Small businesses get a lift from bank program

This article was published on July 20, 2011 in The Times-Picayune.  

As a 10-year-old, Malcolm Gibson of New Orleans knew he wanted to be a mortician.

After being impressed at his grandfather’s funeral by the mortician’s ability to transform the body of someone who looked deathly ill to the way he remembered his grandfather in the best of health, Gibson knew that he would one day help families in much the same way.

“Seeing my poppa look so good helped me cope — it made me feel like he was in a better place,” Gibson said.

So after high school, Gibson went on to mortician school and later founded Professional Funeral Services, a funeral home located in the 7th Ward. He became known for his commitment to families, and his business flourished. But for many years, despite steadily rising revenues, Gibson was still operating deep in the red.

“I knew how to care for families and help them through the grieving process, but I couldn’t organize my business in a way that was sustainable,” said Gibson, now 41. “I’m a funeral director by nature, not an entrepreneur.”

It’s a common problem among small business owners who are often full of passion, yet lacking in business savvy and end up seeking help with lenders such as Capital One.

The bank has developed a free “Getting Down to Business” program, a 14-week course in which local small business owners are trained in a variety of financial and legal topics relating to the management of small businesses. The course has already been successful in Houston and Baton Rouge and expanded to New Orleans earlier this year.

The only financial requirement is for the business owner to open a business savings account with a minimum of $50. Capital One then doubles any savings deposits made during the eight-month course, up to $2,000.

“Of course we want more customers,” said Mark Boucree, Capital One’s vice president of community development banking, who teaches the course in the New Orleans, “but the satisfaction of helping the community become self-sufficient is what really drives this program.”

Since starting the courses in February, Gibson, along with his 13 classmates, has learned to manage a business more efficiently through tips on budgeting, assigning part-time hours and implementing computerized systems. Now, Gibson is not just turning a profit — his business is thriving so much he has been able to expand with a second funeral home.

“I got two families downstairs, three more coming in. There’s just not enough space. It’s a good problem,” Gibson said recently.

The classes focus on business strategy, with topics ranging from credit improvement to accounting to legal liabilities, along with a class designed uniquely for New Orleans on disaster preparedness. Capital One has partnered with nonprofit organizations Good Work Network and the Urban League of New Orleans to cover the wealth of resources available to small businesses.

The participants are also matched with a mentor, someone who has been in their industry for at least 10 years, to help them “see what’s around every corner — especially if there are sharks around any corner,” said Boucree.

For Gibson, that mentor was a successful Lake Charles-based funeral director who has proved invaluable, introducing him to a death certificate-processing system that Gibson says saves him a lot of time.

So far, the program has also worked out well for Erica Doucet, owner of Phat Pheet LLC, an online shoe retailer geared toward plus-size women. Her mentor, an accountant, has helped her cut expenses and increase revenues. Doucet now sells more than 10 times the amount of shoes than she did before.

“I’m trying to fill this void for women with large feet — give them both style and comfort — but I have to be profitable to continue,” Doucet said.

All businesses that are at least one year old and earn less than $1 million in revenues can apply. The judging panel looks for businesses with the greatest potential for growth. The deadline to apply for next year’s program is Feb. 1. Good Work Network offers a less extensive, but similar course for small businesses, that is open to anyone. The next set of classes begins in August.


For more information on the Capital One program, call Mark Boucree at 504.533.3029. To enroll or ask questions about the Good Work Network business course, call 504.309.2073.

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