Finding Time to Make Weight Loss A Reality

This past spring 45-year-old Jeff Levine did something he had never done in his entire professional career. A busy doctor, Levine’s days were filled with patients and with his teaching duties as an assistant professor of family medicine and obstetrics at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. His evenings revolved around the paperwork spun off from his appointments and classes and his wife and four daughters. In short, Levine had included everyone in his crammed schedule – but himself. And it was killing him.

By ignoring himself, Levine had ballooned up to 370 unhealthy, unattractive pounds. "I was sitting in an office telling women how they must lose weight," says Levine. "They would stare at me and think to themselves, `this guy needs to practice what he preaches.’ " At this stage of his busy life Levine was a prime candidate for the television show "The Biggest Loser."

For those who shun reality TV, NBC’s "The Biggest Loser" is based on the premise that one is never too obese to return to health. Levine joined several teammates, and, competing against another team of desperate-to-lose folks, entered the show’s boot camp. In 12 weeks, before being voted off the show, he lost an amazing 103 pounds. Even more impressive, Levine continued losing weight after he returned home, finally shedding a total of 153 pounds, bringing his now-fit frame to 217 pounds.

Levine recounts his experience on the television show and talks about how any workaholic can copy his success when he speaks on "How to Maintain Fitness as a Busy Professional" on Thursday, August 17, at 7 p.m. at the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health and Wellness in Hamilton. Cost: $5. Call 609-586-7900.

Levine was not born overweight, nor did he come from overweight parents. At Syracuse University he played baseball while earning his bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology. "I remember both of my parents were extremely lean until they were in their early 30s," he says. "Then they really ballooned up." Without knowing it, their son followed the same path, and began putting on the pounds at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Levine’s odyssey from fat to fit transformed a lot more than his figure. He has since developed an entire life regimen for those wanting to lose weight and stay healthy. It combines three elements – eating healthfully, maintaining regular physical activity, and setting aside time for mental relaxation every day. While scarcely revolutionary strategies, Levine’s plan offers a host of surprisingly clever tactics to achieve each goal.

Schedule it. "Absolutely every bit of advice I or anyone offers you is guaranteed to fail," says Levine, "unless you make the time for yourself and concentrate totally on your health needs." Fitness in not a prize to be snatched midst multitasking. It demands an emotional commitment. Where do I find the time? You are an executive, responds Levine. Schedule it wisely and flexibly.

Instead of etching in bronze 5 p.m. as the immutable fitness hour, look over your week and pencil in the 30 minutes for each day as the situation demands. Using this strategy, working late merely postpones, not cancels, the fitness time.

Getting an exercise partner, particularly from work, makes it more likely that fitness appointments will be kept. Having a partner can also make working out more fun.

But above all realize that you are making a life change that calls for a real emotional commitment. Like any business project, there will be setbacks. Expect them, and don’t allow them to get you down. Don’t saddle yourself with shame, just re-tie your running shoes and keep going.

Re-program yourself. "I want to see clean plates," parents tell their children. "From birth we bribe, trick, and bully our children into eating constantly," says Levine. "Small wonder that we grow up never heeding the body’s natural signal, which tells us to stop eating when we are full." Give up your membership in the clean plate club and let your very capable body tell you when it has had all it requires.

Levine suggests that initially people should keep a food log, and each time they reach for food, ask themselves "am I really hungry?" If the answer is no, try to distract yourself for 30 minutes. When you do eat, write down what, how much, and why. But by writing down the real cause of why you grabbed the forkful, you get to know your eating triggers and can avoid them.

For many executives, food inadvertently becomes a concentration drug, or a tension reliever. Just being aware of this might be enough to make some stop before getting another bag of chips from the vending machine or absently grabbing a slice of leftover birthday cake from the office kitchen. Others might find a way to hang on to the crutch, if necessary, by planning ahead and keeping a bag of baby carrots or a bowl of strawberries on their desks.

