Small business center director’s vision drives entrepreneurship

Center helps dreams become reality

One person looks at an abandoned bookstore and sees something dead. Another looks at that same building and sees life just waiting to bloom.

What kind of person sees the world like that? A person with “crazy faith,” and maybe just as much crazy as faith. A person like Will Campbell Jr., executive director of the Louisiana Small Business Development Center at Southern University.

“Anything that looks dead, I see life in it,” Campbell said. “It may look dead to some people, but it’s not dead to me. God has gifted me to look at impossible situations and bring them back to life.”

That kind of gift doesn’t let a man rest easy. It’s a gift that requires obedience, that makes a man who dislikes bureaucracy leave behind a private-sector career in banking for one in government and all the associated red tape. But it’s also the kind of gift that leads a Small Business Development Center with three full-time workers, one part-timer and a bunch of volunteers to counsel 1,136 businesses in three years, help clients create 337 jobs and secure about $20 million in financing. It’s the kind of gift that turns a lackluster SBDC into the state’s 2014 Small Business Development Center Service Excellence and Innovation Center Award winner.

“The center at Southern University had a reputation … of really not being as good as it could be,” said Michael Ricks, district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Louisiana. “When Will took over, it was almost an instantaneous change in how that center operated. Will’s outreach, his demeanor, his attitude just really transformed that center to something that is not only effective but is really a great example for other SBD centers across the state and the country.”

Under Campbell’s direction, the center is doing more than just getting people to attend events, Ricks said. Southern’s SBDC is helping businesses become certified government contractors and standing behind them, helping them to become successful as they move forward.

Clients aren’t just one-time visitors. They keep coming back for help.

One of those clients is Derrin Matthews, owner of the Blue Room reception hall and M&M Gifts on Scotland Avenue. He has worked with Campbell and the center for about the past six months, helping restructure the business to better define his target customers and set up a lease-to-purchase agreement. Campbell also is helping Matthews secure financing to do some renovations.

Campbell’s contributions to the Louisiana Small Business Development Center program earned him the 2013 Louisiana State Star award.

“Will,” Ricks said, “is just a remarkable person.”

He is also the kind of person who refuses to take any credit for the center’s successes.

“People say, ‘How did you do it?’ And I say I give all the glory to God. It’s not me. I’m just a conduit. I’m just a vessel that he uses,” Campbell said.

The vessel grew up in Lucedale, Mississippi, and earned his bachelor’s degree in military science and management from the University of South Alabama. He served 17 years in the U.S. Army on active and reserve duty. He’s had stints at Wells Fargo and Bank One, where his job was turning around money-losing locations, and as Baton Rouge regional manager for Liberty Bank. He also earned a master’s degree from Liberty University and certification in entrepreneurship at Babson College in Boston. He is working toward his economic development certification at LSU.

Despite all the academic work, Campbell sees himself as a boots-on-the-ground soldier in the trenches, more focused on taking action than discussing economic theory.

Campbell started at Southern’s SBDC in January 2011. At the time, the center was mired in a cramped, rundown space on Jamestown Avenue, a few blocks from College Drive. Campbell knew the center had to move.

One Friday night, not long after he got the job, Campbell took his wife for a ride to scout for more likely office locations. At around 9 o’clock, the couple rolled down Harding Boulevard onto Southern’s campus. Campbell spotted the shuttered bookstore. But instead of speeding up, he stopped. The Lord told him the building was the spot for the SBDC.

Excited by this revelation, Campbell shared the idea with his boss, Donald Andrews, dean of Southern’s College of Business, and Mary Lynn Wilkerson, then-state director of the Louisiana SBDC. “Both of them were like, ‘Well, no. I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ ”

Others were even less enthusiastic.

“When I first said we wanted this location here, everybody thought I was crazy, to be honest with you, because it was an old raggedy bookstore. But I had a vision to see Southern University reclaim some glory,” Campbell said.

Armed with “crazy faith,” Campbell persisted. Other potential locations didn’t work out, and suddenly things came together. The Southern University System Foundation, which owned the former bookstore, approached the College of Business and offered to finance the improvements that allowed the center to relocate.

The foundation also applied for and won a $1 million construction grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. “In this climate, you rarely get any funding that allows you to do construction,” said Ernie Hughes, director of economic development, Southern University System Office.

The money is being used to refurbish the building next to the center and turn it into a business incubator, Hughes said. A new 1,200-square-foot conference room will connect the two buildings. The incubator, which will house between eight and 10 fledgling businesses, is scheduled to open in 2015.

Campbell said the incubator will allow mom-and-pop businesses to move from entrepreneurs’ homes into a professional environment. Tenants will have access to affordable office space, conference rooms and management counseling. Then in three years, the businesses can graduate and go out on their own.

Campbell sees an average of four clients a day at their businesses, spending about 60 percent of his time in those one-on-one counseling sessions. The rest of his time goes to managing the office, building relationships with banks and community organizations like SCORE, business development and returning the 15 to 20 calls that come in every day while he’s out of the office.

He wants to get things done, to deliver for the center’s clients. But there is never enough time or staff to meet the needs the way he would like. And things don’t always move as quickly as he would like.

“Sometimes it gets challenging, but that’s why I keep that thing,” Campbell said, pointing to a banner above his desk that bears the message ‘Never Give Up.’ “You got to keep pushing.”

That approach helps explain why Campbell’s vision is still expanding. He would like to establish a business park on Southern’s campus and bring a neighborhood grocery store to Scotland Avenue. Scotland Avenue has plenty of traffic, Scotlandville Magnet High and all of the banks, and it’s close to Southern’s campus. Campbell sees Scotland Avenue as a business gateway, not a food desert.

“He’s trying to bring additional businesses to the Scotlandville area. As you know, businesses kind of bring in other businesses,” said Matthews, the dual-business owner.

“Entrepreneurship, that’s what it’s all about, being a problem solver,” Campbell said.

All it takes, really, is faith.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.