Some consultants make hay in out-of-the-way places

Brian Smith lives in Fitzwilliam, N.H., a town of about 2,000. He stokes a wood stove in winter and rides a motorcycle in summer. He says he likes the open spaces and greenery of the country. He also makes around $40,000 a year in the consulting business.

In rural New Hampshire, who is there to consult?

In his case, it's been restaurants, an inventor, small manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers, construction firms, and service businesses. Most of his clients are in New Hampshire and Vermont, but he does some work in Maine and Massachusetts, too.

Coming from an engineering background, Mr. Smith used to work for Arthur D. Little Inc., the large consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. ''But I got tired of watching the traffic back up and worrying about keeping the lawn mowed so our neighbors wouldn't complain,'' he said, so he moved to New Hampshire.

Other people have the same dreams about country living that he had, he explains, but they only live them on vacations. In a book he wrote, ''The Country Consultant,'' published by Consultants News, Mr. Smith tells how to take the plunge from Manhattan to the rural life.

''If you're going to move to the country, the easiest thing to get into is consulting. It requires minimal start-up capital, and if you trust your own abilities and are good at what you do, you should be able to make it,'' he said in an interview here. Don't expect to make a profit in the first year, though. When he started his business in 1973, he grossed about $10,000.

There is plenty of demand for country consultants, Smith points out. Many municipalities, for instance, are getting less federal assistance and have put a hiring freeze on permanent employees. Yet more demands are being made on them, and if they need more help or new skills, they will likely turn to consultants.

Smith says he has also noticed that rural businesses are becoming more sophisticated, and want professional consulting service. Ann Wright, a personnel management consultant in Keene, N.H., says, ''I wasn't that widely accepted when I first started (in 1978), but I've noticed the community has become much more professional over the last few years.'' She now works at least 50 hours a week helping train personnel and improve communications at small companies, providing career counseling, giving seminars, and guest-speaking. She comes from a public relations background and was also a regional field manager for the Gillette Company.

Along with professionalism working its way through smaller business, there is computerization in manufacturing and in offices. Many of the smaller companies are lost when it comes to making computer decisions, Smith says.

In South Bend, Ind., Robert French makes computers most of his consulting business. His background is as a systems analyst and industrial engineer for the Chrysler Corporation, ''but in consulting I've had to specialize in computerized systems for manufacturing,'' he says. Mr. French works for companies in the $10 million to $20 million range, which give him ''more than enough business.''

''Smaller companies need just as much help as larger companies do,'' French comments, ''but they don't have as much access to that help.'' Which is why, he goes on, there is so much demand for a rural consultant.

Henry Teipel, based in St. Paul, Minn., doesn't exactly live in a cow pasture , but he sees a lot of them. Many of his clients - two seed companies, a cheese manufacturer, a granite cutter, and a machine screw manufacturer - are in small towns in the Dakotas and Minnesota. ''The tally of businesses there needing consulting is staggering,'' he says. ''It's an unlimited market.'' Mr. Teipel adds that he is one of the highest earners in the Association of Management Consultants, based in Chicago.

Getting out of the mainstream of city life and into the mountain stream of rural consulting has its challenges, these consultants agree. You have to establish your network subtly when you first arrive. ''Don't make a big media splash,'' Smith warns, ''and don't make assumptions about small-town people.'' Get civically involved and make a point of meeting new people every day. Don't let up on the creative marketing of yourself, he adds.

Ann White warns that ''it takes a while to get established, and it would help to have some other kind of income when you first start out. I desperately need an administrative assistant, but I can't afford one.'' Many rural consultants run seminars and teach in nearby colleges - it helps generate more clients and security. Mr. French admits: ''There are some desperate times when you may be a handshake away from zero income.''

Rural consultants have to travel a lot. Henry Villaume, who lives in Intervale, N.H., has almost no business within 50 miles of home. But, he says, ''I am not a city person and would rather drive than take the plane.'' He nets about $75,000 a year from his consulting business (his specialty is production), which takes him into Maine and Massachusetts. Mr. Villaume also says that ''it's rare if I don't spend less than 12 hours a day with a client. . . . If this were 10 or 15 years ago when the kids were still at home, the schedule may have been a problem.'' He says he never reads novels anymore; weekends are spent reading professional magazines and books.

But for the ''right kind of people,'' as Mr. Smith puts it, these kinds of hardships don't amount to much. ''I have long days, but I can go at my own pace. I can take rests whenever I want. Driving a lot gives me time to think. I can go skiing in the middle of the week.'' And he adds, ''I like to know I am really providing a service.''

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