Be good to yourself. Parents and professionals, tuned in to the needs of their children and their clients, too often think that it is selfish to spend time on themselves. But it is impossible to attend to either family or work with maximum energy while neglecting your own health.

Make it through the day. Where’s the time for health in an overcrowded daily docket? Levine suggests that sedentary office workers fix themselves a healthy lunch and keep it varied. Use the time saved by avoiding restaurants and fast food lines at noon to take a walk and see what the outdoors looks like.

Invest in a pedometer. Nothing so gratifies the novice weight loser as a pedometer. At the end of the day it swells the ego by announcing that you’ve achieved 4,000, 6,000, 8,000 steps – a few more each day, a tangible march toward victory. "Now, go for at least 10,000 a day," says Levine. "This may involve parking the car a little farther from the office or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Whatever gets the steps in."

Avoid temptation. Whether at home or office, keep the healthy food immediately available in line of sight. Put a fruit bowl on the counter and the carrot slices in a snack bag at the eye level shelf in the fridge. Prepackage snacks to answer instant cravings, but for heaven’s sake, make them foods you like. Levine’s few dietary mottos are moderation (he’s a great fan of measuring portions), variety (eating regularly what you like avoids binges), and nightly treats. (Yes, life is too short.)

Finally, Levine insists, eat breakfast. Not only does it increase energy, but it also diminishes long days of nameless cravings.

Take it on the road. Travel and dining out are an inherent part of most professional lives – and a big cause of weight gain. Yet in each situation there are smart choices you can make. When you first enter the restaurant, tell the waiter not to bring bread to the table. "You didn’t choose this restaurant for the bread," says Levine, "so don’t devour it while you’re waiting for what you really want."

When you eat at a dangerous buffet, fill up on a bowl of salad as an appetizer. Then, taking the small plate, circle and inspect the entire buffet. Select only the most appealing, healthy foods – perhaps the grilled meat or fish, the boiled vegetables, or the broth-based soup, rather than every food in line that attracts you.

When booking a hotel, find one that has a gym or is adjacent to a large park with walkways. When you check in ask about fitness kits, a number of large chains are just now rolling them out, offering everything from Yoga mats to flexibility balls to hand weights that travelers can keep in their rooms for the length of their stays.

Until the exercise kits become universal, Levine suggests keeping light weights in your luggage, along with a small ball that you can use to work your hands.

Have fun. "I never use the term exercise, because people immediately think of work," says Levine. "Instead I suggest they be creative and choose any kind of fun physical activity. Play tag with your kids. Carry, then walk with, your toddler. Just hanging around with children burns calories."

Attend to your spirit, too. Don’t neglect mental relaxation. Practicing meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or even quiet reading of reflective poetry refreshes the mind and helps to dispel the tension that inevitably builds up at work.

Levine joins his four daughters at their summer camp, where he vacations as camp doctor. His wife, Suzanne, who can now put her arms around her husband and touch her hands, recently asked what was the best part about his hard won weight loss. "Simple," Levine replied, "I got my life back." – Bart Jackson

A Modern Approach to Selling and Buying

It’s not hard to see that salesmen have something of an image problem. "I often start my seminars by playing a game of `Password,’" says Jeff Callahan, owner of Sandler Sales Institute, a sales management training program with offices in Princeton and Freehold. "I write the word `salesman’ on a chalkboard and ask people to give me one-word description of what it means to them. Usually someone starts off with something like `pressure.’ Then someone, a little less timidly, says `pushy.’ Then it’s not too long before the whole room comes alive with people shouting out things like `liar,’ `cheat,’ `dishonest,’ `can’t trust `em,’ and it just goes on and on."

Callahan, whose company has been offering businesses sales training through public and private in-house training programs for over six years, says that in order to make sales and boost profits in the 21st century it is important for salespeople to take a more modern approach to the selling and buying paradigm.

"It’s a good idea to look at the traditional sales approach – something that is all too easy to fall into – and then take a closer look from a buyer’s point of view," says Callahan. "If you examine each one side-by-side you can start to understand where there is a good match and where there is a huge disconnect."

