DAVIDSON – John Hettwer didn’t know what to expect when the inaugural Lake Norman Business Expo began in 2001 in Cornelius at the complex now used by Michael Waltrip Racing.

“I’m not sure the Chamber did, either,” Hettwer said.

Hettwer is the owner of Cornelius-based Payroll Plus, whose services include payroll processing, tax services, third-party checks and new hire reporting.

He said the free expo, which takes place from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. March 8 at Belk Arena at Davidson College, offers valuable networking opportunities for business owners.

“I’ll probably see 50 of my current customers at the expo, over the course of the day,” Hettwer said. “Where else can you go to see that many of your own customers in one day? That doesn’t count all of the new customers you can add.”

Hettwer and Payroll Plus have been a part of the expo since its inception.  He said he expects to add about 5-10 new customers from the expo, based on past experiences. The expo didn’t take place in 2009, so the 2013 event will be the 12th expo tailored to lake area business owners.

Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell said the event had 153 businesses and nonprofit organizations that paid $250-400 to have a booth at the expo as of Feb. 22, with more expected to join. Russell said the expo, in terms of attendance by businesses, is larger than the expo Charlotte traditionally holds.

“It’s huge,” Russell said of the expo’s impact on area businesspeople. “This is the show-and-tell we all experienced in grade school. It’s the ability of a business to talk about what they do, give a demonstration and network. There’s going to be 750 people in the building just from the businesses themselves, so when you add in customers, there’s a lot of networking to be done and a lot of people to talk to.”

Hettwer echoed Russell’s sentiments.

“Year in and year out, we get a few opportunities (to add customers and meet businesses) while we’re there,” he said. “It makes for a very productive day.”

Russell said businesses from the retail, chiropractic, communications, medical, law, financial and service industries, among others, will take part in this year’s expo.

But it isn’t all fun and games for those taking part.

There’s also an element of competition, because multiple companies from the same industry will have booths and will try to attract customers.

“There’s definitely some competition between businesses for the same customer,” Russell said.

“You’re able to reach out to your constituency while building a larger customer base. It’s a mall-like environment. You might only want to see Business A, but when you get to the expo you think, ‘I may as well see Business B too,’ and that’s how all the businesses benefit from having an expo like this.”

Hettwer added the expo puts everyone on an even playing field with the public.

“You still want to go out of your way to show why you’re the best business,” he said. “This is everyone’s chance to do that.”