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Innovation key for small-business survival

Michael D’Elia, owner of Olympic Construction in Stamford, says he’s learned to be on the lookout for synergistic business opportunities. Credit: Ryan Doran

If the economy is headed back to the dumpster, count Olympic Construction owner Michael D’Elia among those who are ready to meet it head on.

The Stamford businessman now has a junk truck.

Three years after the sudden bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers Holdings broached a financial panic, unease remains entering this autumn as President Obama and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy both look to rekindle growth by boosting small business.

Malloy plans to reconvene the Connecticut General Assembly to consider a menu of options he has yet to disclose.

The White House, meanwhile, unveiled the American Jobs Act of 2011, whose centerpiece is a tax cut for small businesses that hire workers or increase wages to existing employees.

As markets swooned in early August and fears swelled for a double-dip recession, many small businesses could take a small measure of solace in having already stripped excess expenses from their day-to-day operations.

What’s more, a number of businesses took advantage of the recession’s lull to expand their offerings. It was not the kind of expansion born of an economy at full steam, throwing off contracts wherever they may stick, however. Rather, it was growth that is the result of a careful assessment of potential synergies within a business, aided by perhaps an accidental revelation or two.

“Companies (are) being creative and innovative,” said Janet Prisloe, a partner with BlumShapiro, speaking this month at an economic conference held by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. “That has improved (the) cost structure of a lot of these businesses, and as the demand has come back, companies have been able to be more profitable with the existing investments and workforce that they have.”

For D’Elia, the first inkling of the 2008 recession hit him in August that year, after noting a drop in his backlog while readying to take the family to Hawaii on vacation. Come October, it was hammered home after he lost two jobs totaling $1.6 million in work. After a hedge fund tabled an office renovation in Greenwich, Olympic Construction laid off a half-dozen people representing half its staff, and D’Elia suddenly had time on his hands.

It was a Greenwich financier who accidentally helped him find a new business opportunity. Having bought a house in Maine, the resident was suddenly splitting his time between two places and decided to take on property managers for upkeep. Called to provide a reference, D’Elia called back with a simple response.

“I could do this,” he recalled telling the man.

The resulting Atlas Property Management L.L.C. business in turn provided the spark for Atlas Energy Services L.L.C., offering home energy audits, as well as Junk Solutions L.L.C. providing junk-hauling services.

Fast forward a couple of years and D’Elia is again returning from a vacation with a measure of uncertainty for what the fall will bring. He says he is as appreciative of lower taxes as any businessman – but he is not waiting around for Hartford and Washington to act on that front.

“One thing I can guarantee you is that I have become a better business person as a result of the recession,” D’Elia said. “One of the things I have learned to do is to look for synergistic business opportunities that are out there.”

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