Small Businesses Thrive in Atlanta

Atlanta has been named the No. 1 city in the United States to do business by CNBC, in addition to the No. 1 city in the nation to start a business based on its low cost of living, educated population and the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s efforts to provide entrepreneurs leadership roundtables, networking events and more, according to NerdWallet.com. And with 99.8 percent of Georgia’s nearly 275,000 businesses established in 2013 considered “small,” or ones that operate with 500 employees or less, it’s no surprise that Georgia, especially metro Atlanta according to many, is the best area to own and operate a small business. “Atlanta is absolutely a great place for small businesses to expand or relocate,” says Nancy Wright Whatley, vice president of entrepreneurial development at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “[Its] warm and welcoming spirit makes it a great fit for small businesses.”

Whatley says that while the Metro Atlanta Chamber does recruit companies from other areas nationally and internationally, research shows that only 3 percent of this area’s growth will stem from recruitment over the next few years. “This is why we work with metro Atlanta’s small businesses to accelerate growth and expansion and focus much more of our work on growing companies that we already have here,” she adds. This includes the organization offering business owners’ leadership councils and activities designed to catalyze growth and meet potential new customers and clients. Through these efforts and initiatives, the small business community in metro Atlanta looks encouraging and will continue to thrive. “There will be an increased emphasis on innovation and creating access for small businesses to grow and thrive,” Whatley says. “MAC has the ability to link Fortune 1000 companies with small businesses in a high growth mode, in addition to making personalized connections at appropriate business levels.”

Like the nearly 30 other counties in the metro area, DeKalb County, which is east of Atlanta, is proud of how it caters to small business owners. “Several years ago, the State of Georgia designated DeKalb County as an ‘Entrepreneur Friendly’ community — community dedicated to encouraging and nurturing the growth of small business,” says Michelle J. Menifee, Senior Business Development Manager with the DeKalb County Development Authority. “For more than a decade, DeKalb has partnered with key stakeholders to provide recruitment, retention and expansion services that were critical during the last recession.” The primary goal of the development authority will continue to be the creation of a healthy environment for businesses to thrive and prosper.

In fact, DeKalb has done such a great job working with it’s small businesses that one local owner says his office moved locations tentatively only to return in 2010 to the county. “We are extremely pleased and intend to remain in DeKalb as we approach the expiration of our current lease in late 2015,” says Albert Edwards, Founder and Managing Director with Corporate Environment Risk Management. The nearly 20-year-old business is an engineering, environmental and program management firm that provides professional services to government, transportation, corporate, energy and utilities clients throughout the Southeast, including the Center for Civil & Human Rights, College Football Hall of Fame, Atlantic Station, Ponce City Market and MARTA. CERM was named the 2012 DeKalb Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year and employs a little more than 60 people, many of who live in DeKalb as well.

Edwards says running a business in DeKalb has benefited his company in numerous ways, including DeKalb’s workforce initiative, which helps identify qualified employees for CERM, and access to leadership through community and civil involvement. “We know whom we are serving and we aim to build relationships, not just deliver projects and then vanish from sight,” he says.

It’s not just DeKalb that makes this area a great place for small business. “I have traveled to most regions around the country and simply believe that the Atlanta region is fantastic from several perspectives,” Edwards adds. And he continues to be proud of what metro Atlanta has to offer small business owners. “Like any region, we have our challenges, but when we all work together, the outcomes are second to none,” he says. Menifee adds that the engagement and involvement of CERM are the greatest benefits of having its business in DeKalb. “CERM has managed to create and maintain invaluable business relationships through the years,” she says. “Having CERM, along with others, as business advocates, enhances our marketing and promotional efforts in recruiting small businesses.”

Fayette County, located southwest of Atlanta, is fortunate to have an array of quality small businesses as well. “We have seen steadily growing numbers of new businesses opening, particularly in 2013 and 2014,” says Virginia Gibbs, President and CEO, Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. “For example, the film industry is spawning new caterers, transportation companies, casting agencies and concierge services. [Business-to-business]-focused small businesses are particularly strong in Fayette. We also see construction rebounding nicely and a variety of small businesses opening that are focused on servicing the growing senior population in our community.”

Emily Poole, Interim CEO with the Fayette County Development Authority, adds that Fayette County is a great place for small businesses to relocate, expand or start because of its vibrant community and exceptional quality of life. “Notably, the people of Fayette County are well-educated; around 58 percent of our population has completed some college with more than a quarter completing bachelor’s degrees and 16 percent holding graduate degrees,” Poole says. “The community here makes for an excellent customer base, but is also a wonderful place to live.”

One such business taking advantage of the benefits of operating in Fayette County is Hanna Brothers, an on-location catering business that serves a majority of the area’s film and TV industry. It expanded services into metro Atlanta from Louisiana and Florida and employs about 25 people, including office, restaurant, kitchen and movie production staff.

Brothers Jim and Joe Hanna originally started the business about 18 years ago and opened a location in Fayette County this past January. A friend of theirs in the film industry pitched the idea of operating out of metro Atlanta because of the rapid growth in TV and film here. “Tax incentives were probably one of the biggest factors in our decision to move here, but a close second was the fact that we got to be a part of this Pinewood Atlanta Studios project, which looks like it’s going to be one of, if not the biggest, studio in the country,” says Jim Hannah. “We wanted to get in on the ground floor with that.”

