When air cargo shipper DHL Express left Wilmington five years ago and cost it nearly 8,000 jobs, the small southwest Ohio city seemed a most unlikely spot to start a job.
But that’s exactly what Earl Gregorich did, setting up operations in a church to help devastated residents launch and save businesses.
“People were very scared,” Gregorich recalled. “They needed somebody to help calm the nerves and reset the path for them. That’s how I approached it. We had some very good success stories. It is one of the most rewarding moments of my career.”
That career has since taken Gregorich to Wright State University, where he is director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and just named winner of the Ohio SBDC State Star Award, given to the best SBDC counselor in the state.
The Star Award covers the more than 40 counselors at 26 centers around the state and is based partly on performance but mostly on peer recommendations.
The 46-year-old Gregorich heads an office that averages at least 25 business startups every year, the retention of 500 to 600 jobs, and sees up to $5 million in capital investments. In addition, Gregorich travels the state to hold training sessions for other centers and he has helped develop a robust small-business program at Wright State for military veterans.
Entrepreneurship is in Gregorich’s DNA.
“I tell people entrepreneurship is not a career choice — it’s a disease, and there is no cure for it,” he said. “Your mind operates differently than everyone else’s. Everything is a potential opportunity.”
When he was in the Air Force stationed in Sumter, S.C. — where he coordinated mission readiness for RF-4C Phantom fighter jets — Gregorich founded his first company called Put it on Paper in which he wrote resumes for fellow airmen who were leaving for jobs in the private sector.
After a stint with Dayton Power & Light, Gregorich launched the Internet operations of a local family-owned business, helping the company grow to nearly $1 million in annual online sales. In 1999, he started his second company called Internet Sales Plus, traveling around Ohio and teaching state employees and business owners how to build websites and develop an online presence.
After handling the DHL crisis in Wilmington in 2009 at the state’s request, Gregorich arrived at Wright State to join the small-business center.
Most of the funding for the SBDC comes from the federal Small Business Administration, with additional money from Ohio distributed by the Ohio Development Services Agency. Wright State’s Raj Soin College of Business acts as a host and matches a large portion of the money received through the agency.
“We’re out advocating for Wright State,” Gregorich said. “We’re out trying to bring businesses from the community in and get them involved with our programs.”
Gregorich is a firm believer in small business as an economic engine. He still runs his own business — Tactical Insights — helping small companies put their products and services on the Internet.
“The economy is built on the backs of small businesses,” he said. “The strength of a community lies in the fact that you have a lot of smaller businesses that are contributing to the better good of that community, more than you will ever find if you have one or two major entities.”
The Wright State SBDC, located in the Raj Soin College of Business, serves as a place where small businesses can work with students who help the companies with business planning, marketing, computer technology and online services. It gives the companies talent resources and gives the students real-world experience.
The center also helps military veterans start businesses.
Veterans can choose to attend Boots to Business, an intensive two-day program meant to give them a reality check on the challenges of starting a business. They can advance to the Veteranpreneur Academy, an eight-week program in which they are trained by a military veteran who operates a business. Then they can participate in Vet Town, in which they work side by side with — and get help from — business owners who are military veterans.
“We definitely have the most active veterans program in the state of Ohio and I would say probably across most states,” Gregorich said.
Gregorich says his job as counselor is to make aspiring business owners ask themselves the hard questions, such as can the business make money, can the owner make the loan and insurance payments, and will it sustain the owner’s lifestyle? He said 20 aspiring business owners might be reduced to only two after a series of training classes and a counseling session.
“My day is just as successful if I counsel 10 people and not a single one of them goes into business because they shouldn’t have,” Gregorich said. “The toughest part of the job is when you have to sit on this side of the desk and you know full well that the client does not have a financially viable scenario and no matter how you place it in front of the individual they refuse to believe it.”
One way Gregorich escapes the pressures of the job is through woodworking. His handcrafted wooden pens stand at attention in his office.
But helping plant and nourish new companies gives Gregorich the most satisfaction of all.
“Every day when I drive home,” he said, “I’ll go by five or six businesses that I know I had a hand in putting them where they are.”