car repair and maintenance business.

That's why he enrolled in the OPEN program, a set of classes designed to strengthen the success of entrepreneurs. Sponsored by the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce, the OPEN, or Opportunities for Promoting Entrepreneurship and Networking, program offers current or prospective business owners information on a range of topics through classes taught primarily by local business owners in Rockdale County.

Areas of concentration include: legal and financial aspects, marketing and branding, customer service, networking, insurance, financial planning, human resources, accounting and bookkeeping.

"It was a great course, a great curriculum. I like the fact that you had real people in the business field, business owners talking to the class. It makes a difference because it's practical information and experience that they have gained through trial and error," Johnson said.

The internal marketing component proved especially helpful to Johnson, who has 2,700 customers in his data base.

"Those are the people who will make or break Toyo Automotive. We want to find out from them what kind of a job we are doing. Are we living up to the promises we are making?" Johnson said. "It's about making the customer know that we don't just want your money, we want a relationship that will be long term."

Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce President Fred Boscarino said he brought the concept of the program with him when he began working for the chamber in 2003. Volunteer-run, the OPEN program is coordinated by two chamber members, Julian Harwell and Brian Howe, who are responsible for curriculum and instruction.

Classes average about 25 students and are almost always full, said Boscarino. Each class is facilitated by Howe and Harwell and features a panel of four different business owners each week. Lasting about 21/2 hours, classes also offer a meal. The total cost for the six-session program is $125.

Harwell, who has volunteered with the OPEN program since its inception, said he believes the program has helped save money for those who weren't ready to run a business and it's also made them better employees for the companies for whom they work.

"I have seen a lot of young people going into business for themselves who don't have any idea of what they're getting into and have a romanticized perception of being in business for oneself," said Harwell, who runs Financial Designs and Solutions, an insurance, investment and retirement planning company.

"I believe we've helped many people either make a wise decision to go forward or a wise decision not to go forward."

For those who've already started their businesses, Harwell said the program strengthens it's operations. He said the OPEN program is "multi-faceted" because it's useful for those thinking about starting, just starting or already in progress with a business.

"I really believe in the program," he said.

Business owner Buck Vaughn, who opened The Market of Conyers at 1180 Ga. Highway 138 in May, took the class just as his business was opening up. The program provided a reminder of the marketing skills he'd already learned and brought to his attention accounting and legal information that he hadn't considered.

"It's a good combination of refresher information and things that maybe you don't think of in the process of trying to put together a plan for a new business. They do a great job of putting together a diverse group of professionals so you get feedback of dos and don'ts from different specialties," said Vaughn. "I think it helps fill in the gaps in the road map and business plan."

For more information on the OPEN program, which is offered in the fall and spring, visit www.conyers-rockdale.com or call 770-483-7049.