Columbia Business: The Next Generation
They’re energetic, innovative and smart, and they’re all under 40 years old. The participants of the most recent Inside Columbia’s CEO Roundtable represent both the present and the future for Columbia’s business community. At the end of this lively luncheon, one thing was clear: Columbia is in good hands for years to come.
Among the participants were lifelong residents and relative newcomers. Moderator and Inside Columbia Publisher Fred Parry addressed his first question to both. “Is Columbia welcoming to young business leaders with fresh ideas?” he asked.
Allen Wells and his wife, Brittany, own businesses in the Missouri cities of Columbia, Springfield, St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as Oklahoma, and southern Indiana, so Allen was in a unique position to compare different communities.
“I feel like Columbia and southern Indiana have probably been the two most welcoming,” he said. “It’s not St. Louis, where you’re a small fish. You can communicate with more people, build more relationships. There are a few hiccups. We usually deal with city construction codes, which can be a little frustrating, but overall, I think it’s a very welcoming community.”
Craig Riordan, vice president and a commercial loan officer at UMB Bank, moved to Columbia from Kansas City just a few years ago. “I didn’t know a single person,” he said. “I very quickly felt welcome and was invited to help with community things or business guys getting together. I’ve felt very positive about it and I would invite people to come here just because it’s a place to grow professionally and personally.”
Dak Dillon, who recently opened Hub & Spoke, a firm that specializes in branding, design and strategy, said he felt the things that were in place in Columbia to help young entrepreneurs hadn’t been all that helpful to him. “They don’t do all they could be doing,” he said. “It really means you have to get out there and do it yourself and lay that foundation for yourself and make a path for yourself. The chamber has approached me many times, but to me, it seems like an old boys club.”
Sidney Neate, on the other hand, found her Chamber of Commerce connection to be valuable; she currently serves as president of EPIC (Emerging Professionals in Columbia), the chamber’s organization for business leaders under age 40. She said that when she arrived on the Columbia business scene, she was encouraged to get involved, try new things and meet new people
“Columbia is the little town that wants to be big,” she said. “Paul Land told me, ‘It’s small enough that you can really make an impact, and it’s big enough that you can hide if you want to.’ That is so true. The chamber and what we are doing here have provided me with a lot of great opportunities to meet people. I don’t think people really look at age or how long you’ve been here.”
After graduating from law school at the University of Missouri, Jeff Hillbrenner lived and worked in Washington, D.C., for a few years, but he longed to come back to Missouri to practice law. He found that opportunity at Harper, Evans, Wade & Netemeyer. “It’s been everything I’d hoped it would be,” he said. “I meet all these young, dynamic, motivated people and it makes me more motivated and passionate about what I do. It’s a great community to start your career and grow it.”
“To stay motivated and be motivated … I know a lot of people around my age who have graduated and almost feel that is needs to be handed to us,” said Mel Zelenak, a real estate sales professional with Maly Commercial Realty. “You have to prove yourself. You’ve got to prove to people that you know what you’re doing and you’ve got to do it well.”
Mills Menser, owner and president of Buchroeder’s Jewelers, said that just because he came into the corporate world through a family business doesn’t mean he has it easier than others. “You have to prove on your own that you have what it takes to get the job done,” he said. Menser added that the days of feeling entitled to business from local customers are over. If his business can’t offer a customer the best price on a product, he knows that customer will travel elsewhere.
“It’s up to the person supplying the service and the product to give the lowest price and superior service,” he said. “It’s a tough recipe, but if you can get that done, you’ll be rewarded by your customers.”
Mike Grellner, vice president of Plaza Commercial Realty, arrived in Columbia eight years ago;
he felt welcome when he first arrived and still sees that welcoming attitude today. “I think we do a great job, as a populace, of opening our arms. What we have in this community that a lot of other communities admire is great population growth. Some people view population growth as a bad thing. I see it as a great thing. I think there are a lot of people in this room who are looking for great employees who would like to see population growth because our unemployment rate is so low, they’re having trouble finding employees.”
