KO Consulting Helps Small Businesses Grow

STRUTHERS, Ohio – Not every business expansion project comes with a $10 million price tag. But smaller projects need help with financing as well.

KO Consulting in Struthers tackles those projects at the grassroots level by connecting small businesses with funding sources. And its expertise doesn’t end there.

Incorporated by Kristen Olmi in 2010, KO Consulting serves small businesses, nonprofits and government entities that don’t have projects that require the involvement of larger economic development organizations. The projects typically range from $500,000 up to $4 million, she says, and include anything from buying new equipment to hiring personnel.

“Small business is where it’s at,” says Olmi, who believes there is insufficient focus on mom-and-pop businesses that employ fewer than 50.

“I saw a need for navigating some of the government red tape. The funding is out there for nonprofits and small businesses – particularly women and minority-owned,” Olmi says. “There’s a lot of opportunity that I see for a firm like ours to fill a lot of gaps.”

To identify grant opportunities, Olmi and her staff of eight connect small businesses with organizations like the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber or Valley Economic Development Partners, as well as the Ohio Department of Development. This benefits businesses that lack the time or staff to seek financing on their own.

“I think there’s a market for that here and a need for that,” she says. “Our clients are busy day to day running their small business. They want someone that’s going to sit down, do the application, go through that process with them and work on updating their financials.”

One of KO’s clients is Brite Energy Innovators in Warren. The energy incubator is funded largely by philanthropy and state grants, says Sara Daugherty, director of partnerships. To go it alone in exploring new funding opportunities, Brite would need two or three full-time employees working on proposal development or raising funds.

“For us, that’s just not realistic,” Daugherty says. “Having a team like KO is critical for our sustainability.”

Daugherty met Olmi when they worked for Mahoning County. Both currently serve on the board of YWCA Mahoning Valley. She lauds Olmi and KO for taking the time to understand the complexities of obtaining funding.

“We are all overstretched and working multiple positions,” she says. “It is very critical for us to have someone to take the time to understand us and provide that outside perspective.”

That process takes time, which requires a level of trust between KO and its clients, Olmi says.

Her company has 18 clients under contract in the Mahoning Valley, Ashtabula and Cuyahoga counties and a few inquiries from prospects in Akron and around Pittsburgh. Local clients include United Returning Citizens, the city of Struthers, Penguin City Brewing Co. and A Fresh Wind Catering.

Planning and developing a proposal for funding can take at least four to six months, Olmi says. Doing the project planning up front helps to build that trust.

“They trust our process. They trust we are going to get them where they want to go,” she says. “So they’re willing to take that ride with us and let us do project development and help them.”

KO works with four grant writers and is on track to reach $1 million in funding for its clients, Olmi says. While writing grants is KO’s “bread and butter,” the firm finds its clients usually need additional services, she says.

Victoria Rusu-Ebert, director of business development and operations, handles much of the business development, marketing and outreach support for clients, as well as strategic planning for fundraising and capitalization.

Samantha Yannucci, the firm’s director of planning and community development, handles urban planning and project development for clients. Matthew Longmire, as business-development associate, ensures clients have the resources they need.

Additional services KO provides are particularly helpful for businesses that have been around for a while, Rusu-Ebert says.

“There are a lot of resources if you’re just getting a business started. But once you’ve been around for a couple of years, those resources aren’t helpful anymore and there’s nothing until you’re a large business,” Rusu-Ebert says. “So we help them navigate everything they need to do to get from that small to medium level business.

“As long as they want us to, we can ride alongside them and help them grow their dream, their business, whatever they’re trying to accomplish.”

For Penguin City Brewing, that means financing the $4 million renovation of the brewery at the former Republic Steel warehouse at 460 E. Federal St., which it purchased in December 2020. Penguin City plans to convert the space into a brewery, taproom and event center.

Penguin City co-owner Aspasia Lyras-Bernacki met Olmi through Annissa Neider, principal architect at A Neider Architecture in Canfield and architect for the restoration project. The company has been taking out loans for the project, Lyras-Bernacki says, but wanted to explore other financing options.

“Instead of me taking the long way to find out all of this, Kristen already knows it,” Lyras-Bernacki says. “It’s nice that there’s someone who has that knowledge.”

KO is working with Penguin City to apply for grants for equipment and exterior beautification work, she says. The firm is now exploring other avenues for funding, including tax credits and grants.

Working with KO connected Lyras-Bernacki 
to other local businesses such as A Fresh Wind Catering. And KO connected that company’s owner, Trina Williams, to Honeycomb Credit in Pittsburgh, which is managing a crowdfunding investment campaign so Williams can purchase a food truck.

In addition to expanding the reach of A Fresh Wind, Williams says she looks to use the food truck as a way to “bring my community along with me” by helping other local startups.

“As a black woman-owned small business, it’s a challenge to access the types of funding that might be available for others, and I know I’m not alone in that challenge,” she says.

When the food truck is ready to go, Penguin City will bring it on site to serve food during events.

“There’s this whole network with what Kristen is doing and connecting us to the people she’s working with,” Lyras-Bernacki says. “You can tell that Kristen cares about the community. She’s passionate about the redevelopment of the area. It’s exactly what we’re doing too.”

Ensuring projects are somehow interconnected is key to what KO takes on. Interconnected projects can help build stronger local supply chains and growth, Olmi says.

“We’ve been working with some of our food clients to locally source and grow their food here,” she says. “We’ve got some regenerative agriculture projects that connect to our other nonprofit clients. I try to look at the big picture. How does this client fit into an entire strategy? How can we get our clients to work together?”

KO is working with Brite Energy to explore opportunities with hemp, she says. The firm works with a number of fiber and hemp-based clients, who are exploring hemp batteries.

“There’s some real catalytic things out there,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we can tie all our projects together?

Hemp is a “very hot topic in energy right now,” notes Brite’s Daugherty. “There’s a lot we could do together down the road.”

KO is also connecting Brite to new opportunities, such as startups that are addressing carbon emissions, of which there is great interest, she says.

In turn, Brite helps KO identify available real estate in Warren for startups, including food service and retail.

“We’re able to let [Olmi] know what’s available, and hopefully some of her clients will have storefronts in the very near future,” Daugherty says.

Pictured: Kristen Olmi points to information that she and Victoria Rusu-Ebert are compiling for a client. 

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.