When Mark Lupo sits down with a client to discuss their business needs and what his office can do to help them, he can relate quite easily because of past ventures in the trenches of retail.
Lupo and wife, Elaine, operated Thomas Kinkade art galleries in downtown Columbus and Warm Springs, Ga., from 1999 to 2005. The experience left an indelible impression on the couple, providing lessons that couldn’t necessarily be found in a book.
Undaunted by the business closings, however, Lupo quickly landed on his feet. In August 2005, he was hired as a consultant with the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, which has offices inside Columbus State University’s Cunningham Center on Gentian Boulevard. He was named area director in 2012.
Though statistics aren’t broken down for each center, the 17 SBDC offices across the state worked collectively with 4,270 clients in 2015 and conducted nearly 3,900 training programs. Over the last five years, the statewide SBDC’s services have led to 1,547 new businesses launched, just under 12,000 jobs created, loan and equity capital totaling $606 million raised for clients, and the generation of $8.9 billion in sales.
In Columbus, Lupo, 55, leads a relatively small crew comprised of consultants Todd Carlisle and Michelle Griffin and administrative assistant Deborah Free. In some rights, it’s a passion for those involved, knowing the impact they can make a prolific impact in the short and long term. To top it off, there’s no charge for their consulting expertise.
One of Lupo’s favorite tag lines: “I believe the right idea, the right resource, the right contact at the right time in someone’s life can be life changing. I see my role as helping to create an environment where those connections can happen. In doing so, we help build stronger business owners, leading to stronger businesses and a stronger, more resilient community.”
The Ledger-Enquirer sat down recently with the Alabama native to discuss his job, his mission of helping others and the emotional moments that come with the territory when starting a new business or expanding an existing one.
You were with the SBDC through the Great Recession. Did you see fewer clients at that time?
I think there was more activity of start-ups with people that were either downsized or moved out of jobs and were looking to develop something new. Or they maybe were being offered early retirement and always wanted to start a business and they took that opportunity to do that. The challenges we saw — and we still see that some now — is the access to capital to grow. In 2006 and before, it was much easier to get it. Now the lending environment is much tighter for small businesses. Not all of that is related to the banks themselves. It’s more from the federal oversight and regulations that emerged from the recession.
For those who come to you for assistance, what happens first?
With us, if somebody wants to start a business, we usually get a phone call from them, or from the bank and they’re sending somebody over. We work by appointment, so the first thing someone would do is get what we call a start-up packet. It’s just a collection of information related to getting a business started in the area.
One of the key elements of that is what we call a business development questionnaire. It’s five or six pages of questions about their business idea. We ask that they complete that and get it back to us, and we look it over and schedule an appointment.
What we’re not set up to do is work with someone who is just in the idea stage, someone who doesn’t quite know what they want to do, but they want to do something.
They must have a good idea and a business plan?
They don’t have to have the business plan yet because that’s something we can help them develop. But they need to have a pretty firm idea of what they want to do. Because taxpayer dollars are involved, we’re very sensitive to the fact that we want to be able to generate a positive return on investment for those dollars.
We do kind of qualify someone to be sure we’re the right resource for them. If we’re not, we have a local organization called SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. For some of the really early pre-ventures (start-ups), we would probably recommend that they start with SCORE first, do some work with them and then come to see us.
Most of the clients we see, probably 65 or 70 percent of them, are existing businesses that are looking to grow to the next level. Only 25 or 30 percent would be pre-venture; that’s what we call them before they would actually open the doors.
So you’re funded with taxpayer money?
We have a federal-state partnership, the SBDC network as a whole across the U.S. We’re faculty under UGA, and the SBDC program is funded about half through federal dollars with the SBA, and half with state dollars through the university system.
In return for that, there’s an expectation that we’re going to deliver a positive impact in the communities and businesses that we work with. We have four outcomes that we’re measured against, especially with the SBA, and those are the number of pre-ventures (converted) to existing businesses, where we help somebody go from not in business to opening their doors. So we have that expectation. Then we have businesses that are already in business that we will help grow revenue year over year and are able to create jobs. If they’re at the point where they want to hire somebody we can help them do that. And then if they’re looking to access capital, we can help them get a loan or find an investor, at least have the paperwork or information necessary to obtain capital.
The businesses you see, how young or old are they typically?
It’s across the gamut. Some of them opened in December and some have been around 10, 15, 20 years or longer.
How do you start the process of assisting them?
We work, especially on the initial meeting, to get a sense of where they are in the business, what their needs are, what they’re looking for. Then we work to match the resources that we’re familiar with in our experiences and knowledge to help them.
