When Clinton Schmidt smelled trouble in his books, he called in PLATO
Clinton Schmidt is not an account. He is president of Jade Tool Inc., a company with about 25 employees in Ontario, Calif. But a lack of accounting skills did not prevent him from suspecting something was wrong when his independent accountant kept claiming Jade Tool was losing money even though sales had more than doubled since Mr. Schmidt took it over two years before.
"I can't figure the books down to the penny, but I'm good enough at math to be able to ballpark it to within a few $10 bills," he said. "And this just didn't look right."
To prove he was correct, he enlisted the aid of the Baltimore-based Commercial Credit Company and its Minneapolis-based parent, the Control Data Corporation. Commercial Credit is one of a growing number of finance companies or investment firms offering free or low-cost management and accounting help to small business.
In addition to lending money to operators of small businesses, these services are intended to give businessman some tools to manage the money and their companies.
In Commercial Credit's case, the company also offers the help of Control Data's teaching computer, named PLATO, after the Greek philosopher.
For Mr. Schmidt, the last straw came after the accountant reported a $21,000 monthly loss. After a meeting with the accountant, the loss had turned into a $ 2,000 gain.
Although he did not have enough hard evidence to press charges, Mr. Schmidt was told later that the accountant was heavily invested in several other companies he had done work for. He suspects the accountant was putting them in financial trouble, then arranging bailouts to "rescue" and gain a piece of the company.
When he had relieved the accountant of Jade Tool's business, Mr. Schmidt's sister, a Control Data employee, pointed him to the computer giant's Commercial Credit subsidiary.
Since February 1980, Commercial Credit has been opening and running a nationwide chain of Control Data Business Centers to provide financial, insurance, tax, and management planning services to small business. Link No. 33 in the chain opened last week here in Waltham, in the midst of the technology-studded Route 128 highway that rings the Boston area.
In addfition to their advisory role, the centers are authorized to offer loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA). The centers also provide a home for PLATO, Control Data's computer-based instructional system that has been teaching arithmetic to first-graders, high school courses to prison inmates, music to college students, and financing and accounting principles to small-business people.
The centers are intended to provide almost everything the operator of a small business needs, except a good idea for a product and the entrepreneurial desire to sell it.
The centers have become part of an increasing network of assistance available to people who have an idea for a business. It is no longer necessary for them to be fully knowledgeable about business development, financing, accounting, marketing, and the dozens of other skills needed to run a small business. Today , a variety of private firms and government agencies are available to provide free or low-cost assistance.
In addition to Commercial Credit, small business advisory services are offered by brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch and loan offices like The Money Store, says Robert Hull, chief of the nonbank lending section at the SBA.
"There is apparently a need for places like this," Mr. Hull says. "And these firms seem to be filling it quite well."
Part of the reason for the development of this assistance may be the contribution of small business itself. While the image of American business may be summed up in companies like Exxon and General Motors, small business accounts for some 43 percent of the US gross national product, and more than 85 percent of the net new employment every year.
Still, over half of all new businesses fail in the first four years, according to the SBA.
The Control Data Business Centers grew out of Commercial Credit's established experience in making loans to small business, said Eugene S. Sirbaugh, Commercial Credit president. In recent years, the company has been trying to do a little more than throw money at business problems.
"We've tried to recognize that money alone is not always the answer," he said. "Marketing, personnel, and accounting problems won't be solved to more money." For instance, he says, "people often have poor balance sheets or inadequate record-keeping that causes problems."
This is why, Mr. Sirbaugh noted, the full-service centers are staffed by an expert in financial management or accounting as well as a lending specialist.
But the quietest member of the staff is PLATO. The list of its business programs includes "Building Your Own Business," a 38-hour, $325 course for people who want to start or expand a business; "Accounts Receivable Collection Techniques," a 15-hour, $215 program on collecting past-due money; and "Fundamentals of Finance and Accounting for Nonfinancial Managers," costing $235 for 20 hours of "class time" on PLATO.
"Financial management is my weakest area," said Mr. Schmidt of Jade Tool. "Now that I've been through the course, it all makes a lot more sense. . . . And I get payroll and accounting help for $12 5 less a month."