More MS news articles for February 2001

Looking Out For The Little Guy

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By CLAUDIA VAN NES
The Hartford Courant
February 11, 2001

Marge Blizard thinks small.

That's good for people with big dreams of starting their own business, like Ron Midwood of Willimantic, who says Blizard "talks the real stuff, not guff.''

Multiple sclerosis has bound Midwood to a wheelchair, unable to continue being an aircraft technician - "the only thing I knew how to do.''

Midwood turned for help to the bureau of rehabilitation services, which is part of the state Department of Social Services.

In turn, the bureau turned to Blizard, a Norwich-based consultant to people who want to start one-person enterprises.

Midwood, figuring "you got to go with what you know,'' now owns Paramount Aviation Services Inc., selling aircraft parts over the Internet from his home.

"Marge made me a business plan. She helped me get into the overseas exporting market. She has all these marketing contacts, and she's smart, too,'' says Midwood, who started his business about 14 months ago and is still in frequent contact with Blizard.

If you think Blizard's sitting pretty in some mahogany-paneled bastion with a secretary in the outer office and a calendar full of luncheon engagements with the powerful folks in her network of executives, you're wrong.

This consultant for tiny start-up businesses has a tiny workplace of her own on a residential side street in Norwich, and, like most her clients, it's in her home. It's called MCB Associates, but it's really only Blizard, her phone, her computer and her files in fat notebooks lined up in a bookshelf made of plastic milk cartons topped with a long board.

Blizard has helped launch businesses for a plumber, a person who raises turkeys, a pet-sitter, a medical transcriber, a portrait artist, a costume-maker and, right now, someone who just bought a small movie theater, a couple who want to open a dairy bar and a guy who wants to start a house-painting enterprise.

Experience Of All Kinds

When people talk of Blizard they all call her "smart,'' not a trait she got in business school but one she gained through her own eclectic work experience.

"I grew up all over,'' says Blizard, who's 50, has short sensible gray hair, wears a sensible gray blazer and talks sense. She graduated as a math major from the University of Colorado, helping to pay her way through by working in a Boulder factory that made backpacks to carry babies.

After graduation, finding that there weren't a lot of employment opportunities for math majors, she came East with a boyfriend and ended up working in the American Thread factory in Willimantic while she looked for a white-collar job. She also started the first of her own businesses - selling kits to make Raggedy Ann dolls.

"I used to do a lot of sewing, and Raggedy Ann was so cute. I drew pictures for the directions and copied them with carbon paper; then I'd pack the instructions in with the fabric and red yarn for the hair and everything.

"I didn't lose any money, and I didn't make any, but I stopped because I eventually realized Raggedy Ann was copyrighted,'' says Blizard.

Meanwhile, a better job came her way as a research and development technician. "I liked research; I enjoyed doing tests, developing things, analyzing.'' But a recession caused her to be laid off, though she was soon hired by a former fellow worker. He had a grant for an alternate energy project and Blizard was back in research, where she lasted three years.

That was a record stay for Blizard, who'd gotten married and had a child and was pregnant with her second when her husband was laid off and her job petered out.

"Marge, you can clean houses,'' was her sister's idea of a pep talk.

"Honestly, cleaning wasn't my thing, but I figured I could do it and I put an ad in the paper. When I got so many calls, I realized I was charging too little. So I altered the name of the cleaning company and put in a new ad asking for more and I still got a lot of calls.''

Capitalizing on her last name, she even designed a snowflake as her logo and had it printed on her business cards.

The business grew and Blizard hired as many as 10 people at her busiest to work for Blizard Professional Cleaning. She found she liked managing people, liked dealing with her customers and liked buzzing around Eastern Connecticut with her vacuum cleaner. "I even liked doing the taxes,'' she says.

She also made enough to support her family - her then-husband worked only periodically, though they were able to live in a house in Franklin owned by her in-laws.

Blizard became active in the Norwich-based Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, chairing the business council for the chamber, serving on the board of directors and speaking in public about how to start a small business.

Her cleaning business also taught Blizard that people with disabilities can make fine employees. "You just need to work around these things, but if you treat people decently, it can work well,'' says Blizard, who helped several of her workers, including ones who with disabilities, launch their own cleaning services.

Finding Her Niche

While reading over one of her own perennial help-wanted ads in the paper one day, Blizard's eye lit on a nearby ad for an assistant director of the Entrepreneurial Center, a state-funded program opening a branch in Norwich.

She sold her cleaning business and went to work for the Entrepreneurial Center, setting up training programs for people who wanted to start their own businesses. "They didn't have to learn the hard way like I did,'' she says.

Her phone rings while Blizard is telling the story of her work history and she has a brief discussion with a new client who wants to sell antique books over the Internet, then returns to her tale.

Divorced in 1996, the next year she bought the long, skinny house she now lives in, built 150 years ago as a bowling alley but long ago turned into a two-family home. Blizard worked to fix up the apartment for rent and is now tackling her side.

"I can live with peeling paint,'' she says with a shrug. Besides, the painting contractor she's helping set up in business owes her money. "Maybe we can barter,'' she muses.

She has, however, renovated her office where house plants and her cat, Milkweed, prosper, classical music plays on the radio and a bumper sticker on the bulletin board reads: "Entrepreneurs mind their own business.''

"I closed on my house and quit my job at the same time,'' she says, deciding about four years ago it was time to work for herself again. "I was a single mom by then. Sure, I was scared, but that's what makes it fun.''

She's found that her contacts from work, the chamber and the Norwich community where she's active have all helped get her clients, some of whom she works with to get started and some of whom she advises to give it up. As an example of the latter, she mentions a woman whose labor-intensive "wonderful, lovely'' herbal soaps were never going to turn a profit for her.

Some clients are referred by the Small Business Development Center funded by the University of Connecticut and the federal government, where she's taught workshops as a volunteer, but more than half her business comes from the bureau of rehabilitation services.

Blizard is hired by the bureau to come up with business plans for clients, all of whom are disabled in one way or another and unable to work at the jobs they once held. Sometimes, she'll have to say the client's idea doesn't look viable. But if it does, she advises the bureau about what equipment and services the budding entrepreneur might need to get off the ground.

Midwood, for instance, got an updated computer, among other equipment. Another client who became disabled was helped to start a medical transcription business, and another, with previous electronic skills, was helped by Blizard and the bureau to start a cell phone and pager repair business.

He now has three shops, Ron Stephan, a senior counselor with the bureau's Norwich office, reports proudly.

"Marge is the only consultant I use. She's very sharp. She can quickly evaluate a person's idea and the person themselves. She knows what she's doing.'' says Stephan.

Sandra Magna, who has a new business designing and sewing costumes and uniforms in Hartford, also sings Blizard's praises. "She's been so helpful getting my life on track. She goes above and beyond what she's asked to do.

"She's a fount of knowledge, and if she doesn't know the answer, she knows someone who does or someone who knows someone or someone who knows someone who knows someone,'' says Magna.

"I'm working with a person now who wants to start a dairy bar, specializing in frozen custard. I've got her working with a former client who ran a lunch counter and is now a chef. He's helping lay out the kitchen and pick the menu. We have to finish the business plan, help get financing. I need to steer her to low-interest loans,'' says Blizard.

She's helped a fellow who wanted to sell tattoo machines over the Internet. "I learned a lot more about tattooing than I ever thought I'd know,'' says Blizard, who also helped a woman set up a business selling costumes to exotic dancers. "There's a real market for this,'' says Blizard.

She can see she may need to hire some help as her consulting business grows, but right now, she can handle the load.

"I love this,'' she says, as Milkweed jumps in her lap. "It's the best job yet.''