Executive edge: Kelly Manning

When Kelly Manning travels throughout Colorado, she thinks about the small businesses she has helped nourish and grow.

She thinks of Shelley McPherson, better known as the Rag Diva, who formed American Wiping Rags Inc. in Pueblo by simply recycling cloth and turning it into rags used by companies across the country.

“She’s been on my state advisory board for five years,” said Manning, state director of the Small Business Development Center Network. “We helped her and now she’s giving back, which is a nice affidavit for the work we do.”

Manning has countless similar small-business success stories since taking the helm of SBDC Network in 2000 where she oversees 14 small business development centers across the state. Part of the Colorado Office of Economic Development, the network helps small businesses by providing counseling and various training programs.

Manning rattles off the network’s successes – a 758 percent increase in jobs created – 215 in 2000 to 1,801 in 2011; a 244 percent increase in capital formation – from $30.8 million in 2000 to $106 million in 2011; and a 1,138 percent increase in jobs retained – from 302 in 2000 to 3,739 in 2011.

“These numbers look good but it’s a team effort,” said Manning. “You hire smart around you. You recognize your weaknesses and fill those positions with people who have those strengths.”

A native of New Hampshire, Manning had an entrepreneurial streak early on – pet sitting and dog walking as a kid before working her way through college at the University of Southern New Hampshire where she majored in business.

“I was the first in my family to go to college.  I had three jobs at one time while taking six classes,” said Manning, 46, who would go on to earn her master’s degree from the University of Denver. “Through college I worked my way up at an athletic club from membership rep to sales manager. It was a fun job – I’d work out on my breaks.”

 After college she did everything from retail and desktop publishing to consulting before landing a job at a small business network in Kingsville, Texas – a move that ultimately gave her the experience to land the Colorado job.

“Traveling around the country allowed me to see cultural diversity and has made me appreciate all the different communities that we serve,” said Manning, who has created several programs to benefit various groups.

“I have a huge passion for our military veterans, so in 2004 we created a program to help veterans transition out of the military and get into entrepreneurship,” said Manning. “They have no idea, getting out of the military, their leadership skills, their attention to detail or the other skills they bring to businesses.”

Other new programs center on women in business, emerging industries and helping businesses hit by last year’s wildfires in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. An economic gardening program was recently created for businesses that are on the cusp of growth.

“If you nurture your companies in your back yard and you help them grow, you’re going to flourish way more than potentially trying to recruit a big headquarters,” said Manning. “Economic gardening is designed to do a lot of in-depth research if a company wants to diversify or export.”

She spends much of her time on the road both in Colorado and while serving as an examiner of Small Business Development Centers in others parts of the country.

“You learn that you’re not the be all and end all out there and someone else may have a better idea,” said Manning. “And I’m all about R&D – robbing and duplicating.
I believe in taking the best practices so all our communities benefit.”