Lauri Jo Bennett , owner of Lauri Jo's Southern Canning, addresses the graduates of the SBDC GrowSmart program.
ALBANY — The University of Georgia Small Business Development Center held a graduation ceremony Thursday for its most recent GrowSmart class of 18 area business owners and employees.
According to Debbie Finney, area director of the SBDC, even veteran small business owners are often so busy working in their business, they neglect working on it.
The seven week GrowSmart program consists of 35 classroom hours and covers topics such as business and competition evaluation and step-by-step development of a company’s strategy for growth. Expert speakers are a part of the curriculum as well, Finney said.
Jason Black, a supervisor with Carroll’s Sausage and Meats, attended the class in part because of the planned expansion of his company. He was impressed with how much there was to learn from fellow attendees.
“A lot of us had the same problems in our businesses,” Black said, “and we were able to improve a lot by talking to the others.”
Guest speaker at the event was Lauri Jo Bennett, founder of Lauri Jo’s Southern Canning, based in Norman Park.
Canning recipes made from farm-raised fruits and vegetables had been a hobby of Bennett’s for more than 15 years, she said, when a good friend with the Sunbelt Ag Expo persuaded her to go professional.
“I had absolutely no idea how to go into business,” Bennett said. “I didn’t even know what a business plan was. I couldn’t get a loan. Everything I tried to do, there was a major damper on it, but I didn’t let it stop me. I meant that this business was going to work.”
Bennett said she managed to get her new endeavor “off the ground” September, 2009, with a homemade salsa recipe and three other basic canned products. Now, her company offers 28 products in 39 states and four countries.
“We experience growing pains on a daily basis,” Bennett said. “Every business does, but the best thing I’ve learned is that there is so much help out there for you — not financial, but resources like the SBDC. If you have that burning desire to do it, you can.”
Bennett said her company is unique because 80 percent of her “home-canned” products are grown, hand-picked, and processed according to recipes originating with her grandmother and great grandmother, plus a few “developed on her own.”
In part because Bennett and her husband raised more than 51 percent of their product, they qualified for an USDA value added grant, which placed certain requirements as to how the money could be spent.
“It’s free money,” Bennett said, “but they tell you how to spend it.”
According to Bennett, one of the things the USDA insisted on was that a portion of the grant be spent on marketing, so a public relations firm was hired, the same one employed by Paula Deen, McDonalds, Wal-Mart and other high profile companies. The results have been more than worth it, with canning sales going from around $40,000 two years ago to $400,000 in 2012, Bennett said.
“You have to sell yourself and get a focus,” Bennett said, “and when you get a focus you can run with it.”