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Spotlight Iowa City: A boon for business

BY JORDAN FRIES | JANUARY 19, 2010 7:30 AM

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With the clock ticking close to 5 p.m. on a Friday, Paul Heath was still planted at his work desk, making calls and sifting through a seemingly endless barrage of paperwork.

But for the director of the UI Small Business Development Center, it’s that tireless work ethic that has allowed him to persevere for more than two decades at the helm of the largest such center in Iowa.

“I take great pride in helping these small businesses become truly successful,” he said.

The 60-year-old took over as director on Oct. 15, 1984, and he has since counseled more than 12,000 aspiring entrepreneurs and conducted more than 350 business workshops for 8,000 attendees. In this past year alone, he has provided consultation to 300 local clients, split halfway between current small-business owners and those interested in starting their own businesses.

And the roughly 25 percent of those successful at starting their business prove to be a “very important part of our local economy,” Heath said.

The local center, one of 15 in the state, mainly provides informational workshops and private consultation to benefit current business owners, but it still attracts a large clientele of prospective entrepreneurs looking for ways to begin a small, profitable business, Heath said.

A small business is classified as having 500 or fewer employees, according to the center. These businesses account for more than 45 percent of the U.S. private payroll, making them the leading drivers in resurrecting the moribund economy, Heath said.

It’s also his hands-on role as director that has helped the UI’s center become the most successful in the state. Along with a supporting cast of private consultants and graduate-student assistants, Heath aids his clients, dispensing strategic advice on issues ranging from becoming more profitable through proper tax returns to marketing a business via social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Moe Ajam, a local entrepreneur who runs the Patient Education Institute in Coralville, credits much of his success to the direct assistance of Heath. Ajam’s business, which provides information to patients about the treatments they are receiving and the diseases that afflict them, said his business never would have gotten off the ground without Heath.

“It really put our tax dollars to good use,” Ajam said, and the center provided information on grants and networking opportunities.

Heath developed a strategic plan with Ajam and even secured him financing. According to statistics from the UI center, businesses that consult with Heath grow 3.5 times faster than the national average. Since he took over as director, local businesses have made more than $29 million and created 824 jobs.

“My interest in small business has really been constant throughout my career,” Heath said. “People get tired of getting caught up in the corporate rat race, and they want to try out their own ideas to achieve success based on their own initiative.”

Before becoming the 28-year-old center’s second director, Heath worked for a Fortune 500 company, moving seven times in seven years across the Midwest to counsel start-up businesses.

And many locals would be lost if Heath hadn’t settled in Iowa City.

“Paul Heath has been quietly and effectively churning the local economy forward for a long time,” said Deborah Duncan, a marketing specialist and coworker. “It’s time he got the credit he deserves.”


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