Houston U. S. General Store
for Small Business

1. Type of Facility

The U. S. General Store for Small Business is an initiative of Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review and a project of the Houston Federal Executive Board. It is a free of charge, one-stop government center for small business. The store offers on-site customer service representatives skilled in providing answers, completing transactions, dealing with regulations and solving problems for businesses which need government assistance. It provides a wide array of services; obtaining business loans; providing information on selling goods and services to the federal government; solving tax problems; answering questions about taxes; immigration rules and regulations; compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules; information on Environmental Protection Agency Regulations; marketing strategies for small business owners; permits and licensing requirements of city, county and state agencies; and other information as required. New partners are added regularly as demand increases.

2. Participating Agencies/Entities

More than two dozen federal, state and local entities provide information, training, and other services at the U. S. General Store.

U.S. Small Business Administration
Houston Small Business Development Corporation
Business Information Center
Internal revenue Service
Environmental Protection Agency
General Services Administration
SCORE - Retired Executives
City of Houston One Stop Business Center
Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission
Department of Labor - Wage and Hour Division
Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Housing and Urban Development
Immigration and Naturalization Service
State of Texas Comptrollers office
U. S. Postal Service
U. S. Customs Service
Harris County DBA
Veterans Administration Medical Center
Harris County Housing and Community Development Agency
Harris County Appraisal District
Eller Media
Shell Oil
Academy Sports and Outdoors
Gannett Outdoor
Sykes Communications
Office of Congressman Gene Green
Office of Congressman Ken Bentsen
Office of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee

3. Type of Service Offered

Many different services are provided, including:

Business start-up procedures
Loan information and applications
SBA loan guarantees
Sample Business Plans
Extensive tax information
Contracting and procurement opportunities
Permits and licenses
City of Houston services for small businesses
Marketing and sales counseling
Vice President Gore's "Small Business Advisor" - a comprehensive data base on federal regulations and programs affecting small business
Export-Import procedures
On-site seminars and training conferences
Resource library with state of the art and online computer services provided by
the Houston Small Business Development Corporation
Video facilities and free internet access

4. Facility Design/Equipment/Staffing and Financing

The General Store is housed in a one story shopping center, owned by the City of Houston, and built with community development funds channeled through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The store is staffed with two full-time employees provided by SBA; six SCORE volunteers on a rotating basis; two full-time GSA employees; two full-time IRS employees; a City of Houston Business Center representative (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily); a County Clerk representative (two afternoons per week), and an OSHA representative one-half a day a week. These employees constitute a self-directed work team. The agency staff report to their respective supervisors from their own agencies. The Store is managed by a Management Committee appointed by the Houston Federal Executive Board. The Management Committee consists of senior managers from EEOC, SBA, GSA, HUD, and EPA. The Management Committee is represented in the Store by three federal employees who rotate in, one or two days per week, acting as liaisons between the Store staff and the FEB. These liaisons function as Marketing and Outreach Specialists, whose primary focus is to bring in new partners and new customers to the Store. Becky Weber from the Environmental Protection Agency is Chairperson of the Marketing and Outreach Committee and has played a very important role in moving the programs and operations of the store forward.

In October of 1996, the Small Business Administration plans to open a One-Stop Capital Shop. This will operate in conjunction with the FEB's U. S. General Store and both operations will work closely together and integrate their services as appropriate.

The store is fully equipped with work stations, furniture, computers, fax, Xerox, and traditional office equipment, including a resource library. This store operates without any budget whatsoever. All services and equipment have been donated by public and private partners. The Store's landlord and partner is the Houston Small Business Development Corporation. The rent for the first and second year of operation has been fixed at one dollar. This includes office, training, and conference space. The Federal Executive Board is exploring measures to raise money for the operation of the Store.

5. Customer Input

On April 19, 1995 the SEA Policy Committee voted to open a U. S. General Store by July 6, 1995. On May 16, 1995, less than one month after deciding to open the Store, the FEB and NOR convened a focus group of small business people to solicit feedback on what services were most needed. This feedback provided much of the framework for the eventual program. The Store tracks and graphs the volume of monthly business and encourages customers to complete requests for service forms.

The U. S. General Store has established a Marketing and Outreach Committee, which is developing short and long term objectives and a strategic plan for increasing partners and customers. Five committees have been established to implement programs at the Store -- Contracting and Procurement; Small Business Assistance; Taxes; Education and Training; Marketing and Outreach. All committees have a mandate to seek customer input in developing their strategic plans. Committees are chaired by various FEB members, with volunteer participation by many agencies across the board.

6. Press Coverage

There has been a significant amount of press coverage in connection with the Store's scheduled events, including the opening, billboard unveiling, Vice President Gore's presentation of the Hammer Award to the FEB and its partners, and the First Anniversary Celebration (July 15, 1996). There have been a number of articles in the press, both mainstream and community newspapers. But surprisingly, the mainstream press has shown a decided lack of interest in ongoing operations at the Store. For each of the big events there was significant television coverage on all seven channels, particularly with Gore's visit.