Pinewood Atlanta Studios is a full-service film and entertainment studio complex that includes six sound stages on 288 acres in Fayetteville, and it was built for the production of film, TV, music and video games. Hanna Brothers offers on-site catering services with a mobile kitchen that serves crews breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks if needed. “We have catering crews who travel with the film crews and they will stick with that film crew from the beginning to end of shooting,” Hanna adds. “We actually prepare the food on site out of our kitchens, so the food is made just a few minutes before you’re eating it.”

They additionally cater at large corporate events, serving upwards of 1,200 people at a time, in addition to disaster relief catering when the need arises. Hanna Brothers also recently started serving lunch at Studio Cafe, Monday through Friday, noon-1 p.m., at the Pinewood Production Center. “I’m very excited about the future of the project and we are really enjoying Fayette,” Hanna says, adding that he relocated his family to this area as well. “The school system is awesome.” Other pluses include the leadership in Fayette County behind great projects like Pinewood. “Our values mesh really well with their values,” he adds.

The small business environment in Cobb and Cherokee counties, both located northwest of Atlanta, are also thriving. “We’ve seen growth in the last three years and we’re finally coming out of the recession,” says Beth Sessoms with the City of Marietta’s economic development department. Marietta is the Cobb County seat. Data shows that in 2012, 8,340 business licenses were issued, compared to an increase of more than 400 the following year, with 8,762 in 2013. “That’s one thing that’s benefitted the city … even during the recession, we had a really good mix of businesses come in,” Sessoms continues.

Being home to multiple colleges, including Kennesaw State University, Chattahoochee Technical College and Georgia Highlands College, is one factor attributing to the area’s success in small business growth. “There’s a lot of opportunities for businesses, not only for education but for work force and one thing companies look at when they move to Marietta, is if they can find employees they can hire,” Sessoms says. “You can hire students right out of school.” The cost of doing business, amenities like the Marietta Square, which is unique to the downtown area, year-round activities that draw consumers, its close proximity to Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the quality of public and private school options additionally make it a great place to own and operate a business. “I think people who live and work in Marietta really do have an ownership of the community,” Sessoms adds. “People will get to know you and do business with you. So, even though we are becoming much more of an urban area, we still have a lot of the small-town attributes in some ways.” One company that took advantage of what Marietta and Cobb County have to offer is Talenti Gelato e Sorbetto, a premium ice cream manufacturer that relocated its primary production headquarters to Georgia in 2012. Sessoms says they competed with the State of Minnesota for the relocation. “The City of Marietta was thrilled to learn that Talenti Gelato e Sorbetto chose Marietta as its new home!” Sessoms says. “Talenti is a favorite treat for many households in Marietta and Cobb County.”

Misti Martin, President of the Cherokee County Office Economic Development, attributes their small business success to their location just northwest of Atlanta and tourism growing by leaps and bounds, especially with the openings of The Outlet Shoppes, Gibbs Gardens, a new state-of-the-art aquatic center, Elm Street Cultural Arts Village and the expansion of the world-rated Blankets Creek Mountain Bike Trail. The new reservoir at The Bluffs of Canton now also has public access and there are plans to continue enhancing Cherokee’s parks, trails and access to the Etowah River. Martin says Cherokee also has a number of location options for anyone looking to relocate, expand or start a small business. “Cherokee has five different municipalities, each with their own unique flavor, from the urban walkability of downtown Woodstock, to the rural small town setting of Ball Ground,” she continues. “Also, the Cherokee Office of Economic Development is currently working on a collaborative effort for a small business accelerator/co-working space optimal for entrepreneurs and start-ups.”

Two new business locations Cherokee is happy to welcome in 2014 are Inalfa Roof Systems, which opened in January and announced a 45,000-square-foot expansion the following month, and Cabela’s, which opened a 100,000-square-foot showcase store in August. Inalfa employs about 260 people, with the expectations of adding more than 100 once the expansion is complete, and is one of the world’s biggest providers of vehicle roof systems. It designs, develops and manufactures sunroofs and open-roof systems for the automotive industry, including BMW, Chrysler Group, Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo, Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Land Rover and Nissan. Cabela’s, an outdoor gear store, serves about 200 employees and was built to surround the customer in an outdoor-like experience with many museum-quality wildlife displays and a large mountain replica. There is a café on site, as well as an archery range and displays throughout highlighting a number of Georgia’s State Parks.

“We are thrilled with the location of Inalfa Roof Systems in our Cherokee 75 Corporate Park,” says Marshall Day, Chairman of the Cherokee Office of Economic Development. “Their decision to immediately expand their new facility is a testament to the business-friendly environment in Cherokee County and Georgia.” The opening of Cabela’s diversifies the county’s employment and shopping opportunities. “The boost in sales tax revenues will be beneficial for the county, its cities and the school district,” adds Buzz Ahrens, Chairman of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners.

So, whether someone is looking to relocate, expand or start their small business in metro Atlanta, there are multiple options throughout the area’s communities, spaces galore and city and county personnel who are willing to make this new move, expansion or start-up worthwhile.