You want to see their financials?
Oh, yeah, and especially if they’re going for funding or if they’re looking for projecting out their revenue. It’s important for us to know historically what they have done so that we can better help them plan for what’s going to be coming in the future.
Is everyone comfortable with that financial disclosure?
Usually, by the time we get to that point, they are. Many times they’re coming to us because they’ve been to the bank and the bank says it needs 24 or 36 months worth of financial projections. We’ll let them know we just need to see some of the historical numbers so that we can see what kind of fluctuations they may have had during the year. That way we can plan for those when we do the coming year projections.
You do computer modeling for projections?
We have several different templates that we will use to help build financial projections. We have one that’s kind of an enhanced excel sheet. There’s one we use called LivePlan, which is a cloud-based platform that we can build a business plan within.
Our goal is to be the teacher. We want to teach them how to do this. We’re not really set up to be the ‘doer’ all the time. Granted, we’ll help them build financial projections. But we want to provide them the tools so that they can do it themselves in years ahead, and we’ll still be a resource for them.
How many clients do you see every year?
We have certain deliverables from UGA and the SBA that are expectations. So on a yearly basis each consultant is expected to see at least 100 clients. They are referred to us. We don’t go out and actively solicit somebody; we’re usually busy enough so we don’t do that. But we do build relationships with local lenders, with chambers of commerce. We cover 11 counties out of Columbus. We’ll have referrals coming from a lot of those organizations.
Is 100 clients per consultant a lot?
Really, that is very achievable. It’s not overwhelming. It’s a nice steady pace. Again, our goal is to teach the clients. Or it’s to give them access to certain research — such as market research or demographic data — that we have through the university that they wouldn’t have access to on the outside, or they might have to pay a fee for it.
Are client meetings mostly one on one?
We provide our service through two means, one is through one-on-one consulting. It’s all confidential. There’s no fee. Again, it’s prepaid through tax dollars. We do that in an office setting over at the Cunningham Center, or maybe in a chamber in an outer county, or we might go to their business location.
Then the group setting is more for the courses that we teach. We will do courses throughout the year for business owners, everything from QuickBooks to social media marketing to starting a business to growing a business.
We have StartSmart. That will begin next Friday, and it’s eight weeks for anybody that’s pre-venture up to a couple of years in business. It’s to help them build that foundational support to grow their business, and the outcome is to develop a business plan. We’ll bring 15 to 20 business owners together and we’ll work with them over the next eight weeks.
Then we have GrowSmart in the fall, which is more for existing businesses that have been around for two, three, four years and on up. In StartSmart, we do have some clients that have been in business five or 10 years and they’re coming to kind of regroup and refresh.
What do the courses cover?
We’ll go over a mission statement, vision, core values and the different segments of the business — marketing, finance, HR. We really want to focus on finance. One of the basic needs we see for business owners is just understanding what the numbers are telling them, such as knowing how to read the income statement, balance sheet and cash flow. For many of them, myself included, you go into business and you’re good at doing what you do in the business, but the managing side, the detail side, is more difficult.
Is there a consistent mistake or something people just don’t get when starting a business?
It’s not necessarily a mistake, maybe a misunderstanding or just not having the experience. After all, they say you don’t know what you don’t know.
Coming into business, my wife and I, when we were starting the gallery, we found that you underestimate how much time it’s going to take from where you are to opening the doors, and you underestimate how much it’s going to cost. Because if you’ve never done it before, it’s a new experience, it’s like going to college or any kind of school, and it’s going to be expensive and take time.
I’ve heard it described like a woman who is pregnant; many times they reach a point when they’re ready to deliver, when they can hit that point when everything will be great. The same with a business. Many times, the goal is if I can just open up the doors, that would be great.
But anyone who has delivered a child knows that’s just the beginning. There’s just a whole other set of challenges that begin then, and the same on the business side.
Everybody, I believe, should have a business. It’s great and I recommend it for everybody.
It’s scary, isn’t it?
Oh, it is. It’s risky. It is very risky. Underestimating the risk is another thing. I know when we opened the galleries and some other things we’ve done in the past, there’s a certain excitement about that. You can feel the energy as far as chasing that dream and working toward it. The risks are out there, but you don’t even see those. It’s like you’re focused on the goal. But those risks, if the business doesn’t work, and they come to fruition, some of those threats out there — whether it’s financial or some of the obligations you have, some of the legal liability — they can come home to roost and haunt you for a long time.
So you ask people to take their business dream blinders off?
