The Franklin Business Center is booming

Published 6:56 pm Friday, December 24, 2021

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The Franklin Business Center exists to help new and developing businesses get established, and its success stories are being told every day by those businesses that have graduated out of the center and into the community.

As noted on the Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. website, the center is a four-story, 40,000-square-foot, fully renovated and restored mixed-use incubator located in Historic Downtown Franklin at 601 N. Mechanic St. The building houses office space, support staff and programs that nurture young firms and expanding businesses.

The center helps businesses get started by letting them first incubate in the supportive environment of the center for as many as seven years.

Evidence is readily available inside and outside the building that the FBC program is effective.

Starting with the evidence inside, FSEDI President and CEO Karl Heck recently said, “We hit 100% occupancy for the first time in our history on Dec. 1.”

The economic impact of the FBC in 2020 was significant. During that year, eight new and expanding businesses signed leases in the building. The businesses at the center featured a combined 71 full-time employees, with average salaries of $74,269, and 55 part-time employees. There was $132,247 in rent paid to the city, and $10,168 in taxes.

James “Jim” Strozier is chair of the advisory board for the business center and one of the center’s graduates.

He said the biggest thing the advisory board does is set the policies for the operation of the business center with regard to what the criteria are for a business being accepted into the program, and then the board reviews all applications of applicants for space in the building.

“So our goal is to give the businesses the best chance of success,” he said. “So we work with the staff, (Business Development Manager) Lauren (V. Sloan) and (Marketing and Existing Business Manager) Ashley (C. Covington), to help set the applicants up for success and making sure they meet the criteria and have done the proper preparations before they launch a business into the business center.”

Strozier understands firsthand what the applicants are going through because his business, Highground Services Inc., entered the FBC in late 2007.

The business, which deals in engineering, automation and electrical construction, has since graduated out of the building and operates at a location that happens to be directly across the street from the center — 500 N. Mechanic St.

Highground Services also has had an office in Newport News since about 2012.

Strozier said that for him, the biggest advantage he derived from the FBC was the ability to grow his business and not have to physically move every time it needed more space. 

“So we started off with one small office space, and as the business grew and our needs grew, we could just add another office (in the center) and pick up additional space,” he said. “So we were able to go through a period where we actually went through some pretty quick growth, and had we have had to move every time we needed more space, we would have had to have moved several times and gone through the disruption of moving.”

He later added that by the time the business was moving out of the center, “we had almost the whole first floor of the business center and an office or two upstairs.”

The location Highground Services has graduated out to across the street is a larger space than his business has ever had before and includes storage and shop space.

Cheryl Morton

Highlighting another of the success stories the FBC helped tell, Cheryl Morton is CEO and owner of Helping Hands Sitter Service LLC, which provides personal care, consumer-directed care and respite care for the elderly and disabled.

Her business began its run in the FBC in September 2014 and graduated out of the building in April 2021 to its location at 207 S. Main St. in Franklin.

Before entering the center, Morton, a registered nurse, started her business from her office in her home.

“When I retired from Obici, I started doing private duty, and I had two other people with me, so I saw the need, and I just started the business,” she said.

However, she emphasized that the FBC incubator program allowed her business to grow from infancy to maturity. 

“The Franklin Business Center did this by allowing the business to keep the cost down with the low rent for new businesses, saving costs on utilities and other services needed for a business,” she said. “The Franklin Business Center impacted Helping Hands Sitter Service with the mentoring program that they have for new businesses and also with workshops that offered valuable information for business growth.” 

Morton added that when her company was getting ready to transition out of the center, the staff, especially Covington, was extremely helpful, aiding her in securing a new rental office. 

“The staff at the Franklin Business Center were professional, friendly and very helpful with all of our needs,” she said. “I would personally say that Helping Hands Sitter Service and I felt like part of a family, and like any family, when the child matures and grows up, he or she leaves the nest. The Franklin Business Center made it less complicated for Helping Hands Sitter Service to grow and fly.”

Abe Applewhite is owner of KCA Logistics Inc., a company that provides transportation services for imports and exports, products and materials coming through the Port of Virginia.

His business started in the FBC in 2015 and graduated out of it in 2018 to 151 Sachs Avenue in Franklin.

Applewhite said he and his business benefited from the structure the FBC provided as opposed to working at home, where distractions can be abundant, in-person visibility to clients can be minimal and operating days and hours are often not set.

“It’s really hard to put into words what the business center did, because they did so much,” he said. “The staff was always ready and willing to help. They were constantly giving us ideas on ways that we could grow our business and gave us ideas of how to open your thinking up.”

When KCA Logistics Inc. first came into the business center, its main customer and main focus was Perdue Farms, Applewhite stated.

“At that time, that was our biggest customer, and we had kind of put ourselves in a box with Perdue,” he said. “But when we came to the business center, we were able to go to some of the seminars that they had at the business center, (listen to) some of the speakers that they had come to the business center and just talk to some of the other businesses that were in the business center at that time, like one example — Highground.

“Being able to talk to Jim about his business and how he developed his business caused me to stand back and look at my business in a different (way), which caused us to go out and solicit other business, not knowing that it would lead us to customers that are in Turkey, that are in Italy.”

Being based at the business center helped Applewhite and KCA Logistics impress customers who thought they would be meeting him in an office trailer on a dusty lot.

“I remember we had a safety audit with Federal FMCA, and the auditor that came to do the audit, he was impressed by the building himself,” Applewhite said. “He was impressed that we had a conference room to do the audit in. Just being in the business center alone opens you up to a lot of opportunities that you won’t see if you stay at home.”

It also helped raise Applewhite’s standards for where he would want to graduate his business out to.

“Just having customers come to our office and see that we’re in a location like the business center and hear the customers (speak positively), when you leave, you can’t leave and go to an office trailer,” he said.

He also praised the helpfulness of the FBC’s staff in finding a good location to move out to.

In summary, Applewhite said, “The way I see it, anybody that is serious — I mean, very serious — about their business, if they start in the business center, they can’t go anywhere else but up because that’s how much value that the business center gives a person that’s starting their business out.”