Like Walter Mitty, Frank Gilmore desired an existence outside his confined world. Unlike James Thurber’s fictional dreamer, Gilmore is living his fantasy, albeit through the aspirations of others.
As executive director of the startup Charlotte Business Hub, Inc., doing business as BizHub, Gilmore peruses the plans of aspiring and struggling small business people and helps them find necessary resources. A former banker and economic development director in New York City, Gilmore feels he’s found his true calling in Charlotte with BizHub, organized in 2004 by the City of Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College.
Opening for business this month, BizHub’s mission is to be a first-stop resource center for small business owners and those who want to start a small business in the 16-county Greater Charlotte region. Finding help for these entrepreneurial types excites Gilmore.
“I was a frustrated business owner myself,” Gilmore smiles. “But I was a generalist,” he says of his time spent with a tenants association, small banks and an urban development corporation, all in greater New York.
“When I made loans to different companies, I never knew what in particular I wanted to do,” he remembers from his commercial loan officer career. “But I was always interested in people and how I wanted to help them structure a loan and use that money to help them grow their business.”
He was particularly interested in minority-owned businesses and minorities who wanted to start a company.
“As a lender, I used to see some of the problems minorities had getting loans and it frustrated me,” he says. “I always saw myself as a creative lender, able to help some businesses by giving them consulting and counseling work.”
While he was a commercial lender with Community Capital Bank in Brooklyn as well as when he was with Freedom National Bank in Harlem, Gilmore saw entrepreneurs sit down at his desk, often with an accountant.
“Tell me about your business,” Gilmore would ask, and the loan aspirant would give the name of the company and discuss its mission, then gesture to the accountant and stop with “the rest is in the business plan.”
“I would realize that the accountant wrote the business plan and that the company owner didn’t become a part of that,” he remembers with a rueful grin. “How does that give me confidence that they know their business?”
With the fledgling BizHub, which Gilmore currently operates as a virtual agency on the Internet, he can devote major time and effort to helping people make grand plans materialize.
Gilmore occupies an office in a Central Piedmont classroom building until another CPCC structure across the street, at the corner of Independence Avenue and Elizabeth Avenue, is completed, probably in the second quarter. Then the BizHub will move into 10,000 square feet, including classrooms, rental space and administrative offices.
With funding of $75,000 a year from the City of Charlotte and a like amount from a combination of cash and in-kind services from sponsors, BizHub’s goal is to hook up small business owners and wannabes with companies that provide helpful services.
Called clients in BizHub lingo, small business entrepreneurs don’t pay to be paired with companies that offer accounting, legal, banking and other services. These are called affiliates and they pay $350 a year for a BizHub listing. After Gilmore checks an affiliate’s references, an affiliate can advertise to BizHub clients who, in turn, can contract directly with them for help.
Growth Plans Include Chambers
Gilmore soon will start searching for sponsors, bigger companies that can pay up to $150,000 a year to be associated with BizHub. Smaller entities can join as an underwriter for $2,500 annually. BizHub brings in non-profits for $100 a year.
Gilmore hopes to have 1,000 affiliates by this time next year. It’s too early to say how many sponsors and underwriters he’ll attract, he adds.
Already Gilmore is signing up affiliates in Mecklenburg County and has met with Union County Chamber President Jim Carpenter. Ultimately, Gilmore wants BizHub to operate satellite offices in Chamber facilities throughout Mecklenburg’s 16 neighboring counties in both North Carolina and South Carolina.
That points to a major difference between BizHub and the Charlotte Chamber, as well as chambers of commerce in general, says Thom McKinney, who chairs BizHub’s board.
“The idea is to provide information to all small businesses, whether or not they’re a member of the Chamber,” says McKinney, a former cable company corporate executive and industry trade association director who’s operated his own organizational and management development firm for a decade.
Who should use BizHub? “I’m looking at a person who may have worked as a painter or plumber or whatever and decides they want to get into business,” says McKinney. “They’re wondering where to go to make that happen.”
BizHub fills this void, regardless of whether an entrepreneur is a Chamber member, adds McKinney, who belongs to the Charlotte Chamber.
