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No arguing with WAM-BC’s numbers: Businesses who work with the center continue to find success

WILLMAR — Using solid business practices, one-on-one relationships and cultural understanding has translated into growing success for the Willmar Area Multicultural Business Center in downtown Willmar.

When it comes to small business survival, the center has flipped national statistics on their head.

Over the past four years, three-quarters of the businesses which consulted with the business center have survived. Nationally, about 80 percent of new businesses fail in their first year.

In 2013, five of the businesses working with the business center had gross revenue of more than $2 million.

“That’s a big one,” said WAM-BC Director Roberto Valdez Jr., because it shows a level of success that many people in the community wouldn’t expect.

The business center grew out of Vision 2020 discussions 15 years ago. It began with a vision for a multicultural marketplace in downtown Willmar. Over time, that vision grew into the business center, which has worked with a number of businesses now located in downtown Willmar. Using funding from grants, it provides free services to low-income individuals and low-cost services to others.

The business center is open to anyone seeking help in navigating a business startup, and the staff works with all kinds of people — Latino, Anglo and Somali. The thing they all have in common is their  dreams of owning their own businesses.

A majority of the clients are ethnic minorities, and they have contributed to a list of more than 75 minority-owned businesses in the Willmar/Kandiyohi County area. It’s the largest concentration of minority businesses in rural Minnesota.

Valdez said he hopes that the successful small businesses can help destroy the unfavorable perception some people have of the area’s minority communities.

A sign of the community’s faith in the Willmar Area Multicultural Business Center is the city funding it received for the first time this year, Valdez said. The $10,000 from the city was not as much as the business center had sought, but Valdez said they were pleased to have received it.

“It still speaks volumes that the city is willing to support it,” he said. One member of the City Council told him later that it was hard to argue with the center’s numbers.

And the numbers are impressive.

In the last two years, businesses that have worked with WAM-BC have created 114 full-time jobs, and three-quarters of the jobs have gone to low-income people. More than 30 of the jobs exceed the federal minimum wage by 44 percent. Not all of the businesses offer benefits, but some do, including paid time off and profit-sharing.

Diamond Builders, a construction company based in downtown Willmar, added 10 new full-time jobs in the last quarter.

Financial manager Leslie Kelly said the center was just granted a second grant from Catholic Charities Human Development, and it increased from $25,000 in the first year to $60,000 in the second year, based on job creation.

Seventeen new businesses have started in the past two years after consulting with the business center. They have been in many different sectors of the local economy, including construction, restaurants, interpreting, trucking and retail. Some are one-person shops; one has more than 40 employees.

Valdez said the services provided by the business center are not common in the community. Valdez; Jeff Madsen, the staff business consultant; and Kelly build relationships with clients and shepherd them through the technicalities of incorporating a business. Once a business is up and running, they continue the relationship in case the owners have questions.

Kelly joked last week that the three fill distinct roles. Valdez is the realist, more likely to point out problems or roadblocks a person might encounter, she said. Madsen is the “dream builder” who helps people navigate tax laws and find ways around obstacles; and she is the stickler, making sure all the necessary paperwork is in line.

Valdez agreed with her assessment. He said he’s always happy to be proven wrong after he points out potential pitfalls.

If a person is determined to start the business, “nobody can stop you,” he said. “Entrepreneurs are risk-takers, but you become successful by limiting your risks.”

All three of them have owned their own businesses, and they can draw on their own experience while working with business owners. They also have the college degrees and training to back up what they say.

Valdez was born and raised in south Texas before moving to Willmar as a teen. He said he feels he can understand things about struggles faced by people from Mexico or Central America. That understanding informs how he approaches clients.

More traditional business approaches don’t always work well with immigrant or minority communities, he said. “I think that’s been our success,” he said.

The Willmar Area Multicultural Business Center also underwrites microloans for small business. One of the first was a $1,500 loan for a tailor whose sewing machine was out of commission. He was able to buy a professional sewing machine and supplies, and he makes his payments each month. One of the conditions of his loan was to fix his credit, and he’s doing that, too.

The microloan for someone who would otherwise have had to find a new way to make a living was a good way to keep a family off public assistance and keep their house, Valdez said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340