Unleasing the Power of Regional Business Data

South Bend  - At first it doesn't sound too exciting. But a new software package that is being rolled out in four counties could provide powerful ignition to the region's economic development efforts.

The new tool is called CRM, or Customer Relationship Management. It's a Microsoft product that has been used by businesses to provide better service to their customers.

In this case, however, the businesses using the tool will be economic development officials in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall and Kosciusko counties, and the customers will be the thousands of businesses in the region.

The idea for such a tool came about a couple of years ago when it was realized that some sort of database had to be developed to connect new ventures being launched at Innovation Park at Notre Dame with businesses in the area, says Jeff Rea, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County.

The additional business would help local companies, and it would help keep newly launched ventures from picking up and leaving the area in search of a supplier base.

Retired Crowe Horwath executive Karl King connected with Craig C. Sroda, another former Crowe official who now serves as a partner and CEO of Pinnacle of Indiana. One of the largest Microsoft partners in northern Indiana, Mishawaka-based Pinnacle has been using technology to help businesses and organizations throughout the region improve for many years.

"We wanted to give back to the community," says Sroda, who grew up on the west side of South Bend and graduated from Washington High School. "Karl (King) suggested we should use our talents."

With the initial purpose of trying to capture some of the possibilities coming out of Innovation Park, the project eventually grew to include a database of most manufacturing businesses in the area.

To date, Sroda and others from the Pinnacle team have donated hundreds of hours customizing the Microsoft tool to fit the needs of economic development agencies in the area. To accomplish that goal, they spent considerable time working with Dave Ogle, director of business retention and expansion for the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County.

Pinnacle also trained economic development officials on how to use and maintain the new cloud-based software, which has now been turned over to the Corporate Partnership for Economic Growth, or CPEG, which is a regional economic development organization that formed about a year ago.

Data entry and training is an ongoing process. As economic development officials make visits with area companies, they will update data on a business and include notes on whether a follow-up call or visit is necessary.

But the CRM tool already is usable and generating excitement among those who can imagine the possibilities.

Rea, the Chamber president, points out how the state recently sent out a business lead seeking a company to perform precision drilling. According to current data, there are about 20 such companies in the four-county area.

That's 20 companies that could then get a phone call or an e-mail with the lead. That's a chance for additional business, additional revenue and ultimately additional employment at a local company.

Beyond the leads coming in from the outside, the tool also will be useful -- likely most useful -- in linking companies in the area seeking suppliers. Greg Lorch, director of business growth for the Chamber, or his counterparts in other participating counties, will be able to provide contacts for area businesses if they find a local company is in need of a product or service.

"In the past, we largely relied on the database in our heads," says Rea. "But what we realize is that it is only as reliable as our memories."

"This is like our own Match.com, a tool that can help us connect business interests," he says.

In addition, the database will help economic development officials rapidly form a profile of proficiencies for companies interested in locating an operation in our area. Having the supplier network, after all, is often key in such decisions.

The tool also will help economic development officials track activity, projects and results, and Sroda believes it could encourage a business to upgrade its equipment or skills if it knows there is business out there.

"The ability to connect companies could have a powerful economic impact," says Shawn Peterson, president and CEO of CPEG. Maybe it's a local company finding a new local supplier or maybe it's a local company gaining a new customer from outside the area.

Though the CRM tool initially is being rolled out in CPEG's four-county core, it could be expanded to include adjoining counties in the future -- perhaps even our neighbors to the north.

Sroda's interest is in providing better tools to economic development officials with a goal of helping businesses and the community prosper.

"We just want to have a positive impact in the communities we serve," he says.

Source: Ed Semmler, The Bottom Line, South Bend Tribune