For the past 30 years Mountain BizWorks has been lending a helping hand to entrepreneurs starting new businesses.
The theme of this sometimes-risky effort is “no pearl without grit,” said Patrick Fitzsimmons, executive director of the non-profit organization.
To be successful, enterprising business people need strong determination, knowledge and financial assistance, Fitzsimmons said. Mountain BizWorks can provide these resources through loans it offers and learning programs designed to give entrepreneurs essential skills.
Since its beginning, Mountain BizWorks has helped launch more than 1,200 start-up businesses from restaurants and breweries to outdoor equipment companies in the Western North Carolina region.
Small businesses are the backbone of the Western North Carolina economy, Fitzsimmons remarked.
“We need to protect and nurture the small business economy,” he said. “We have a very strong entrepreneur ecosystem and vibe. I think it’s a good thing.”
Among successful start-ups that Mountain BizWorks has assisted is No Evil Foods, a company that produces plant-based meat alternatives. In the past three years the company, has thrived and expanded its operation and now has 60 employees, Fitzsimmons noted.
“It is the kind of company you want to see grow,” he said.
A major hurdle for entrepreneurs is finding the money to start a business, Fitzsimmons said. Banks typically will not fund start-ups, he noted.
Mountain BizWorks provides funding through a variety of private and government monies, including its local investor program, the Small Business Administration and the USDA Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program.
At times finding sufficient financial assistance for entrepreneurs has been a challenge and a struggle, Fitzsimmons said, speaking of funding resources for his agency.
However, in the past five years that he has been at the helm of the organization, the amount of funding provided to businesses has grown substantially from $1 million in annual lending to an anticipated $7 million this year, he said.
As elemental as funding is for entrepreneurs, training and skills are also necessary for their success, Fitzsimmons said.
In recent years the organization’s training programs have expanded three basic types of classes, including one for people who are thinking about getting into business. Other classes focus on helping young business people acquire skills and assisting businesses with expansion plans.
“Our aim is to help locally-grown businesses grow and create more jobs,” Fitzsimmons said.
To help stimulate the local economy, Mountain BizWorks also has initiated an economic development program that supports and nurtures the growing outdoor industry in the Western North Carolina region. The organization assists both manufacturers of outdoor gear and related outdoor recreational businesses.
Outdoor recreation is an important part of the local economy, Fitzsimmons said.
“We want to grow this business sector … to expand this market.”
An Outdoor Economy Conference at Western North Carolina University, which Mountain BizWorks helped sponsor, saw large participation last fall, Fitzsimmons said. And this year’s conference on Oct. 10 has sold nearly 300 tickets, he added.
In addition to supporting the outdoor business industry, Mountain BizWorks also assists entrepreneurs who are engaged in craft-making—another component of the local economy. This month the organization is launching Craft your Commerce, an educational workshop series for craft makers.
Although many of the businesses that receive support from Mountain BizWorks are based in Asheville, the agency also supports rural areas in the region. Last year, 40 percent of the organization’s income went to rural counties, Fitzsimmons said.
Along with helping rural communities, Mountain BizWorks also focuses on expanding opportunities for low income people, women and persons of color.
Before coming to Mountain BizWorks, Fitzsimmons served as CEO of the American Red Cross of Western North Carolina for many years.
After a professional lifetime of working for service organizations, Fitzsimmons is planning to retire from Mountain BizWorks at the end of this year. Matt Raker, current director of community investments and impact for the organization, has been selected to serve as the new executive director for the organization.
For more information on Mountain BizWorks, visit the website at www.mountainbizworks.org or call 828-253-2834. The organization’s local office is at 153 S. Lexington Ave.