Callahan speaks on "Keeping the Cash Flowing in Tough Times: Proven Ways to Boost Your Sales Now" on Thursday, August 17, at 3 p.m. at 116 Village Boulevard in the Forrestal Village. This seminar is aimed at business owners, salespeople, or anyone whose job it is to bring in revenue for a company. The cost is $99, which includes lunch and two business books. To register or for more information, call 800-814-5333 or visit the website at

Whether you’re selling men’s suits, stock options, or pre-owned automatic external defibrillators, the basic dynamics are the same. The traditional sales approach, prevalent well before the days of Willy Loman, still reigns supreme for many would-be salespersons. But Callahan says that there is an inherent problem with it that results in unneeded pressure and stress on both parties.

"Usually a salesperson, filled with tons of false enthusiasm, will call a potential buyer on the phone, often around dinnertime, and quickly launch into a sales pitch," says Callahan. "The first and only thing they (the recipients of these pitches) want to do is get off the phone. Most people can relate to that."

In the days before the national do not call list, some residents would often get two or three sales calls an evening. But today, whether it is on the phone, in person, or online, such methods of solicitation all too often leave a bad taste in a potential customer’s mouth. In order to combat negative responses, Callahan says it is important to know what triggers them, and then avoid them like the plague.

"There are certain patterns that salespeople tend to fall into if they are not careful," he says. "False and insincere enthusiasm on the part of the salesperson, saying something right off the bat like `Hello Mister Doe, how are you today?’ is something that really sets people off. People see through that very quickly. You have to figure out a way to take a more human approach to selling."

Callahan suggests that salespeople tell prospects upfront just how long they will be on the phone with them, let them have some say in the conversation, and hold no grudges if they are not interested. "I find that approach works pretty well," he says. "Most people, when they learn that they have control of the situation, feel more comfortable and more receptive to you."

A resident of Monmouth, Callahan and his wife Lisa (who does most of the marketing for the Sandler Sales Institute), have three daughters. "I grew up with five brothers, so having a family in which everyone is female except me is something I haven’t quite adjusted to yet," he says.

Callahan earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland, majoring in audiology. "My first career consisted of sitting in the basement of a hospital twisting dials," he says. "It was intellectually stimulating for a while, but I’m the kind of guy who gets bored easily." He was then approached by Bausch and Lomb, where he worked in sales for the hearing systems division, traveling between Rochester, New York, and Minneapolis.

In a materialistic world, perhaps its surprising that salespeople have such a bad reputation. After all, our culture revolves around the concepts of buying and selling. There has to be a way to reel in sales without alienating customers. Here are Callahan’s tips for doing just that:

Prospects are human too. Don’t deal with prospects as if they were merely names and numbers on a page. Talk with your potential clients, get to know them a little, and show that you are interested in working with them in order to make things better for both of you. "Launching into a rendition of your selling points right away, without allowing the prospect to get a word in edgewise, is usually not going to result in much success," says Callahan.

Save time and qualify your prospects. "Most salespeople make the mistake of spending an inordinate amount of time chasing people, calling people, E-mailing people, stopping by their offices, in order to make a sale to a person who is just never going to become a customer," says Callahan. "It’s a huge time-waster. I know that some have been trained with a never-take-no-for-an-answer mentality, but too often it just doesn’t work. It’s good to get to a legitimate `no’ as quickly as possible."

Tone it down. It’s a common mistake for salespeople to spend too much time talking and not enough time listening. Rather than hit their sales points in a prepared selling patter, good salespeople know how to allow the prospect to assume control of the conversation. "I’ll start out by introducing myself and then ask if I can have their permission to take just 30 seconds of their time," says Callahan. "Then if they decide they want to go further they can. If they don’t want to, that is fine too. Then we can both hang up the phone and get on with their lives."

