Most entrepreneurs would probably laugh if they heard that the Shangri-La of small business was in Dayton, Ohio. And it’s fair to ask what a relatively small community in the heart of the endemically struggling rust belt could offer to the nation’s small business community.
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To answer that question, one has to physically go to Aileron, the professional management-training institute founded by pet-food billionaire Clay Mathile. In 1999, Mathile sold his company Iams to Procter and Gamble for $2.3 billion, and while he could have devoted that fortune to any number of charities, he chose to focus on small business.
“We did some research and what we found was that the small and medium-sized businesses in the community were all the employment growth [in] the previous 10 years,” Mathile told FOX Business Network. “And so the focus should be more on retaining and helping the businesses that exist in our community, compared to or versus bringing in new business.”
Aileron, so named for the flaps on the wings of an airplane used for control and guidance, has been around for more than a decade, but it started out as the Center for Entrepreneurial Education in Dayton, Ohio. The small business clinic opened a full-scale campus in April of 2008, and in the two years since, it has already seen about 1,800 clients pass through its doors.
The campus, located just outside Dayton, Ohio, is no easy oasis to find. One must fly into Dayton and meander outside of town before winding up the mile-long driveway to the modern, LEED-certified structure, which initially looks a lot like an upscale private residence.
A quick tour of the place is a little like walking through a motivational speech. Inspirational quotes adorn the walls and little architectural nuances in every corner work to convey the institute’s core values, such as hard work, dedication, humility and the golden rule. Even the architect who designed the campus, New York-based Lee H. Skolnick who started Lee Skolnick Architecture, comes from an entrepreneurial background (Skolnick’s father invented Juicy Juice).
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Upon first glance, the program might sound a little hokey; one-part impassioned professional manager and two-parts leadership and success lore. Yet upon settling in, one soon realizes that the message this organization puts out is more than just talk—the motivation is palpable. The folks running it are steadfast; they are hardworking; they are humble. All are united in a common mission to seek business success through one crucial metric: job growth.
“There’s a group of highly talented people at Aileron that are as committed as the entrepreneur is to helping them take their businesses to the next level, and they’re doing it for very genuine reasons: to develop jobs and help our economy,” said Aileron alum Joe Kelley, president of Gates That Open, a Tallahassee-based company, which manufactures automatic gate openers. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The course work at Aileron isn’t “rocket science,” president Joni Fedders readily admits.
The ‘DOC’ Model, which stands for “Direction, Operation, Control” is the same kind of training taught at courses by the American Management Association, and by professional management consulting firms like Kessinger’s or Accenture. What makes Aileron unique, however, is that each person going through the courses is assigned a ‘mentor’: a small-business owner that has been through the program and has tackled problems similar to those each client might face. David Ganzarto, another Aileron client, said he was impressed to find that his professor in the facility's course for presidents was the former CEO of three different publicly-held companies, and his mentor had operated and later sold a successful business.
“It’s not theory. It’s not someone who worked at a university—this is someone that’s actually been in the business world, had these issues and made it successful,” Ganzarto said.
The emphasis placed on business-owners paying their own mentors back by “paying it forward” has also taken hold. The center sees 85% of its course graduates return to campus for follow-up, and many also go on to volunteer as mentors, outside board members and even course instructors.
As to the cost, Mathile’s donations subsidize the course fees for clients, which means the course for presidents, the most popular course at Aileron, goes for about $1500 for a 3-day workshop.
“The classes are not for free, but the price is not extremely high that would keep you out of it,” Fedders said.
While it’s difficult to quantify how many jobs the center has created, the number of people coming back to campus to volunteer has markedly grown. The program has seen its client base grow at a consistent annual rate of 20%.
Mathile said his original goal was to foster and maintain small business in Dayton, Ohio -- the city he loves and has lived in his whole life -- but this one-time pet project has taken on a life of its own. Time will tell whether or not this center can continue creating jobs and inspiring entrepreneurs, but one thing is certain: the timing for a venture that would fuel economic recovery through job creation and small businesses growth has never been more crucial.
**Adam Shapiro contributed to this report.