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Local business gets 'makeover'

Date: 12/16/2010

Dec. 15, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs, Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — For some small businesspeople, the process of having a panel of experts examine their business and a business plan for expansion might seem intimidating, especially at an event open to the public.

Zee Johnson, the owner of Olive Tree Books-N-Voices, found the experience "enlightening."
Zee Johnson, the owner of Olive Tree Books-N-Voices (right, standing) spoke about her business to a panel that performed a "make-over." The panel included (left to right) Janine Fondon, the president and CEO of Unity, Certified Public Accountant Lou Cadorette and John White, senior vice president for commercial lending at NUVO Bank & Trust Company.

Johnson's business was the subject of an "Extreme Business Makeover" sponsored by the Law and Business Center for Advancing Entrepreneurship of Western New England College last week. Johnson wrote a business plan, which was distributed to a group representing key aspects of business development: Janine Fondon, the president and CEO of Unity who spoke on marketing; Lyne Kendall, the senior business advisor and financial analyst of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center on industry trends; John White, senior vice president for commercial lending at NUVO Bank & Trust Company who addressed banking concerns; Attorney Antonio Dos Santos of Robinson Donovon P.S.; and Certified Public Accountant Lou Cadorette.

Moderated by Western New England College School of Law Professor Eric Gouvin, the program began with Johnson explaining the history of her shop and her motivation to open it. Olive Tree Books-N-Voices carries books with an African-American orientation and is open about 10 hours a week on weekends, as she works full-time in another job.

She explained she has wanted to own a bookstore for most of her life.

Originally she started selling books in 2002 at various fairs and public venues. She bought the building in which the bookstore is located in 2007. She has a residential tenant in part of the building.

She understands she cannot compete with the larger chains on price, although she offers a 10 percent discount to her customers. What she can provide is a comfortable and casual shopping experience that caters to the needs of its customers.

She has a group of loyal volunteers who help operate the store.

Johnson would like to consider investing in a larger inventory, developing an on-line store and hosting more book signings and book clubs. She wants to make a profit and has considered whether or not she should sell used books and possibly try to open a second location.

She has also considered applying for non-profit status.

At the end of her presentation, the panel offered her advice. White told her that unfortunately, looking at her financial information, her business was "unbankable," but that she should consider looking at her customer base for possible investors. He stressed that she must keep the store open more than 10 hours a week.

Kendall advised Johnson to develop a vision for her store for the next five years. Johnson must also determine if her store is a business or a hobby. She suggested that Johnson use social media to help market the store and to target the needs of customers.

Cadorette brought up a number of accounting issues, many of which revolved around how the Internal Revenue Service views a business versus a sales operation that is a hobby.

Dos Santos touched on the need to reduce risk. He asked Johnson about her building and the need to limit liability by legally separating the rental income from the book business. He also mentioned the need to make sure her business name was unique to avoid issues with other businesses as she expands operations on the Web.

Fondon noted her book store is "a valued community resource" and suggested Johnson seek expertise within her group of volunteers that could possibly help her meet her goals. She, too, asked if Johnson's intent was to have a "profitable walk-in community bookstore?"

Johnson said the remarks pointed out "some blind spots" to her.

For more information on upcoming programs, go to

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