Talk expectations. Have a conversation with your prospects about their needs are and what the expectations they have in working with you. "Most salespeople are deathly afraid of talking about price, and they won’t talk about it until the very end," he says. "But if someone has a budget of $500 and the widget I’m trying to sell them costs $10,000, then it is a waste of both parties’ time to talk about price only at the end. Time is a salesperson’s most valuable asset."

Shorten the selling cycle. "There are just 40 business hours in a week and the more sales calls you make in that time the more likely you are to make a sale," says Callahan. "You want to get to that point more quickly in those calls where you just aren’t going to make a sale, no way, no how. It’s just not in the cards. Then you can better use your time on those who in fact may buy from you. A quick `no’ can be a good thing."

Perhaps it is not surprising that in these post-modern times where technology dominates that it is the human qualities that will more often result in success and sales. According to Callahan, salespeople must emphasize their communication skills. Keeping prospective clients relaxed and comfortable is a prime goal. Showing a sincere interest in their needs is important, and allowing the tone of the conversation to take on a defensive quality is a sure path to "no sale."

– Jack Florek

Entrepreneur Training

Starting a business can be daunting. The entrepreneur, secure in his skills as a landscaper or web designer, may have no idea of how to form a business entity, obtain financing, rent space, hire employees, market his business, or meet tax requirements. The Entrepreneurial Training Institute was formed under the auspices of New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority in l992 to help out. Relying on resources from all of the state’s business agencies and organizations, ETI presents a three-step, hand-holding program for anyone in the process of forming a business or piloting it through its start-up phase.

As a one-evening appetizer to its three-course main program, ETI is holding a free Entrepreneurial Training Workshop on Monday, August 21, at 6 p.m. at the Lawrence Public Library. Registration is required. Call 609-292-9279 or visit

Designed as a broad-scope workshop, the event features many panelists, including Catherine Shrope-Mot, a microlending specialist and ETI instructor; Charles Hill, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity; and Lorraine Allen, director of Mercer/Middlesex’s Small Business Development Center. To both present and answer questions, representatives from the New Jersey Commerce Commission, New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners, and the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, as well ETI mentors, are included in the workshop.

The Entrepreneur Training Institute’s full three-step program begins with a business readiness course in which answers are sought. Do you have the necessary backing? What are your potential markets and competitors? To get a preview of this course, entrepreneurs can visit and take an assessment test.

Once readiness is established, ETI’s second course takes individual students through the establishment of business plans, hiring, funding, and on up to the marketplace. A panel, which includes bankers, reads and bids on each plan. The third step is an 18-month mentoring system in which an experienced business owner gives comfort and guidance during those first fear-filled steps of startup. In addition to for-profit companies, ETI custom tailors this program to non-profits, franchisees, and Hispanic businesses.

At the August 21 workshop, Shrope-Mot offers advice on micro lending, but this is only a small fraction of her knowledge. A native of Albany’s suburbs, Shrope-Mot came to her business expertise circuitously, through a psychology B.A. earned from Pace University in l978. She toyed with various fields until she was recruited by what was then First Federal Bank in Manhattan. "I remember my interviewer saying as he accepted me, `we can teach you business, but we can’t teach you what you’ve got – the ability to deal with people,’" Shrope-Mot recalls.

After more than a decade as a Manhattanite, Shrope-Mot was lured to New Jersey by a job offer as a business advisor for one of Princeton’s major brokerage firms. Six years ago she was recruited as one of ETI’s course instructors and a mentor, positions in which she uses her psychology skills all the time. In addition, she also works with the Trenton-based Regional Business Assistance Corporation, a non-profit that links small and starting businesses to loans.

"No, I don’t think entrepreneurs are coming into the launch any less wide-eyed and innocent than they were 10 or 20 years ago," says Shrope-Mot. Even if they have started business ventures before, she is still amazed at the enthusiasm entrepreneurs have for their new products, an enthusiasm that seems to blot out all planning. As energetic business hopefuls bubble up to her for advice, Shrope-Mot invariably calms them with a few considerations.

