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Small Businesses Sweat Details Against Chains

Eight McDonald's restaurants are in the Springfield-Burke area. Add the 27 7-11 stores, seven Giant Food stores, four Starbucks, four Safeway's, six Domino's Pizzas, and six CVS Pharmacies and the independent small business person has a struggle to survive.

Karen Fountain of Flowers 'n' Ferns works for her family's "mom and pop" flower store, as she calls it, and wouldn't have it any other way.

"We are still a mom and pop business, personal contact has been a major thing with us," she said, noting that in the 27 years they've been in existence, they've run the full spectrum in some local families. They supplied the wedding flowers for some local newlyweds, baby flowers when their baby was born, prom flowers when the baby grew up, wedding flowers and then baby flowers again.

"We've gone through a full generation," she said.

SARA FRANCO PROVIDES a helping hand to families getting started from her home-based wedding consulting business "Romantic Betrothal." In her Springfield home, she has the typical computer-fax-file cabinet office scenario in the basement but her parlor displays a wedding showroom motif. This is where she talks business with her clients.

"When they come in here, I show them how a wedding can be. I treat every bride and groom like they're a member of my own family," Franco said.

In late April, Suzanne Willauer was getting the jitters with her wedding just days away. Willauer met Franco when she was working in the marketing department at Springfield Mall and did work with the Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

"I started out wanting to get help with a reception place and then it grew. I knew Sara through the chamber," she said.

Patrick Russell owns East Coast Landscaping, a local lawn business he opened in 1995. He has 11 employees and likes the feeling that he's helping entire families thrive.

"We have great camaraderie in our company. I couldn't be happier in the position I'm in now," he said.

BUSINESS OWNERS LIKE their own hours, customer contact and the freedoms they get but there are drawbacks, according to Gordon Dixon, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. He said the top concerns in the small business world are health insurance costs, government imposed mandates, and profit margins.

"Premiums [health care insurance] are constantly going up. Small business owners don't make a lot of money, they're profit margin is less," he said.

NFIB provides a collective voice for small businesses, which he defines as having 50 or less employees. One success NFIB has had recently dealt with the prepayment of sales tax rule. This was a rule where businesses would estimate their sales over a certain period and prepay an estimated tax.

"We were able to exempt businesses that make less than $1.3 million. Coming up with that kind of money is detrimental," he said.

Dixon noted the average small business owner makes $40,000 a year.

Nancy-jo Manney has her finger on the pulse of a lot of small businesses in the area. She is the executive director of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce which has a majority of small businesses. The average size of small businesses in the chamber is between five and 20 employees. Some of the drawbacks include benefits, pay, retaining good employees and the rent at some of the shopping centers in the area.

"Everybody wants to be their own boss, everybody has a dream. Small businesses have always had to struggle but small businesses pretty much make up most of this area," she said.

Claire Luke experiences similar things as the executive director of the Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce. They have about 900 members from all over the area, with almost half consisting of 25 employees or less.

"Most [insurance] companies will not give it to you if you're a one-person business," she said.

AT THE BURKE TOWN Centre where Flowers 'n' Ferns moved after relocating from the Lee Center last year, most of the businesses are independent, although the McDonald's in the parking lot is popular most evenings.

Hermiz Yono owns Sana's Hair Design, also in the centre on Old Keene Mill Road. He looks at the whole picture of self-employment.

"It has advantages and disadvantages. There's room to grow. When business is good, checks are good, when business is bad, checks are smaller," he said.

He has 12 full time employees but does not offer health benefits because of the cost.

"Most of them are covered through their spouse," he said.

Dana Price is from Dumfries and enjoys the personal contact though she does not have health benefits. Most employees there have health benefits through their spouses' jobs but her husband is self employed as well. She likes the staff and customers.

"It works for me, they're really flexible with scheduling," she said.

Her husband owns a home improvement company that competes with the Home Depots and Lowes. He focuses on quality to put him ahead of those big companies.

"I think he goes to Home Depot and Lowes pretty much every day," Price said.

Shelley Jennings at Collectible Treasures in the Keene Mill Center has many concerns including rent in the shopping center, signage, common area maintenance (CAM), "shrinkage" which is absorbing costs from theft and breakage, and finding quality employees. An advantage her competition has is the ability to return goods that aren't sold.

"If we don't sell it, it's our loss," she said.

Paperwork takes a majority of her time.

"If I didn't have children, I'd have a cot in the back and sleep there," she said, but did say that her ability to find and pay good employees while keeping the shelves stocked with good products, having the right products and making enough money remains a challenge. She did have two full-time employees that had health benefits at one time but one left for another job and the other moved back to Richmond.

"You have to pay for good help," she said.

Dixon also sees the problem with quality employees, even with the economy coming out of a slow down.

"Things have slowed down a bit but businesses are finding it hard to find good employees," he said.

Robinson Secondary School senior Katie Gackstetter does most of her shopping at the Burke Town Center. She is faithful to Flowers 'n'Ferns as well.

"They are the only place I've been to, I don't go anywhere else," she said.

Luke looks at exposure as a big factor in successful businesses. While she's at a chamber of commerce that specializes in networking like all chambers, the business owners have to make the effort as well. A good idea very rarely stands by itself.

"You have to get out there and let people know you're there. There's an awful lot of people that start out with a dream, no business plan," she said.

One lady came to Luke with a gift basket business she was running out of her house.

"She was working out of her basement, she's now hired assistants," Luke said.

On Monday, May 6, Governor Mark R. Warner (D) announced that he designated May 12-18, 2002, as Business Appreciation Week. This year's Business Appreciation Week theme is "Tradition & Innovation: Powering Virginia."