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B&P Consort Woman Owned Small Business Your Source for Industrial Supplies
B&P Consort Woman Owned Small Business Your Source for Industrial Supplies

Electronic Commerce Resource Centers:
The Wired World's Best-Kept Secret
By Jennifer Schu

Tuesday, June 8, 1999

Pamela Guardino had a great idea for a business. She planned to use her industry experience to become an agent/broker for electrical and plumbing suppliers. However, in order to compete with bigger firms for top contracts, she needed to know more about e-commerce and electronic bidding.

With an eye on her limited start-up budget, Guardino turned to her local Electronic Commerce Resource Center (ECRC). Federally-funded, with 17 regional locations nationwide, ECRCs offer free or low-cost training, seminars, technical support, and outreach in a variety of e-commerce and electronic data interchange (EDI) subjects.

"It was like an e-commerce boot camp," Guardino recalls. "I went in knowing nothing about electronic bidding and the Internet, and came out confident and ready to start my own business."

At ECRCs around the country, small and medium-sized companies are learning to implement the latest technologies to conduct and procure business electronically. One of the wired world's best-kept secrets, ECRCs are proof positive that you don't have to spend a fortune on expensive technical training.

Most of the classes are free, making them especially attractive to firms with limited training budgets. In essence, ECRCs even out the playing field -- and you can't afford not to take advantage of them.

Summer 1999 e-commerce offerings include "Marketing Your Goods and Services Using the Internet;" "Web Page Creation Using HTML;" "Electronic Commerce Data Exchange;" "Internet Security"; and "Using the Internet for Business-Related Electronic Commerce."

ECRCs also meet the growing demand for EDI training with offerings like "Introduction to EDI;" "Issues in EDI Implementation;" and "EDI Software Characteristics."

Free EDI training is what attracted Margie Grossenbacher, president of Stor-a-File, a manufacturer of patented flip-top storage boxes designed for office use. Her competitors were using EDI to place orders, but Grossenbacher's company didn't yet have that capability.

Without EDI, Grossenbacher knew her Waco, Texas-based firm wouldn't even be considered for lucrative contracts with big office supply distributors and corporations. "All the big companies are using EDI to do business, and I knew I'd be left out if I didn't become EDI-capable," she says.

Through a friend, Grossenbacher found out about the Dallas ECRC. There, she not only received free training, but also help in selecting the computers and software that would work best with her existing set-up.

"They helped me think through all the decisions I had to make," she recalls. "Now, when I put my product in the big office supply catalogs, I'll be able to compete with bigger companies -- because I'm set up to do business like they do. I'll be able to send out orders on the same day or next day after they're received."

Free EDI training at the West Chester, Pennsylvania ECRC enabled manufacturer Penn Machine Works, Inc. to save time and eliminate errors on customer orders. Key Penn Machine staffers took a course in EDI mapping, which taught them how to complete customer mapping for purchase orders and product certifications.

Now, "we have at least a dozen customers started on EDI partnering," says John P. Lafferty, Penn Machine Works marketing manager. "Gone is the tedious task of completing a 100-line item order form. Literally an hour's worth of work has been cut down to minutes. Another benefit [of the process] came to light in a recent six-month survey that showed our EDI orders were error-free."

Encouraged, Penn Machine Works also took advantage of the ECRC's website enhancement courses, which helped the company make significant improvements to its homepage and cut down on calls to its sales department.

"It's enabled our sales personnel to do more proactive selling and has provided the customer with an order status and proof of delivery in minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," enthuses Lafferty.

All of this was accomplished at a fraction of the cost of traditional training.

"Small businesses pay hundreds of dollars to take the same courses that we offer at no cost," says Mike Phillips, a program director at the Atlanta, Georgia ECRC. "I can't believe it sometimes."

The ECRC program is a federal initiative to help small- and medium-sized enterprises implement electronic commerce in their businesses in order to improve their competitive posture in global markets, and to strengthen the U.S. industrial base. Any small to mid-size business is eligible to take advantage of ECRC training, support, and services. And throughout the country, many are seizing the opportunity.

"We have seen seminar enrollment increase to over 1,000 participants per quarter in the Pacific Northwest alone," says Ted Treanor, strategic alliance manager of the Bremerton, Washington ECRC. "Companies are hungry for e-commerce information and ECRC services."

The San Antonio, Texas ECRC recently assisted High Quality, a manufacturing firm, in getting more procurement opportunities. The ECRC worked closely with the company to upgrade its computing capabilities and better utilize the Internet. Since implementing e-commerce techniques, High Quality's annual revenues have grown from $700,000 to over $1.5 million.

ECRC courses and training are offered in a variety of areas, each touching on a different aspect of ecommerce. They range from introductory overviews to highly specialized, hands-on technical topics.

"We go from courses on 'what is a mouse' and beginning web page development right on up to legacy data management," says Jim Walsh, program manager of the West Chester ECRC.

The West Chester ECRC's classes, which are offered at no cost, are extremely popular with growth-minded companies in the surrounding Philadelphia metropolitan area. "We're running at 100% capacity," Walsh says. "Last year, in our first year of full operation, we educated more than 2,500 students. There's no doubt in my mind we'll teach over 4,500 this year."

Industrial operations analyst Edward Hitchner has already attended 14 classes at the West Chester ECRC.

"In the beginning, I was computer-illiterate," he confesses. "I had no idea what electronic commerce was, or the hardware and software involved with its implementation. Now I can discuss Internet terms, e-commerce, and EDI hardware/software technology with my contractors as well as my colleagues."

Likewise, thousands of businesses have flocked to the San Antonio ECRC for training, consulting, and technical support over the past few years -- from 1,894 organizations in 1995, to nearly 16,000 today.

The San Antonio ECRC's website even features online training tools to help clients in their e-commerce and EDI initiatives; it's become a resource tapped by over 14,000 users per quarter.

With business-to-business e-commerce expected to grow from $15.6 billion in 1998 to $175 billion in 2000, according to the Gartner Group, small to mid-sized companies need to stay in the game. Now, with the help of the free and low-cost training, support, and outreach offered by the ECRCs, they can do just that.

"Any business that wants to stay competitive should take a look at the free and low-cost services offered by the ECRC," Grossenbacher of Stor-A-File says. "It's just amazing what they've done for me."

To find the ECRC nearest you, visit www.ecrc.ctc.com.

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