7. Lessons Learned

For the first seventy eight days, from inception to the opening of the store, the U. S. Customs Service assigned a temporary full-time manager to pull the project together. Once the store opened, the SBA took over as the lead agency for the first year, but this proved too heavy a burden for a single agency and an FEB Management Committee was established.

There was an attempt in the beginning to execute Memoranda of Understanding with participating agencies. Fortunately, this was not implemented because creating a project like this demands total flexibility in objectives, job descriptions, roles, financial participation, staffing, training, etc. The substitute for such Memos of Understanding are the subcommittees established, as described previously, with committed agency personnel who are developing strategic plans, benchmarks and measurements, both short and long term.

For example, had the Store been limited to our original objectives, it never would have realized the major impact the Store has made in securing government contracts for small business people. This has been the most popular and successful aspect of the Store's operation. It came as a surprise to the FEB that such an extensive data base was available of goods and services being sought by the government. Committed and dedicated staff from GSA made this happen. SCORE is also a very key player in this whole mix, and many of the successes have come as a result of the retired executives advice to small businesses. A computer data base is now in place and measurements on service to customers will become an integral part of the operation. Absent a data base, five interns from the University of Houston identified success stories through telephone surveys.

It is helpful to have continuing oversight so that the FEB is informed on the day to day successes and problems. An SBA official is now present in the Store on a Daily basis, developing plans to open the One-Stop Capital Shop, which will work closely with the Store. His presence has been effective.

Four days a week a liaison from EPA, HUD, or EEOC are present in the store, and this will be a critical aspect toward broadening the customer base. If there is a manager in the Store, the manager needs to be a team-leader and extremely participative, understanding that this can only work in a team environment. Store personnel have to be independent, highly motivated, and show creativity and initiative in developing their jobs. Houston is lucky to have such a staff. Some government managers are uncomfortable not having one person "in-charge." Rather, we are rotating permanent staff in the store to act as a host agency for operations to see that the doors are open and locked, that alarms are set, and to oversee other logistical duties.

It was extremely helpful to have the support of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, to help with access to the Vice President and the Mayor of the City of Houston. The store is physically located in her Congressional District, and she has been a good ambassador for the work of the Store, helping to pull in customers and partners. Congressman Ken Bentsen and Congressman Gene Green have also been staunch supporters.

The Houston Federal Executive Board has a history of close collaboration between federal agencies and a history of partnerships with non-governmental entities. This provided the atmosphere to successfully implement such a broad collaborative effort. The Store also fit in precisely with the FEB's main strategic objective: customer service. A key factor in the success of the Store, particularly in the envisioning and implementation stage, has been a strong Executive Director of the Board, who saw the possibilities and brought them to the Board's attention and this has been the glue to hold it all together. Rob Fischer has developed an extensive communication system by fax, which instantaneously notifies hundreds of partners and federal staff of important events and needs. Good communication is an absolutely critical component of a successful operation. Bulletins were sent out requesting equipment, furniture, financing, staff, volunteers, etc., on Special Alert fax notices, eliciting a fantastic response. Financing continues to be a serious concern for the FEB, and continued NPR encouragement of Cabinet level officials and other high level government managers has been a significant factor of success.

The Chair of the Management Committee, Harriet Ehrlich, EEOC's District Director, is continuing to explore ways to encourage sustained and significant participation in the Store by federal employees. It is critical to keep middle managers of federal agencies informed and appreciated for their support.

The underpinning for getting a project like this off the ground comes straight from Michael Hammer's philosophy -- "Just do it and stumble forward!" You have to establish the right culture and have strong leadership to implement such a program. As Michael Hammer reminds us, "Establishing a culture is a leader's job as is creating a climate of innovation and change." That's hard to do in a federal bureaucracy, but it's possible. People involved in creating this Store need to have the courage to try things. Again, Michael Hammer says, "Winners make more mistakes than losers because they try things." People involved in the Store have to be willing to try things on their own, without asking for permission, or try to find rules and regulations to allow them to do this. "It's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission." (Hammer)

The incentive for people involved in creating a Store like this is in being able to make a difference. "It makes government work better and costs less," as Vice President Al Gore reminds us, and it puts the customer first. NPR says that only 17% of the American people trust government to do the right thing. The Houston U. S. General Store is changing that perception.

8. Contact for Further Information

Harriet Ehrlich, Chair, Store Management Committee (713) - 209 - 3377
Rob Fischer, FEB Executive Director (713) - 209 - 4524
SBA/ One Stop Capital Shop/Store Management Committee (713) - 643 - 8000
Becky Weber, EPA (713) - 983 - 2126 (Marketing and Outreach Chair)

U. S. General Store for Small Business
5400 Griggs Road
Houston, Texas 77021 - 3115

PHONE : (713) - 643 - 8000
FAX: (713) - 643 - 8193


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