Feature Story

Helping Small Businesses Make Big Moves

Students touring American Wood Design

The hum of machinery and the smell of sawdust fill the air as employees at American Wood Design, Inc., work to transform large slabs of wood into custom-made cabinetry.

Nearby sit some of their finished products, destined for banks, medical offices, and other commercial businesses in the tri-state area or New York City.

Two years earlier, the family-owned, multi-generational company left Delaware, relocating to this facility near the Chester waterfront, a move that allowed American Wood Design to expand its operations and more than double its workforce and total sales.

That move was made possible, in large part, to the work of the Widener Small Business Development Center (SBDC), with assistance from Widener graduate students. SBDC helped the company assess its operations and secure financing, including a low interest loan from the City of Chester.

“Being in business, a lot of people come in and say ‘here’s my business card, we’re in business development and we’ll do this for you.’ But there’s always a hesitation. Not with SBDC. They really come across as very trustworthy,” said Mike Gilhool Jr., vice president of American Wood Design.

Today, Gilhool’s company is thriving. For their efforts to create jobs and spur economic opportunity, and for their continual commitment to their customers and the community, including their new hometown, the company was awarded the 2019 Family-Owned Business of the Year Award by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Eastern Pennsylvania District.

Success Stories

American Wood Design is one of many SBDC success stories. Located in Quick Center – home of the School of Business Administration – Widener SBDC provides one-on-one consulting services and educational programs to hundreds of small businesses and entrepreneurs. The center is leading the way among the 18 SBDC locations in the state, and making its mark at the national level. 

For its innovative approach to helping businesses, Widener SBDC received the 2019 Pennsylvania Small Business Development Center Excellence and Innovation Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration. 

“We’re changing the way SBDC does business,” said director Lenin Agudo.

A prime example of this change is the center’s Success Lab – a bright, creative, collaborative space for entrepreneurs to engage in outcome-driven activities. The space was recently designated a Next-Gen Lab for Design Thinking and Analytics by SAP, the first SBDC in the country to achieve this designation. 

Students in the SBDC Success Lab
SBDC Success Lab

Student Experiences 

As Agudo says, SBDC is in the business of economic development, and in the business of education. Instrumental to their work is the significant role of Widener students, both undergraduate and graduate, who gain invaluable hands-on, career-accelerating experiences through classroom partnerships or as business consultants. 

On the American Wood Design project, for instance, graduate assistants like Billy Morgan helped develop the financial projections and worked with Chester officials on logistics.

Morgan feels like a proud parent knowing he played a role in the company’s successful move. 

“The work you’re doing everyday with SBDC is truly having a real impact on someone else’s life,” said Morgan, who today works as an operations associate at Vanguard.

Morgan earned his undergraduate degree in business management from Widener in 2016, and worked with SBDC as part of a senior project. He calls the experience a “highlight of my undergraduate career,” and it led him to return to Widener for his MBA for the chance to continue to work alongside his SBDC mentors. He completed his MBA in 2017.

The leadership they taught me, how to thrive professionally, has led to why I’m successful today. SBDC had the greatest impact on my college and professional career. — Billy Morgan '16 '17

Current graduate assistant Christina Grady was drawn to SBDC by its energy and innovation.

“I grew up in New York and watched small businesses leave the neighborhood,” she said. “When I saw SBDC, I said ‘I need to be part of this.’ It really resonated with me.”

On the American Wood Design project, Grady helped conduct market research for the relocation and assisted with communications. The work paired her undergraduate degree in public relations/communications with her current studies in the Widener MBA program.

“SBDC has helped me put into practice the things I’m learning. As I’m learning, I’m doing,” said Grady, who expects to graduate in December. “I am finding confidence in myself and my education, and I’m producing work that is meaningful.”
 

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