Self preparation. "Probably the biggest fact entrepreneurs fail to comprehend is that they are going to have to be the rainmakers for their company," says Shrope-Mot. It is the owner who must be the main publisher of his products `worth, and in the end, it is he who must draw in the clients. Only a few entrepreneurs can boast strong sales skills. Sometimes, enthusiasm can overcome a bumbling style, but don’t count on it. A nice match is to blend the owner/inventor’s enthusiasm with an experienced sales manager’s technique. The former can absorb the skills of the latter. But it is a good hire only if this new sales manager shares the love of the product.

Family prep. Most entrepreneurs bring family members into the business. It is a good way to get a hardworking, loyal, and often inexpensive workforce. Additionally, family members can be sought out as a willing, if sometimes sticky, investment resource.

But in the case of spouses, Shrope-Mot offers a special caveat. Having your hubby at your side all day long and then all night at home is a lot of togetherness. Truth is, the majority of marriages can’t bear the strain. Also, different attributes are sought in a coworker than a roommate/lover. A bit of honesty is required here, as well as some financial analysis. Perhaps it is better for that significant other to keep (or find) a day job where he can bring home a salary, healthcare, and other benefits. Then in the evening, after a day apart, husband and wife can yoke together on the family business.

Financial prep. "At least 98 percent of businesses that fail," says Shrope-Mot, "go under for lack of enough financial cushion." Too often entrepreneurs carefully work out the exact amount of investment needed to run the business, and leave themselves entirely out of the picture.

Assume that any new company is going to have to be in existence for three years before turning a profit. This means three years of debt, three years of high-rate interest, and three years of mounting home bills despite personal frugality. At this launch period, life and business merge. The owner’s initial funding must reflect this and must include healthy cushions. Shrope-Mot’s message is simple: If it takes 10 days’ water to reach the oasis, don’t even start out with five days’ rations and hope to reach it.

Of course, seldom does the entrepreneur underfund by choice or carelessness. Typically, he just plain can’t come up with the cash. Banks don’t want to know him and venture capital firms want 51 percent ownership. Many inventors warily eye VCs as Judas investors, who will cut them out and make a fortune from their ideas.

As a solution, Shrope-Mot suggests the growing number of equity funds, such as Manhattan-based Westrock Partners ( Such firms cluster individual investors together. They then pick and choose companies in which to invest for a longer term. Often such equity investors seek only 20 percent control and a seat on the board, rather than the majority control some VCs seek. The hopeful borrower should note that such lending sources typically follow what they see as hot trends. Good for high tech or a local theater startups, not so good for another clothing boutique.

Shoestring staffing. Top talent costs and what new company wants anyone less than the best. Not only employees, but even high profile board members, really boost operating expenses. Here, though, the one advantage the startup has is flexibility. Rather than hiring essential people as straight employees or contract workers, Shrope-Mot suggests making them an advisory board. Humbly asking these folks to serve on your board of advisors can win you an amazing amount of unpaid (or slightly paid) labor and valuable consultation.

While they may still be wide-eyed, today’s entrepreneurs also are showing Shrope-Mot that traditional individual energy and courage of spirit.

"Many of the new entrepreneurs come as ex-salaried refugees from corporate downsizing," she says. "But for so many of the ones who make it, this is their fourth or fifth attempt to get a business going." ETI is there to help them take the next step toward getting it right.

– Bart Jackson

Free Resources for Businesses

Your government is spending your tax dollars more effectively than you ever could. Don’t believe it? Just click onto and discover how the lifeblood of business has been organized and delivered to your desk.

Information, as the saying goes, is the blessed sap of commerce. Black ink flows to the owner who knows his competition, his market, and his optimum suppliers better than his fellows. And no one supplies this information faster, more accurately, and with greater customization than the New Jersey State Library Business Center and its staff of information resource professionals.

