Lavoy Powell learned to be an entrepreneur when he was just a boy helping his father with janitorial jobs. Now, he has a full resume of business ventures -- the latest three being a Huddle House franchise, an event center and a sports bar scheduled to open next month.
Powell, a 1977 graduate of Carver High, launched his first business when he was still a running back for the Carver football team. He also worked at the Buck Ice & Coal Company after school, and did odd jobs around the community.
"I had my own little business painting houses for $85 or $75," Powell said of his high school years. "At the same time, I was doing yard work for some of my teachers and working with my father."
After high school, Powell said, he turned down a football scholarship from Alabama State University to work at the Bibb textile mill. He soon became a fixer, and began making a decent living. But his career in the textile industry was cut short when mills started downsizing and shipping jobs overseas. That's when he decided to start a landscaping business.
Powell signed his first contract with the Warner Robins Housing Authority. Later, he got a contract at Fort Benning, doing landscaping at the post commander's house. That opened the door for more military business.
"One day they asked me to move some furniture, so I started a moving company and began moving furniture all over base," Powell said. "I was also putting up fences, painting buildings, doing landscaping. It was like anything I put my hands to do, I was able to do it."
Yet, he couldn't have done it without some help along the way, he said. He bought his first truck for $600 from two local businessmen, who allowed him to pay it off in installments. And when banks wouldn't loan him money, he borrowed it from one of his former principals. To help negotiate contracts, he turned to a friend who had experience with contracts at Fort Benning.
A few years ago, Powell started having heart problems and discovered that five of his arteries were blocked. He had quintuple bypass surgery and began reflecting on his life.
"For some reason, I became more spiritual. I saw life a whole lot differently. I knew I didn't want to stop working, but didn't know what to do next," he said.
Later, he spent some time in Pine Mountain conducting business. While there, he began eating at a Huddle House restaurant. He liked the atmosphere and decided to open a franchise in South Columbus.
Powell and his wife, Mary, opened the Huddle House at 1805 Victory Drive five years ago. The restaurant is managed by his sister-in-law and has 18 employees. Customers include some of his former teachers who meet there monthly as part of a retired educators group.
Powell also purchased five acres adjacent to the property and built the event center. In January, he will open the sports bar in a third building that already houses an Internet cafe.
Powell recently talked with the Ledger-Enquirer about his entrepreneurial spirit and life at the Huddle House. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
What was it about the Huddle House in Pine Mountain that got your attention?
The Huddle House was open 24 hours a day, which meant there was always some place for me to go.
Why did you choose the Victory Drive location?
I could have gone anywhere I wanted to go, but I just really wanted to make a difference in
South Columbus. When I purchased the five acres, I didn't know what I really wanted to do. But God spoke to me and gave me this vision to step out on faith, and to be an entrepreneur and to keep on building. So I built the event center and then the building for the sports bar.
What are your plans for the bar?
I want it to be strictly a sports bar, not a club. I just want clean-cut entertainment.
What type of events do you book at the event center?
Weddings, birthday parties, seminars, family reunions and other events.
As the owner, what role do you play in the day-to-day running of the business?
I'm more or less a troubleshooter. Employees, mechanical things, anything that needs fixing, that's my job.
Since the restaurant is 24/7, do you ever get a break?
In my leisure time, I'm just always thinking about business. My mind never clicks off. I'm always reviewing how I can do things better and thinking about the employees and what can I do to make their lives better and be a mentor to them.
Do you ever take vacations?
No. It's been seven or eight years since I've been anywhere. I've always just felt like God has given me an opportunity to oversee something. I haven't even felt the thrill of it yet because it's not completed.
Where do you think that drive comes from to work so hard on your business?
My father. He had three janitorial jobs, and I was always with him. He would work at a school from 7 o'clock in the morning to probably 4 o'clock in the afternoon and then at the American Legion cleaning the facility two or three days a week.
He also had another full-time job at JCPenney at night and worked at a dry cleaners on weekends. Even on Sundays, he found a way to go to church and then go to work.
Is it difficult starting a business?
I used to hear people say that it's not until after the first five or six years that you really know you're in business. Trust me. There's every bit of truth in that. It's not just about saying you're an entrepreneur. You go through trials and tribulations all the way from not having your mortgage payment, to being threatened with your gas being cut off, with your power being cut off, your water being cut off. And sometimes you worry that you might not make enough sales this week to make payroll the next week. All those things come with being an entrepreneur.
Why do you stick with it?
It's sought of like going to college and writing a thesis. It's the price you have to pay. It's a degree that you go through that's hands-on and you can't go to school to get. You just have to step out there and go through all the trials and tribulations. You have to have faith that it's all going to work out.
Where does your faith come from?
Having that personal relationship with God. It's not from any church, but from having my back against the wall with no way out and seeing how God came through for me every step of the way.
What advice do you have for other people who want to start a business?
Just don't talk about it. Do your research then step out on faith. But you have to have common sense, too. So, use your head and don't let emotions make decisions for you.
Is there anything else you would like to say before ending this interview?
I want people in South Columbus to know that we really appreciate all they have done for our business. We may not always be perfect, but we're striving to be the best and we accept feedback on how we can serve them better.