“I think the expansion of the population is a great thing, especially in terms of real estate and commercial development,” said Travis Wise, a commercial real estate appraiser with Cannon, Blaylock & Wise. “I’ve heard concerns, not only about the pace of population growth, but the pace of development in terms of apartment units on the periphery of the market — development might be outpacing that growth and I think that’s one thing that could be addressed and could be a concern going forward.”
Parry asked the rest of the group how they felt about out-of-town developers and builders working on projects in Columbia.
Sarah Emily LeMone, project manager at Little Dixie Construction, said, “It’s difficult to see. We just worked on getting a job with a fast-food company that was coming in and we were pretty sure we were going to get it, and they ended up bringing in their contractor from down south.” But LeMone went on to say that she understood that companies forge relationships with their favorite contractors, and that Little Dixie also travels to other states to work with some established clients.
“Construction companies have changed a little bit and can specialize,” said David Coil, project manager at Coil Construction. “Some do just one, specific type of construction and that’s one way of marketing themselves. With Sarah Emily and myself, our companies are a little bit more focused on the community and hiring people, buying locally, buying United States materials … that’s kind of what we do and we’ll continue to position ourselves strongly in this community.”
Joe Machens Dealerships General Manager Rusty Drewing said his company would never consider using an out-of-town builder for its projects. “The idea is that Columbia and mid-Missouri have made us who we are,” he said. “The thought of using someone from outside of this community or someone we don’t have a relationship with would be crazy. We have a lot of great contractors right here locally.”
The “buy local” philosophy extends beyond the world of construction.
“Customers are just more savvy than they used to be,” Dillon said. “They always have their phone, their iPad, and they’re checking around for everything, whether it’s construction bids from out of state or checking the diamond price somewhere else. You just have to keep up with it.”
Drewing added, “You have to be competitive. People have the options to go wherever they want, however they want. Even our business had to change significantly over the past couple of years on how we price cars, how we obtain cars, how we do the whole business structure. If we give customers the best price and a decent level of service, they’re going to purchase from us. We try to do that all the time.”
With crime and the effectiveness of the Columbia Police Department making headlines, Parry asked the Roundtable participants to weigh in on those topics.
“I think ‘problem’ really is a relative term,” Wells said. “I guess if you base ‘problem’ on how if used to be, it’s a little alarming, but if you compare it to problems in other communities like St. Louis or Kansas City, maybe it puts it in a little perspective. Maybe everybody needs to be more educated on what’s actually going on.”
“Jeff Hillbrenner and I both do criminal law so it’s kind of a unique perspective,” said Tim Gerding, an attorney with Rotts, Gibbs & Gerding. “I think it’s more of a national epidemic. I’m not sure you could say, ‘Oh, look at Columbia! It has an escalating problem with serious crime, murder and such.’ It’s obviously more than it used to be, but the town is growing and that’s part of that. They [the CPD] have seemed to be focused a little bit on things like DWIs, when maybe they could be focused on other areas. I’m not part of that … we’re the enemy when it comes to what we litigate. My perspective is that I see less aggressive behavior from officers that I used to see as overly aggressive. I think there has been an effort from the police department to be more community-oriented and be appropriate with a citizen.”
“It only takes one or two bad incidents,” Menser said. “We’re lucky to have a vibrant, growing downtown. For years, it was stable. With all these new student housing developments that are going on downtown, it’s going to take one kid to get shot downtown and there are going to be problems. If my daughter wanted to live in one of our apartments and go to school, I’d probably think twice about it.”
Brittany Wells agreed with others when she said, “I think the police could maybe switch their focus to the downtown area, away from the DWIs. If your population is going to grow, you have to have the systems in place. Whether it’s law enforcement or the road systems, Columbia has to say, ‘We’re ready for this and we can handle it and we can handle it well.’ Or else you’re going to scare business owners away.”