For the business person, the library at a distance has come of age. The New Jersey State Library, acting as a hub, has webbed and linked its amazing wealth of business materials through special programs and to public libraries across the state. Much of this business aid comes in the form of library-accessible databases that are too rich for even a large corporation’s blood. EBSCOSuite, which delivers full text articles from thousands of journals worldwide, weighs in with an annual subscriber fee of $812,000. The popular Reference USA, with its extensively detailed and crossed indexed information on 13 million U.S. businesses and 120 million U.S. households, costs nearly that much.

These are just two of the 27 primary databases the New Jersey State Library shares with all the of the state’s public libraries. Also, each public library has its own list of additional databases, such as South Brunswick’s Associated Press’s Accunet and Princeton’s JUSTOR, an historic archive of academic journals dating back 200 years. Almost all of these databases, except those forbidden in the subscriber’s contractual agreement, can be accessed from your home computer. For the remainder one must make pilgrimage to the local or state library.

The first step is to get a card to your local library. Visit to find your library’s location and its website. Those wanting to go straight to the source, may come in, browse, and borrow at the state library, which is located on 185 State Street in Trenton. Call 609-292-6220 for more information or check for directions.

Those who live or work farther north might find the Newark Public Library more convenient. Housing the state’s largest in-house business collection, it brims with endless resources, with a strong non-profit section. It is located at 5 Washington Street in Newark. Call 973-733-7784 or visit for directions and more information.

Whether you enter by foot, phone, or web, the above resources can give you the information you need at any stage of business.

Quick answers. You’ve got to find the names of three vendors who can deliver in an hour. You need some quick statistics to beef up that marketing report due yesterday. Who ya gonna call? Luckily, a host of free expert researchers are ready to help.

Visit and click on "Ask a Librarian." Type in your question and receive an E-mailed answer within two days. You can also request photocopies or books. Too slow? Call the state library’s reference department directly, at 609-292-6220, and the librarian will do the hunting.

Phone your local library. The trained professional behind the local library desk has access to many of the resources available from the state. If the reference librarian can’t give an answer while you wait, he will phone you back, and he will always provide source references. For more technical questions, try the Newark Public Library’s business center at 973-733-7779.

Jersey Clicks is a statewide information portal, with a website at ( It lets you type in keyword searches and watch while it swiftly hunts through 15 massive databases for full text articles on the subject. The databases range from Lexis-Nexis, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and ABI Business Online to lists of contemporary authors and Academic Search Premier, which offers full texts from over 3,200 scholarly journals. Jersey Clicks’ Custom Search allows you to tailor your search to specific databases and JerseyCat hunts up any book in any Garden State library.

QandANJ ( allows you to chat and co-browse with a librarian in real time. Hundreds of professional librarians from scores of libraries around the state man the computers 24/7, 359 days a year.

Now in its fourth year, this service, administered by the State Library, is free to all residents. Your chat appears on screen right, websites appear on screen left, and you can even get a transcript of your entire session.

For the entrepreneur. One of the best $6 million investments the state of New Jersey made in its 2005 budget launched the New Jersey Knowledge Initiative, Spearheaded by State Librarian Norma Blake, this program supplies an online, specialized library for small businesses. Entrepreneurs can check out marketing surveys, potential customer demographics, existing competitors, and more. It even links startup owners with the many governmental and private entrepreneurial help agencies. To get a business card and program details, call program director Susan Kaplan at 609-984-3286.

For growing companies. Between the listings in the exhaustive Reference USA and nearly as extensive Hoover’s Online, it is hard for a company to hide. With ReferenceUSA’s ( beautifully cross-linked and indexed listings, it becomes a simple matter for, say, a steering wheel cover retailer, to find all the taxicab and trucking companies in his area. A full list of suppliers, competitors, and even local purchasing habits make this tool a marketer’s dream. Hoovers ( offers a more global approach and is popular with larger firms, but is still provides great detail.

For those seeking the most current news, keeps tabs on all the latest products, trades, and corporate moves. also gives a quickly updated business picture of over 45,000 companies, linked into 750 categories.