Yes. Our goal is to provide them the information so they can make the best, most-informed decision in order to move forward.
Having the experience, having the galleries not succeed over the five years, and having a significant amount of debt when we came out of that, we decided to just suck it up and pay it off instead of going other routes. You can dig a deep hole.
It’s a true learning experience?
That’s right. I used to have dark hair. (laughs) It was definitely a learning experience. I was with a business owner yesterday and we were talking about that, just the understanding you have in dealing with debt and debt collectors. If you’ve never been through that, there’s that stigma that might be associated with it. But if you have been through it, you’re able to navigate that much more easily than if you had never been through it, and you become stronger.
Have you ever had to tell a client their idea or business is just not going to work and maybe they should do something else?
Our goal is never to tell somebody it’s not going to work. because you just don’t know what’s inside somebody. There might be a resilience within them that, no matter what, they’re going to be successful. There are so many stories out there of folks who have succeeded in even worse circumstances.
So our goal is just to provide the information and any insight that we would have that might clarify the implications or consequences. Just remember: If you do this, you might be paying this debt off for 10 or 15 years or longer. You have to decide if it’s worth that risk or not, because it’s not us taking the risk at that point.
Do some clients stick with you for the long haul?
Some clients we’ll see once or twice. They’ll get what they need and move on. Other clients we have seen 10, 15, 20 years or longer. They might see us for six months, a year, get what they need and move off. Then some other opportunity or challenge might come up and we’ll start right back up with them. The more history we have together, the more able we are to assist them because we know what they’ve gone through in the past and where they are now.
Describe the demographics of your average client.
For the most part, our clients are from probably one or two persons, up to maybe 50 to 100 or so, on average. But we can probably have the most significant impact on growth with those businesses that maybe have five or 10 employees and they’re preparing to grow and perhaps open a second location and go to the next level. They’re probably doing from $500,000 to between $2 million to $5 million in sales and looking to grow to the next level.
We see a lot of restaurants, manufacturing ... smaller retailers, service-type companies, tourist-type companies, professionals from physicians to, every once in a while, an attorney. And we see some of the online-type companies ... There are some really innovative online companies out there.
There also has been a lot of activity in downtown or uptown. Have you been a part of that?
There are a number of businesses that we’ve worked with in the Uptown area, and it’s great being able to know that we’ve had a positive contribution as we drive down the street.
What’s the biggest challenge you face on the job?
I think probably the toughest part for us is being with a client, and that client realizing that they’re not going to be able to make it, and there’s really nothing we can do except help them through that process.
Having been through that with the gallery, that was one of the saddest, toughest times. It was like losing a family member. We had put so much emotional energy into that ... But being so emotionally engaged with a creation and then knowing that creation is not going to make it, working with clients at that point is the toughest thing.
What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
One, just working with the people I work with. It’s a great environment and I haven’t ever experienced that. I’ve never stayed someplace for 10 years. I enjoy the culture that’s there.
But with the clients, there’s two things. One, just like any teacher, you can see the light go on when somebody understands a financial statement or something else in particular. It makes a difference for them and that’s significant.
And then, when you’re working with somebody, they’re trying to get funding and they get a loan, then they’re able to open or make an expansion ... I enjoy going over for perhaps an open house and the pride they have in that accomplishment. That’s great.
Name: Mark Lupo
Hometown: Phenix City
Current residence: Phenix City
Education: 1978 graduate of Smiths Station High School; earned bachelor’s of science degree from Auburn University in 1987; earned master’s of business administration degree from Brenau University in 1990
Previous jobs: Worked in health care for 20 years, both clinically and as an administrator with a home-health company; served with the U.S. Army in the 1980s and early ’90s as a medic on a Special Forces detachment, including during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm; he and wife, Elaine, owned two Thomas Kinkade galleries, The Uptown Gallery on Broadway in Columbus and the Springstreet Gallery in Warm Springs, from 1999 to 2004; has owned and managed rental property in Phenix City and Columbus since 2002
Family: Married to Elaine, his “beautiful” bride of 30 years (as of this coming October); they share their home with a 10-year-old miniature Dachshund named Daisy
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with Elaine, whether it’s traveling, having a date night on the town or just quiet time together at home; enjoys gardening, reading, hiking and distance kayaking
Of note: He’s a certified law enforcement officer (as of 2011), serving as a reserve deputy with the Russell County Sheriff’s Office (since 2009); he ran the Honolulu Marathon in 2005 in support of the Arthritis Foundation; he holds a national certification through Disaster Recovery Institute International as a certified business continuity professional (since 2009).