Jerry Coleman didn’t plan it that way, but his career might seem an ideal preparation for his new role as director of Cape Fear Community College’s Small Business Center.
He has worked in organizations large and small, served as a business consultant and coach, obtained two patents and often availed himself of CFCC’s economic development resources. All that experience is coming together now for Coleman, two months in to his new job.
Former director Doug Tarble retired in late spring after about eight years as director at the center. Coleman, a Wilmington native, started out in sales and customer service for Carolina Power & Light in the 1980s after graduating from East Carolina University. He left the utility company after 10 years to join Porta-Nails Inc., his family’s business.
“We were a small, family-owned manufacturing company here in Wilmington,” he said. “We made specialty tools and fasteners used in tongue-and-groove ﬂooring and expanded to include pneumatic tools and woodworking equipment. We also offered manufacturing services to local businesses that needed manufacturing capabilities.”
Being part of Porta-Nails enabled Coleman to wear many hats. He started as vice president of sales and marketing but later became vice president of operations.
Ultimately he rose to the position of president and COO. He also obtained two product utility patents: one for the Porta-Jack Pro hardwood ﬂooring jack and one for the Twin Trigger 20 pneumatic ﬂooring stapler.
CFCC and University of North Carolina Wilmington were partners in Porta-Nails’ growth, Coleman said.
“Our business utilized the community college. We were always looking for resources to help us grow the business,” he added. “We used [CFCC’s] continuing ed program to train employees. We used the SBTDC [Small Business and Technology Development Center] and worked with UNCW in their learning alliance program. We always sort of had a soft spot in our heart for resources available locally, either at Cape Fear or UNCW.”
As a small business owner, Coleman also became active in the community. He served on the board of United Way of the Cape Fear Area and was its campaign chairman in 1996.
He was also a member of N.C. State University’s Industrial Extension Service Advisory Board for eight years, helping expand support for manufacturing organizations in the state. In 2011 Coleman sold Porta-Nails, almost 30 years after his father had purchased it. He then drew on the lessons he had learned and became a consultant, offering business coaching, leadership development and strategic planning services to clients.
Since Coleman was already in the business of helping other businesses, his ears pricked up when he learned that CFCC’s Small Business Center was looking for a new director.
Coleman, who is a big believer in lifelong learning, and who enrolled in UNCW’s MBA program after being away from the classroom for years, understands the power of continuing education. He appreciates the fact that the Small Business Center is part of CFCC’s continuing education initiatives.
Since settling in to his new office Sept. 6, Coleman has made an effort to familiarize himself with all aspects of the Small Business Center’s offerings, which include free seminars, business counseling and access to workspaces in the center. He attends the seminars, to meet the instructors and gauge the content.
“We put a lot of time and energy into the seminars; we’ll do 75 this coming year,” Coleman said. “We probably have over 1,000 individuals participate. [The seminars] are probably the greatest, most significant thing we do. They are free to small business owners and those interested in starting a business. They cover financial and legal issues and help people with marketing, e-commerce – all kinds of topics that are relevant today, keeping people up to date with the latest in technology, such as Microsoft [programs] and QuickBooks, and how to leverage these resources.”
While seminars focus on the nuts and bolts of running and growing a business, the center’s counseling services are tailored to a specific company’s needs.
“Starting a business and managing a small business can be a daunting task,” Coleman said. “We help individuals navigate the process, getting entrepreneurs off to a good solid start with a good solid footing. We really do become a partner with them and are always available to work with them as coach and cheerleader. We stay with them … to keep them going and make them successful in the long run.”
Sometimes the center’s role is to help the would-be entrepreneur “put some reality to” his or her business concept, as Coleman puts it.
That means asking questions of the aspiring business owner: Who will your customers be? Is there a need for your product or service? How will you market yourself? How will you fund your operations?
“We want to try and help people to really think through what they are getting themselves into and all the steps. Running a small business is not a few hours a week; it’s a seven-day-a-week job, and it takes persistence to make that dream a reality,” Coleman said.
“My approach is: Let’s take your idea and work on what that plan might look like; let’s put a few numbers to it. Sometimes when you put a cash ﬂow perspective to it, people open up and see reality, because often small business financing is coming out of your pocket, your friends, your family.”
When the idea clicks, and there’s market demand and deep enough pockets to get a new business started, it’s an exciting thing – and an important part of CFCC’s role in the area, Coleman said.
“My goal for the SBC is to be the go-to resource for entrepreneurs wanting to get started with a business,” he said. “If you want to open a barbershop, a salon, a retail business, a consulting firm, you would be coming to us.”