- Alexandra Clough Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
John Howard has spent more than three decades looking for a way to say “yes” to black entrepreneurs.
“Barbershops. Mortuaries. Restaurants. Construction. Day Cares. Whatever comes before us, you name it and we try do it,” said Howard, who for 31 years has served as president of the Black Business Investment Corp. “We want to encourage entrepreneurship in the black community.”
It sounds like a tall order in a country still wrestling with racial injustice. But when African Americans make their way to the BBIC, they find the barrier is not so great to overcome, the rough path to financial independence smoothed by the soft-spoken but savvy Howard.
At the end of April, Howard will retire from the Riviera Beach-based non-profit. Leadership will pass to longtime BBIC board member, Marlon White, now vice president of PNC Bank in West Palm Beach.
As the weeks fly by toward the end of his term as BBIC president, Howard is feeling reflective about the BBIC’s track record.
Formed by the financial and business community in accordance with the Small and Minority Business Act of 1985, the BBIC in Palm Beach County was created in 1987.
Other BBICs in the state do direct lending, but the BBIC in Palm Beach County takes a different approach. It provides guarantees to loans made by local commercial banks. Sometimes the guarantee is a fraction of the loan. Sometimes the guarantee is 100 percent.
The strategy is effective. During its history, the BBIC has worked with more than 12,089 clients with some type of business service and helped with $31 million worth of loans. Jobs created or retained total more than 3,296. With the BBIC’s capital closing in on $4 million from government grants and private infusion, the BBIC remains a vibrant participant in the businesses created by Palm Beach County’s black residents.
Defaults? Very few. In fact, the BBIC counts only one charge-off during the past 16 years.
“We hardly sue anybody,” Howard said. “I’m a community guy, so I know most of these businesses.”
During the recession, Howard said the BBIC was willing to rework loans or switch to interest-only payments for a while. “But since the rebound we haven’t had any problems at all,” he said. “(Businesses) have recovered just like everyone else.”
A goal of the BBIC is to overcome any “no’s” that a bank might have with a loan application, be it a credit issue with the borrower or the risk of a new business venture, by providing a loan guarantee and taking some risk off the table.
Working with other groups, the BBIC also provides educational programs such as the preparation of business plans, marketing strategies and accounting systems.
Of course, the would-be business owner must do their homework when it comes to having a valid idea and a business plan to flesh it out, including the most important part: The ability to repay the loan.
Here’s where Howard’s past as a vice president for Southeast Bank and former president of the Palm Beach Lakes Bank comes in, with his expertise in underwriting loans.
But through the years, Howard has served as more than a resource for companies. Business owners call him friend and mentor. In some cases, they call him a client, too.
Juan Williams was an insurance claims adjuster who sought help from Howard in 1989. Williams wanted to open a State Farm insurance agency in Lake Park. He needed a $50,000 bank loan to build out office space and start the business.
“It was a very smooth process,” Williams said. In fact, Williams said, “I didn’t know it could be hard because John made it so easy.”
After the deal was done, Howard and Williams stayed in close contact.
“He’d check in with me,” Williams said. “He’d mentor me.” And then one day, Howard decided to take his business to Williams and became his client.
It’s this commitment to his clients that not only distinguishes Howard but helps the BBIC thrive, said R. Michael Strickland, a founding BBIC board member who once served as president of Barnett Bank of Palm Beach County.
Calling Howard both a coach and a confidant, Strickland said Howard’s closeness with his borrowers is a key reason for the BBIC’s success and the success of participating banks, which have a lower loan loss ratio with BBIC-backed loans than commercial loans — contrary to what one might think.
“We rarely have a loss. Because of John,” said Strickland, now managing director of Northern Trust Bank in Palm Beach.
Nearly two decades ago, Shuler Memorial Chapel funeral home sought the BBIC’s help with a large loan to expand its then-Delray Beach-based business, recalled owner Barbara Shuler. When the expanded Atlantic Avenue location opened in 2002, Isaac Hayes sang at the grand opening.
Looking back over the 30 years that Shuler has been in business, a lot has changed, Barbara Shuler said. There was a time when white families wouldn’t travel much on west Atlantic Avenue, let alone let a black-owned business handle funeral arrangements, she said.
But all that’s different now for Shuler Memorial. Today the West Palm Beach-based business handles all types of families. Importantly, Shuler employs 14 full-time employees and 35-40 weekend ones.
Williams, the insurance business owner, is a job creator, too: He counts 10 employees at his State Farm agency.
And that’s the whole point of the BBIC, Shuler said, to help the black community grow its own companies and create its own opportunities, so that others might be inspired to do the same.
“The dream was, in order to be more self-sufficient, we need to have businesses of our own,” Shuler said. “It’s not just education and voting rights. It’s about owning a business that can take you to unlimited unknowns.
“John believes in that and he promotes that idea,” Shuler said. ” It’s part of the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. And John took on the economic aspect of that dream by helping others.”