James Capuano, supervising reference librarian for 27 years at the Newark Public Library, notes an increased use of Blacks Guide ( for those with real estate questions. This database lists and categorizes over 80,000 commercial properties in l9 metropolitan areas.

Capuano also notes that many of his library’s business visitors seek the aid of reference librarians for trademark and brand searches. It is easy to confuse federal, state, and regional claims. He assures that all information and ideas are kept in strictest secrecy.

For non-profits. If you are trying to launch a non-profit organization, a visit to the State Library in Trenton or the Newark Public Library’s business center is well worth the trek. The libraries’ reference librarians are experienced in walking newcomers through the steps and setting them up with the resources.

For established non-profits, the best bet is to call 609-292-6259 and talk with Teri Taylor. Taylor oversees the non-profit business collection at the State Library. She is the one who can set you up with resources such as National Foundation Center, which lists over 80,000 foundations and donors, as well as a half-million record of recently awarded grants. If your questions are long and involved, the librarians invite you to call ahead and make an appointment so they can have the materials waiting.

For investors. A surprising number of library business patrons are individuals seeking an investing edge. In addition to the latest bond quotes from the Wall Street Journal, patrons are checking out potential firms on EDGAR, the SEC’s electronic data gathering, analysis, and retrieval system. A Garden State version of such checking is available through the New Jersey State Business Gateway Service,

Regional Business News and USA Trade Online, both restricted to onsite library use, have also become increasingly valued investor tools.

The reference staff at the State Library and the Newark Public Library like to boast that they help launch or expand anyone’s business. Yet the Newark folks were recently taken aback at the request from one seemingly mild mannered man who came in requesting a listing of foreign markets where he could sell his services. When pressed, he would only define these services as being of "a deeply personal and intimate nature."

"Oh well," says Capuano, "I guess we can’t help everybody."

– Bart Jackson

Municipal Contracts for Small Businesses

Jerry Rovner hefts a three-quarter-inch sheaf of papers and just shakes his head. To even be considered for bidding on the Mercer County job he hopes to land, he must fill out each box on each sheet with exacting detail and return in quintuplicate.

Four years ago Rovner founded Rapid Response Computer Services in Robbinsville ( The staff consists of himself, his partner, and a shared receptionist. He is confident that his firm could handle work for Mercer County, but he cannot even consider the two man-weeks it would take to fill out the forms. So the job will go to a large company, with clerks and lawyers aplenty to push the paper.

It is not just Rapid Response, nor is it just Mercer County. The paper proliferation has exploded into all commercial transactions, and nowhere more so than government. For this and other reasons, the small companies get squeezed out of government contracts. While all area townships report an enthusiastic willingness to employ small businesses, few had ready examples of small businesses that had won contracts with them.

This reporter conducted a survey of 20 Garden State businesses grossing under $1 million annually, and found only one that reported repeated bidding on municipal, county, or state projects. The remaining 19 found the process too daunting.

But Mercer County has joined Rovner in crying "enough!." Brian Hughes, Mercer’s county executive and Charles Hill, director of Mercer’s Office of Economic Opportunity, have looked into the problems small businesses have in bidding for contracts, removed some of the bottlenecks, and set up programs to facilitate the smaller guy’s entryway into the bidding process.

Both Hill and Hughes have stated that by keeping small firms out of the bidding loop Mercer itself is the greatest loser. First, the county’s labor demographics mirror those of the state, in which over 80 percent of the workforce are employed in small companies. Second, small businesses are necessarily streamlined, and thus able to bid lower. A company that has the required army of clerks and legal talent on hand to fill out masses of paper quite naturally has an overhead that will be reflected in the bidding. Thus, by opting to go small, the county would boost employment and cut its own costs.