Brittany recalled working downtown as a teenager, and she’s not sure she would feel comfortable allowing a child of hers to work there now. “I don’t have children yet, but you have to be smart about where you park and where you work. Are there other places where you can work that give you the same experience? There are a lot of things to consider.”
“I think Columbia is just getting to the point where we’re experiencing things that other communities that are larger and have more diversity have dealt with for a long time,” Wise said. “Maybe it’s to the point where the focus needs to be directed to other areas because we’ve never dealt with it before.”
“I just moved downtown,” Dillon said, “and it’s something I am really aware of because I don’t want to be shot walking downtown. But it’s not really as big of a problem as people make it out to be. It’s an oversensationalized and overhyped thing. And compared to other cities of Columbia’s size and growth rate, it really just doesn’t add up.”
In general, the group was positive about Columbia as a place to live and do business, but one criticism popped up again and again during the discussion: the stringent and seemingly arbitrary rules that govern construction.
Brittany Wells said that when she and Allen moved back to Columbia to open Sumits Hot Yoga, the city was easy to work with, “until we got to the really important 10 days before we opened.” That’s when the project slowed down, impeded by the city’s demands. “We had to move a toilet 3 inches the day before we opened. We had to bust up tile, call in plumbers, because it wasn’t centered in a non-ADA restroom. To a business owner who was opening the next day, that’s revenue that’s lost and we’ll never gain that back.”
“I would agree with Brittany on the pro-business standpoint,” Menser said. “Recently we gutted and renovated our retail store and the city was less than easy to deal with. We had to rip drywall down that we had just put up, even though they knew what was behind it. They wanted to see the actual layout of where all the light fixtures were going, but all of the electric was the same. Columbia has so many great features, but I think the City Council and the planning and zoning committee needs to be pro-business. They need to let folks get open and bring in tax dollars.”
Wise agreed. “Every commercial job I do, that comes up. It’s a problem.”
“On the banking side, too,” Neate added.
Grellner raised another issue that he sees as a growing problem for the city. “How many people think we have a road and traffic problem in Columbia? That’s my big thing. I think we’re facing a crisis when it comes to roads and really infrastructure in general. Sewer, roads … I know we’re already short on just our annual maintenance budget. That doesn’t even really deal with expansions and new roads. Good roadways are a catalyst to development.”
“I think the existing sewer infrastructure really needs to be addressed,” LeMone said. “A lot of people in the Old Southwest residential district are having a huge problem during heavy rains with the infiltration and inflow of storm water getting into the private sewer and backing up into people’s homes. It’s a little-known problem but it’s huge. I’m actually one of those people who are affected. I think not only expanding but addressing the existing infrastructure is something that Columbia really needs to address.”
Young business leaders who are juggling business responsibilities, volunteer activities and family obligations have plenty on their plate. When Parry asked who among them might be willing to run for Columbia City Council, the formerly animated group got quiet.
Menser spoke for several when he said, “I’ve got work, I’ve got family, I’ve got everything else on my plate and it’s trying to find that balance. You can talk ’til you’re blue in the face about whatever it might be, but ultimately implementing … that’s the challenge.”
Zelenak pointed out that just showing up at a City Council meeting may be all it takes to implement change. “We went through that on some real estate on campus. We went and tried to get a house zoned from R-1 to R-2. All we wanted to do was throw one additional person in the house. That’s it. We had 65 people from the East Campus Neighborhood Association show up and they spoke for four hours, saying the same thing over and over and over again. Ultimately, we lost. When you show up in force, it’s a power in numbers thing.”
“The Board of Realtors did it recently,” Grellner said. “When the entire room stood up, you could feel the council take notice and they backed down. It’s not enough to send a note or a letter. You’ve got to go there and go in numbers.”
Drewing summed up the lunchtime discussion on a positive note. “Going around this room, we talk about some of the negatives and some of the things we’d like to see changes and I’d just like to say I’m very thankful for this community. I think most people in this room believe there’s hardly any better place to live out there.”