By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
He started his first business at age 19 and has owned three businesses in Washington over 17 years. He has been an SBDC advisor in Washington and Arizona for 15 years.
“Being part of the SBDC is a way of giving back,” he said. “I enjoy working one-on-one with clients – listening to their needs, identifying areas where they can improve and helping them find the tools and resources they need to make changes.”
Free one-on-one advising
Nielsen is one of 29 SBDC advisors in 25 centers across the state who work with small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. The Washington SBDC (http://www.wsbdc.org) is supported by Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration and receives additional support from local institutions of higher education and economic development.
Nielsen’s work in Lacey, Wash., is supported by South Puget Sound Community College; his office is co-located with the Thurston County Economic Development Council.
In 2014 he met with 129 clients who credited him with helping them raise $3.6 million in capital and save or create 297 jobs. While most SBDC advisors meet with clients at all stages of business development, from startup to succession, Nielsen’s work is primarily focused on growth and development.
Thoughtful, astute counsel
Duane Fladland, state director of the Washington SBDC, praised Nielsen’s expertise in managing cash flow and analyzing financial statements.
“Ron is particularly good at meeting clients where they are,” Fladland said, whether they are longtime business owners involved in complicated financial transactions or new business owners trying to read bank statements.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable, but he’s also a great listener and thoughtful about what he says,” Fladland said. “I think that’s one of the things that makes Ron a very good advisor.”
TJ Kowalski, owner of Helix Group in Olympia, agrees.
“He’s down-to-earth and that’s exactly what we need,” said Kowalski, who has worked with Nielsen to transform his business from a website design company to a software service provider in the past two years.
“Plenty of people want to give you advice, but they all have some kind of angle or vested interest,” Kowalski said. “It’s refreshing to have someone outside the company look at what we are trying to do and give us knowledgeable feedback and advice.”
Ultralight business takes flight
Nielsen said one of the reasons he can empathize with struggling clients is because in most cases he has “been there, done that.”
“I had to learn everything about business the hard way,” he said. “If you could do something wrong, I did it.”
In the late 1970s, he was working long hours at a bowling alley in Mount Vernon, Wash., when he read an article in Popular Science about new ultralight aircraft. At that time, Nielsen said, ultralights were basically hang gliders with a go-cart motor.
He had never flown but was sure the market for ultralights would be huge in western Washington. He convinced his father to take a fact-finding trip to the factory in southern California. On the airstrip, he was given permission to try out the controls – without taking flight – but plans changed when a gust of wind picked him up and he was airborne.
“It was incredible,” he said. “Everything up until the crash was awe-inspiring.”
His 45 minutes in the air literally changed his life, Nielsen said, but the problem was that eventually he had to land. The first two times he had trouble getting lined up properly, so he circled around for a third attempt. That’s when he ran out of gas and crashed into a hillside.
“Everything under the wing was destroyed,” he said, “but I walked away without an injury.” He also walked away with a verbal agreement for the rights to sell the aircraft in the Pacific Northwest.
Putting experience to work for clients
That led to his first business plan and a series of meetings to get his first business loan, which he later found out his dad co-signed. As he had predicted, ultralights were flying out the door; but, as he had not predicted, it was a constant struggle to pay the bills.
That was his first realization that sales do not necessarily mean cash in the bank: “It was quite a learning curve,” he said.
That early, formative experience made Nielsen a staunch advocate for careful cash flow management, a skill he teaches clients during one-to-one advising as well as through Profit Mastery courses.
“That’s what I appreciate about the SBDC,” he said. “There are business advisors out there who can help you avoid the kind of mistakes I made.”
Affinity for advising, teamwork
Nielsen became the SBDC advisor in Olympia in 2011, but his first stint as an SBDC advisor started in 1989 when he was concurrently the director of the Okanogan County Council for Economic Development in Omak, Wash. Of all the hats he wore, Nielsen said, he enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with small business owners the most.
He left the SBDC in 1996 to concentrate on running a family-owned bowling alley and movie theater in Coulee Dam, Wash., with his wife, Skeets, and their children, Jacqueline, R.D., Ben and Joshua. In 2007, with his older children taking off on their own, Nielsen decided he wanted to sell the business and get back to advising.
After four years with the SBDC in Arizona, he returned to Washington as director of the SBDC center at South Puget Sound Community College where he works closely with administrative assistant Natalya Putt.
Putt, who has a degree in business finance, sits in on every meeting and is able to build spreadsheets, provide research assistance, take detailed notes and construct an action plan during client meetings.
“She’s just flat-out amazing,” Nielsen said. “She’s the reason we are able to be so productive working with clients. The Star award is as much hers as it is mine.”
Businesses, and jobs, salvaged
Lois Willman, co-owner of new business Master Electric in Tenino, Wash., said the wealth of information presented during advising sessions includes reference materials, resources, detailed analysis and more.
“It is obvious Ron and Natalya have developed a system that affords a professional and jam-packed two-hour session,” she said.
This year Nielsen took on the additional challenge of helping companies that were not just struggling, but were days away from having their loans called in and assets liquidated. In one case the trouble was caused by bad business decisions, he said. But in another, a well-run company was nearly ruined when it lost a government contract for reasons entirely out of its control.
“Both were real challenges,” he said, “but both are still in business.” Saving those businesses means 20 employees still have their jobs.
Nielsen is located at 665 Woodland Square Loop in Lacey, but in September the SBDC and Thurston County EDC will move to The Hub on 6th Avenue on the SPSCC campus, along with their business development and advising partners SCORE, the Washington Center for Women in Business and P-TAC (Procurement and Technical Assistance Center for government contracts).