Office of Economic Opportunity director Hill came to the county to study and loved it too much to leave. A native of Chicago, Hill attended Howard University, graduating in l997 with a bachelor’s in economics. He then enrolled in Princeton University, earning a graduate degree in economics and public policy. He has headed the Office of Economic Opportunity for the past two years.

Did you see the contract proposal? To bid on a project, one has to know it exists, and too many governmental jobs remain unintentionally hidden. Here again, size matters. The company with staff enough to scour the trade papers and municipal websites, and visit municipal purchasers’ offices, is going to hear of more jobs – not to mention bidding shortcuts. The smaller firm lacks the manpower for such hunts. And even if it finds a suitable project, it seldom has the time to get up close and personal with the governmental purchaser to glean some valuable advice.

To broaden the competitive playing field, Hill has initiated a county campaign of public outreach. Mercer buys everything form janitorial services to paper clips by two methods: formal advertised bids or Request for Quotations. Currently formal bids are being advertised through more channels and can be obtained online at To get the list and the details, visit the purchasing office at 640 South Broad Street in Trenton or call 609-989-6716.

Additionally, the county holds quarterly seminars on "How to do Business with Mercer County." Businesses can also register services and products with the county purchaser, so when the need arises, the company will be called and sent a Request for Quotation.

Is there a path through the paperwork? As noted above, the amount of paperwork to bid on even a small governmental job seems to multiply annually. Hill is sympathetic, and adds wryly "don’t think it’s any fun for us on the county’s end either." But he also says don’t look for it to diminish.

As a society we are obsessed with safety and security. We want more assurances of both in regard to everything from repairing the state’s capitol dome to installing new administrative software. In addition, we suffer not just from the fear of litigation, but also form the fear of the fear of litigation. So, add several more pages of detailed disclaimers per job. We have become a nation of revelers in worst case scenarios. Our governments have, quite naturally, responded by becoming control freaks, complete with land contracts and endless checklists. Thus the mounting fortresses of paper hem us on all sides.

So Hill and Hughes decided that if they can’t lower the mountain, at least they could make the path to the summit a little easier. Mercer County has established a consulting service to help businesses handle the bidding process. Mentors, such as Lorraine Allen, director of the Mercer/Middlesex Small Business Development Center, help business owners through the papers. In many cases the assigned mentor will even complete many of the forms for the bidding company. For further information, call 609-989-6555.

Is it possible to loosen the bonds? Many companies can easily supply a given governmental job, but the are unable to provide the required bonds and insurances. This bonding issue, Hill readily admits, is one of the most difficult problems. The government naturally needs a bond to insure a quality job. It needs protection against unfinished or shoddy work. But in past years such required insurances have become so costly that contractors have begun to view the punch list as a litigation item. Those who bid are those with the best lawyers on retainer or the greatest cash reserves – not those who can do it best for the least cost.

"This solution is a work in progress," says Hill. "But the good news is that we are following the state’s lead on this. Soon we hope to have no bonding for non-construction related jobs. However, it will take more study." Many municipalities, such as Plainsboro, under purchasing agent Fran Shames, have done away with bid bonds, thus lowering another barrier.

Can you understand me? Mercer, like many New Jersey counties, is home to a growing percentage of Latino businesses. To help these businesses, the Office of Economic Opportunity has founded the Latino Business Institute. "We have a number of successful bid applicants who just feel more comfortable working in the Latino culture and language," says Hill. The Institute helps walk applicants through the business startup and bidding process. It also has undertaken the task of protecting such small firms from the army of predatory lenders eager to drain a company’s resources.

Governments need everything from couches to computer programs and like all of us, they want the best quality for the least price.

Until his recent retirement, when Mercer municipal schools needed painting, their boards frequently hired Lawrence Ransom, owner of Ransom Painting and Contracting in Trenton, a small business. Ransom was recently named entrepreneur of the year by the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce.

Simply, he was low cost and very, very good at what he did. This is the level of quality that Mercer seeks. County Executive Hughes and Office of Economic Opportunity director Hill are opening the doors for this kind of bidder. – Bart Jackson

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