While the economic recovery overall continues to be slow, there are signs of economic spring in the greater Wilmington area.
One example of returning to investment mode is Atlantic Marine, which, after holding on for several years to a parcel of land, took the plunge a few months ago and began construction of a new boat sales facility at the intersection of Military Cutoff Road and Wrightsville Avenue.
Similarly, after waiting nearly three years, Connecticut-based CMS Food Solutions Inc. announced in mid-May that it is proceeding with plans to expand into the area, preparing to invest at least $4.4 million in a manufacturing plant in Leland as well as a research and development unit at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s MARBIONC facility.
“The Southeast in general has been pretty strong, and we’ve seen a lot of growth in Wilmington,” said Chris Bell, SunTrust Bank’s new regional president. “[SunTrust’s Wilmington city president] Sandy Spiers does a great job. Small and larger companies are purchasing new equipment and investing in technology. They are expanding into more space and hiring more people.”
He said that type of activity was consistent with results from business surveys the bank recently conducted nationwide.
“People have been holding back, but now they are ready to invest,” Bell said.
The two recent surveys from SunTrust showed that owners of mid-sized and small businesses are more optimistic about their own businesses than they are about the overall U.S. economy, the bank reported in a recent news release.
Sixty-five percent of leaders in companies with annual revenues of $10-150 million expect their business to be in even better financial shape in six months; however, only 48 percent believe the overall economy will be better, the release stated. In a comparable survey of small businesses (defined by SunTrust as companies with annual revenues of $2-10 million), sentiments about the economy mirrored those of mid-market companies. Sixty-three percent of respondents were positive about the current strength of their own business, while only 34 percent felt the same about the general economy.
Business leaders cite top financial priorities as increasing revenue and profitability, reducing expenses and improving customer satisfaction, the release stated, adding that owners plan to stimulate growth by investing in new technology (48 percent), purchasing/leasing new equipment (34 percent) and expanding domestically and globally (34 percent).
To finance these activities, 50 percent of the mid-sized companies plan to reinvest earnings, SunTrust reported. More than 33 percent plan to tap new or existing loans and lines of credit or obtain equity financing from investors.
“Businesses believe they are in a strong position to make the capital investments and expansion decisions required to move forward,” said Mark A. Chancy, wholesale banking executive at SunTrust. “Nearly half expect to have an increased need for credit or financing services this year, and 77 percent feel they are on track to access the needed capital.”
Business owners aren’t looking to banks for money alone, Bell said.
“The No. 1 thing we hear is that business owners expect banks to understand their industry, and they want advice on investments, cash flow and strategies for growth,” he said. “SunTrust focuses on a business’s well-being. Most business owners are focused on the day-to-day. We want them to look long-term at what they want to do with their business and provide advice and services to help them get there. That’s our value proposition.”
The survey results provide a good starting point for that kind of conversation with a business client, Bell said.
SBA hosts funding contest
In an effort to stimulate entrepreneurial activity across the country, the U.S. Small Business Administration is sponsoring a $2.5 million competition for business accelerators, incubators and shared workspace entities.
At least one area center is planning to participate.
The competition invites applications from accelerators and “other entrepreneurial ecosystem models” outside of the well-established cradles of business startups to compete for prizes of $50,000 each.
Jim Roberts, executive director of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said in an email that the CIE does plan to apply.
“We are eager to compete with other regions outside of Silicon Valley,” Roberts said. “We think we have had early success with supporting entrepreneurship in the Wilmington region even though our center is not even one year old.”
SBA officials said through the contest, they are looking to support development of accelerators and startups in parts of the country “where there are fewer conventional sources of access to capital (i.e.,
venture capital and other investors),” according to a news release.
The SBA is also seeking out accelerators that are run by and support women or other underrepresented groups, the release stated. Special consideration will be given to any accelerator models that support manufacturing.
Applications will be evaluated by a panel of experts who will consider each applicant’s stated mission, founding team members and business goals among other core components, the release stated, adding that “the panel will give particular attention to, and the SBA encourages, applicants that fill geographic gaps in the accelerator and entrepreneurial ecosystem space.”
Asked whether southeastern North Carolina might be such a “geographic gap,” Kim Peyser, special advisor to the SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation, said in an email, “Building the accelerator network in an area like Wilmington is exactly the kind of area we’re interested in supporting.”
Over the coming months, SBA will be working with a number of partners such as the Global Accelerator Network and others to host a number of Demo Days across the country, according to the release, which explained that Demo Days provide opportunities for networking and the sharing of best practices among accelerators and other entrepreneurial ecosystem models.
Peyser said the SBA does want to hold one such event somewhere in the Southeast. The deadline to apply for the SBA competition is Aug. 2.
NewBridge names Brunswick retail banking manager
In late April, soon after the completion of its merger with Raleigh-based CapStone Bank, NewBridge Bank announced a realignment of its retail banking resources to better address the needs of clients who increasingly depend on online and mobile banking.
As part of that realignment, Greensboro-based NewBridge made several appointments – one of which will serve a segment of the greater Wilmington market.
Nicky Casteen has been promoted to retail banking manager in Brunswick County, the bank announced in a news release. She will oversee client service managers at NewBridge Bank branches in the county.
“Our goal is to improve the versatility of our sales team while providing clients with better technology and an improved suite of products,” Pressley A. Ridgill, Newbridge president and CEO, said in a news release. “We are replacing our traditional branch staffing model of one manager surrounded by client service representatives with a simplified structure consisting entirely of client service managers.
“Client service managers will report to local retail banking managers who oversee several branches within a designated market. Traditional branch operations that do not impact clients will be centralized within the support areas of the bank to free our retail banking professionals to focus exclusively on client engagement.”