From left: Rick Leonhardt, business educator at FRC; Angela Cordell, director of the Far Northern California Center for International Trade Development located at FRC; Gil Gonzales, special advisor to the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and Chuck Leonhardt, Plumas County assessor, discuss the “Rural Small Business Succession Program” on June 6. Photo submitted by Ken “KD” Donnell

Help coming for local retiring business owners

Ken Donnell warned, “If successors are not found for aging owners of many local small business, these businesses will be forced to close.” He noted that many of these businesses, once closed, will not reopen.

Donnell should know, he has closed two small businesses without finding a successor.

Donnell also predicted that if local businesses aren’t saved, “our local shopping options may become totally controlled by large outside corporate interests.”

Donnell and Feather River College are developing a “Rural Small Business Succession Program” to help retiring small business owners pass on their businesses to new owners.

Ken Donnell

Donnell was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, where his dad ran a music retail store. He also worked on his grandparent’s farm and helped them to harvest and move produce to town.

Later, Donnell was a singer-songwriter in the flourishing folk country rock scene in Austin and Houston in the 1970s, rubbing shoulders with Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovett and others.

Since Donnell grew up on a farm where he learned how to fix things, other musicians asked him to fix their guitars. From 1976-1989, he had a thriving business in Houston, and later northern California, repairing musical instruments.In 1986, a customer asked Donnell if he could put a microphone in his guitar. He did a decent job. By the late 1990s, Donnell had 12 employees manufacturing microphones for stringed acoustic instruments in Chico.

By 2000, Donnell was ready to retire, so he licensed the manufacturing and distribution of his microphones and moved to Greenville.

The company manufactured the microphones in China, distributed the microphones under the name Soundhole Mic” and Donnell received royalties.

In 2006, Donnell came up with an improved version of his microphone but the distribution company wasn’t interested. Therefore, in 2009, Donnell reopened MiniFlex.

Donnell now manufactures MiniFlex microphones with one other person in Greenville and sells them worldwide using the Internet.

Donnell also owns Musicland, a music and instrument retail store; a truck farm; and rental properties in Greenville.

Donnell is hoping to gear up his MiniFlex business and then pass it on to a younger successor.

Frank Berry, a graduate from FRC and UC Santa Cruz, with degrees in computer programming, has been working with Donnell for three years. Donnell hopes to used Berry’s programming skills to build a better website to order to better position MiniFlex in the world market.

Donnell said he also hopes to “die in Plumas County.” To that end, he wants to make sure that Plumas County has a vibrant economy to attract and retain young people.

The FRC business succession program

To solve this problem, Donnell and FRC are working together to attract young people in their late 20s and early 30s with some life experience, who are interested in taking over small businesses in rural Plumas County.

The college would then link those students with local business owners interested in monetizing their businesses and passing them on to younger people.

Young interns from FRC would bring their business theory and technological skills to business owners and the business owners would pass on their practical business experience to the interns.

For instance, interns might help to move older businesses from paper-based to digitally based accounting and distribution systems, and help in other ways to revitalize companies and increase their cash flows.

If things work out, the business owner might allow the intern to buy into the business for a lower amount than it would take to buy the business outright. With time, the intern would come to own more and more of the business and start paying royalties to the business owner. In the end, the intern would have the business and the retired business owner would have the royalties to rely on during his or her retirement.

Donnell noted that some business owners might wish to keep some involvement with the company, but not be obliged to run the business on a day-to-day basis.

Other FRC activities

Donnell noted that business succession is a topic that is often overlooked in business educational programs. He hopes that the FRC program will eventually draw both students and business owners from throughout California and other states.

Donnell envisions two week summer sessions where small rural business owners would come to FRC on vacation to meet prospective interns and take classes on how to monetize their businesses and pass them on to younger successors.

Donnel and FRC are hoping to start a pilot version of the “Rural Small Business Succession Program” this fall. Donnell said that getting the program totally up and running might take three to five years.

State GO-Biz Program

Gil Gonzales, special advisor to the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, visited Plumas County in December 2016, Gonzales returned to Plumas County on June 5 and 6. Gonzales met with FRC staff to learn more about the FRC Rural Small Business Succession Program.

Since his visit, Donnell said that he has been talking with Gonzalez two to three times a day by phone. He said, “Gonzalez is sincerely interested in helping Plumas County.”

Donnell also said that he was “very impressed with the staff at Feather River College.” He added, “The meetings there, and earlier in Quincy with business owners, were very positive, yielding surprisingly concrete results.”

For his part, after being introduced to the Plumas County Board of Supervisors on June 6, Gonzales commented, “I have found the people in Plumas County to be strongly motivated in doing the right thing for the community.”

Donnell said that he wanted to see more small businesses in Plumas County. He noted that large employers can severely affect the community when they leave suddenly.

Donnell added, “If you want to do something positive for the community, start a small business.”