“The idea behind BizHub is to be a one-stop shop so that, regardless of what you’re looking for, you can either do it virtually or go into an office,” he says.
The Charlotte Chamber initially was part of the formation process for BizHub, but withdrew financial support in the fourth quarter of 2004. Talks continue toward reestablishing a relationship.
“We’re going to need help from a lot of people,” McKinney says, “and we’re hoping people will step up to the plate and support the backbone of our industry, which is small business. Those are the people who are creating jobs.”
Indeed, the idea of a BizHub started with the Charlotte Chamber’s Advantage Carolina study several years back, McKinney says. A need was identified to nurture small business growth from within the area to augment recruitment of new employers from outside. After research that started about two years ago, organizational plans began in earnest a little more than a year ago.
Mary Bruce was on board from the beginning, after contracting with the city to help craft the BizHub concept. The president of Charlotte’s Kaleidoscope Business Options, Inc., Bruce helped put together a think tank of area entrepreneurs to fashion what has become BizHub. She remains a board member.
“As a business consultant,” says Bruce, “I’m particularly pleased with the number of organizations that have stepped up to provide in-kind services. We had a law firm donate its services to help us get incorporated and we had an accounting firm that donated services for our Internal Revenue Service filing.” She likes the way BizHub helps small businesses become aware of available resources, Bruce adds, and believes tremendous synergies are possible through linking resources.
“The BizHub idea is intriguing,” says Robert Norris of Wishart Norris Henninger & Pittman’s Charlotte office. “Our goal has always been to introduce our business clients to people they need to know to succeed. BizHub should be a fabulous resource for small businesses.”
“We ourselves are a closely-held business,” adds Norris, a partner in the law firm that serves more than 1,000 business clients in North Carolina and South Carolina. “We have faced the same challenges as our clients and can identify with their needs.”
Gilmore Was Seeking New Opportunity
A Philadelphia native, Gilmore was looking for a change when he found Charlotte. He’d made a splash in entrepreneurship while director of economic development for the Oceanhill-Brownsville Tenants Association in Brooklyn.
Specifically, he reorganized the association’s affiliated construction company. Results were impressive. It maintained the association’s buildings so well that it attracted - and accepted - outside clients. From losses in 1995 and 1996, Gilmore nursed the company to profitability and eventually to a 26 percent sales increase.
But he was restless and was considering a move to Atlanta, where he’d enjoyed visiting while earning a business administration degree at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla. On the invitation of a friend, he visited Charlotte in 1999 and was impressed. Subsequent short stays reinforced his positive impression.
Gilmore sold his New York house and moved to Charlotte in August 2003. The father of a grown son and a teenage daughter from a previous marriage, he was seeking a new career when Bill McCullough of McHenry Associates told him about BizHub and encouraged him to apply for executive director.
As McCullough and other BizHub board members such as Maggie Braun of the CPCC Small Business Center told him more about the BizHub concept, Gilmore thought it sounded much like an organization he knew of in New York.
Called Business Outreach, it is funded by the State of New York and some of New York City’s larger financial institutions. It serves the Big Apple’s five boroughs, providing seminars and workshops for entrepreneurs.
Gilmore had used the organization to find lending leads while he was a banker and learned what made it tick. That knowledge helped him convince the BizHub board members he was their man. They hired him in July 2004 to lead the 501(c)3 organization.
There isn’t anything like BizHub in the Charlotte region, says Sherre DeMao, owner and chief marketer for SLD Unlimited Marketing and PR, located near Lake Norman. “Companies at all levels need outside help,” DeMao says. “They need a place to go without wasting time or resources.”
Gilmore likes the inclusive nature of BizHub. “You don’t have to be a member of anything to be a client,” he says. These days, he’s recruiting clients, who don’t have to meet any qualifications, and affiliates, whose references must be positive.
“I hope we can outreach and get as many minority- and women-owned businesses as possible,” Gilmore says. He plans initiatives to business associations and chambers of commerce which serve Latinos and Asians as well as African Americans.
Gilmore says he sees many opportunities for BizHub to be a major factor for area entrepreneurs and he means to make it so. “I’m enjoying this city,” he says. “I plan on retiring here.”