Position: Director, Small Business Development Center
Life at Lane: Robert Killen will celebrate his two-year anniversary at Lane in May and has spent his career supporting the growth of small businesses as a banker, consultant, nonprofit executive, and most recently, as the membership development director at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. Through his work at the Springfield Chamber, he began working closely with LCC’s SBDC team and that collaboration prompted him to consider a role with the SBDC two years ago.
Life Before Lane: Robert spent the first decade of his professional life in art/design and branding, then made the shift to finance, which started him on a path to help small businesses grow.
Let’s Get Personal: Robert and his wife have three “mostly-grown boys.” He’s “very proud” of his wife, who is a 4J school administrator and the couple live in Coburg. Robert says while he doesn’t have much time for hobbies these days, he does enjoy playing music. He and his wife met through their mutual appreciation of music while students at the University of Oregon and at one time, they performed in a choir together. Music remains a major part of their lives, though, lately, the couple’s attention has been focused on helping our community in their respective roles during the pandemic.
Q: What interested you in your current position?
A: When I found my way to the Chamber of Commerce, I actually thought I was going to retire with chambers because I love what chambers do, but the opportunity to focus my attention on education and training of business owners was too good to pass up. I was excited to take this position. I grew up in a household where my dad had his own business. Even though at the time, I didn’t realize how it impacted me, I gravitated toward positions and opportunities that would allow me to help small business owners. I was 10 years or more into my profession when I realized I wanted to help business owners. I became a business banker and from that point on, in any position I took, I’d try to help small businesses and/or nonprofits that really drive community. They are the heart of community. So for me, it’s exciting to help businesses succeed and help businesses launch new ideas. It’s an absolute joy.
Q: Tell us about your role at the SBDC as director.
A: My initial outreach was not specifically to prospective clients, but partner development and reaching out to entities that serve businesses, because we, the SBDC, should be the first phone call any business makes when they have a question. That doesn’t mean that we may have the answer, but we should know where to send them. Through my work at the chamber, I came to realize that there’s no obstacle that a business faces that there’s not someone who has a job to help them overcome that. The problem is historically, we’ve lacked a good way to connect business owners to the right resources in a timely fashion, so when I came here I made it my priority to make as many connections as I could with organizations. That turned into a product: the Lane Business Link portal. It’s a searchable database for businesses to find an organization to help them with their questions or provide support.
Q: How has that changed in the past year?
A: Once COVID came, then, everything had to change. Businesses were struggling and wanting to learn about these new programs that were coming out. We are the primary resource for information about stimulus programs for businesses. We have a direct relationship with the Small Business Administration (SBA), so they expect that we’ll be the experts. I present to businesses about stimulus programs. I continued with that through the fall and then there were new factors: wildfires, social unrest and new stimulus programs from the State and County. It was our job to make sense of all that and get that information out to business. I am proud of the number of business owners we’ve helped.
We’ve also changed how we do business as a team. We moved to telephone or video advising and adapted in positive ways that will serve us well in the future even when this is over. We’ve learned new skills to allow us to reach more business owners and reach into rural Lane County and do our job better for more business owners.
Q: Have you had to alter how you approach your role?
A: It’s certainly changed. I can’t say that it’s harder. I think in many cases it’s easier to reach people because everyone is so accessible through video. We’ve become comfortable with that. Our work has become more efficient, and in some ways, more effective. However, nothing replaces in-person meetings to establish rapport and a relationship, but we can’t do that now and we’re making the most of the situation.
Q: Is there a demand for SBDC services right now? How is the SBDC helping businesses in our community during the pandemic?
A: This is our Olympics. In the history of the SBDC, which turns 41 nationwide this year, there has never been or will be a time that SBDC has been more important. We are small business owners’ connection to federal stimulus and strategies for resilience. Whether it’s a 1099 contractor or a business with up to 500 employees, we’re the first contact about these programs. We saw an extraordinary increase for requests for advising and information in 2020. The recorded impact only represents a third of the total impact we created in helping businesses figure out how to access these resources. We are and we continue to be more necessary than at any point in our history.
Q: What do you think other LCC employees may not realize – or be surprised by – about the SBDC and its services?
A: I think a lot of people — a lot of businesses and the public don’t know the breadth of our programming. Even now, what people do know us for now is that we provide information and guidance regarding these stimulus packages, but our core work is free and confidential advising for business owners at any stage from beginning to exit. We talk to them about whatever they want to talk about to help them grow. We offer specialized services with statewide teams for those who want to enter global trade. We have a capital access team to help them apply for funding. We have ongoing classes, including a brand new course that started in January: a microenterprise course developed in response to a grant at the city of Eugene to help those interested in launching new businesses. Then, at the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, we offer Small Business Management. It’s a three-year cohort model that businesses have been praising for 38 years. We have a lot to be proud of. We also know we have a lot of opportunity to get even better.
Q: Any personal practices you’ve started during the pandemic?
A: I have had to get good at Zoom and I took that a step forward to implement an actual green screen and software that allows me to do more sophisticated video recordings. I do a lot of video recording. We are using this as an opportunity to get good at delivering online training.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when we can use the term: post-pandemic?
A: I miss my team. I enjoy being in the downtown center. Because they’ve made changes to the center, they’ve moved our offices from the third to the first floor, so we have a lot of unpacking to do. That doesn’t particularly excite me, but it will be fun to be back in the office and meet new people since the city offices will be located there. It will be celebratory to go into a live meeting with people again. It will be a fun time when we can do that again. I’m looking forward to that human connection. Some things won’t go back to normal, my team of advisors will likely stick to virtual advising and do face-to-face when needed, but now, we have a different option and we have new tools to make good on our commitment to serve more of Lane County, like our rural areas in Oakridge, Cottage Grove, and Florence.