Lunsford Calls it a Career

Bill Lunsford launched the Tulsa Technology Center’s Business Assistance Center in 1986 as the state economy was deteriorating following an oil bust.
Tremendous economic uncertainty dominated the time, exemplified by significant increases in personal and business bankruptcies, bank failures, falling real estate values and declining state and local tax revenues. Several layoffs by energy-related businesses threw executives and engineers onto the street.
The Center opened for business in April of 1987, providing training, consulting and technical assistance to clients covering a broad spectrum of economic activity. The objective has not changed. The Business Assistance Center, 6111 E. Skelly Drive, Ste. 100, still focuses on job creation and retention.
Lunsford is retiring at the end of the year. Judy Elliott moves into the oversight position.
The Business Assistance Center moves this month to TTC’s Lemley Campus at 38th Street and Memorial Drive. The Business Development Center has 17 classrooms to handle from seven to 50 people, Elliott said. The training center works with industries setting up training classes. The facility is also leased to companies for training. The center at Lemley held more than 4,000 events in 2006, she said.
The current facility at 6111 E. Skelly Drive will be used as a headquarters for career technology SDLqclusters.” Students will be able to choose from a variety of careers — whether it is medical, technological or mechanical.
Lunsford, 64, has worked more than 40 years and is taking several months off to relax, attend to some personal business and vacation in Hawaii.
“I am thinking about taking a cooking class. Maybe a second language,” he said.
While it seems things have come full circle — economic turmoil is again making headlines — Lunsford believes Oklahoma’s economy is stronger and more resilient than it was 22 years ago.
“We started this in Nov. ‘86 and kicked the doors open in April ‘87,” Lunsford said. “At the time, the price of crude oil was between $6 and $8 a barrel. It was ugly around here, and people were lined up at our doors.”
Home builders, construction people, executives — people came from all types of backgrounds to learn how to go into business themselves, he said.
Today it is different, Lunsford said. The state has done a better job of diversifying the economy.
The Tulsa metro moved into aviation, telecommunications and real estate — all of which tanked over the next 15 years.
“We have gone through several recessions since then. The price of oil has been down, but basically the economy has clicked on,” Lunsford said. “I do not see a lot of doom and gloom in Oklahoma in general or Tulsa in particular.”
The state is surviving thanks to banks’ maintaining a conservative approach to credit lending practices, he said.
“They have been well managed. There will be some blow back but that will be from companies that have a larger, regional reach.” Lunsford said. “I think a lot of this downturn now is self-induced. If everyone says ‘tomorrow is going to be a bad day,’ then people stop spending and it becomes a self-fulling prophecy.”
Despite some hiccups, the Tulsa market has improved, thanks to leaders encouraging growth.
“They have not put all their eggs in a single basket,” Lunsford said.
The focus of the staff at Tulsa Technology’s Business Assistance Center is not to judge business ideas, but to make potential entrepreneurs aware of the process.
The business professionals there have previously owned and operated their own businesses. Besides Lunsford, instructors Greg Conder and Bruce Bishline lead three to four nine-week classes a year. Bishline and Conder are business management consultants.
They offer resources that small- to medium-sized businesses need to launch successfully and make it through the first three years.
The staff never judges the ideas, said Bruce Bishline, one of the instructors and a business management consultant. One of the unusual ideas was pet jewelry. Other different ideas were crime scene clean up kits and a see-through guard rail.
“The guy had a business on the side of the road, but no one could see his storefront because the guard rail was at eye level, blocking the line of sight for drivers,” Bishline said.
It is an awareness program as much as anything, Bishline said.
The “light bulb” moment for most who enroll comes on the first night, Conder said.
“We get right into it. By the time we get to the financials, they are aware of what this is going to cost,” Bishline said. “The income statement tells you whether a business is profitable. Balance sheets tell you if it is managed well.”
“And, the cash flow statement tells you if you have to file bankruptcy,” Conder interjected.
The people walking in the door at the BAS do not have access to huge amounts of capital.
“Our clients do not have investors to answer to — just themselves,” Conder said.
Jobs and businesses created by people going through the BAC have added value to the economy.
“It is impressive how we have kicked in X-billions a year in Oklahoma,” he said. “If we generate tax revenue that is equal to, or greater than the cost (of the program), then basically we have a done a pretty good job.”
Figures show the BAC puts people to work and adds to the tax base.
The center has created 55 jobs this year and added $155,000 tax revenue.
Over the past 22 years the BAC has tightened the curriculum, cutting three weeks off the original 12-week course. Educators performed some outside-the-box thinking to make other improvements.
“We were the odd duck trying to figure out what we were doing and looking at how to measure results so we would know if we have any impact,” Lunsford said. “We asked (OSU economist) Mark Snead to help when Keating pulled our pants down.”
That reference is to the time then-Gov. Frank Keating, in the 1990s, criticized the Technology Center for the amount of money spent for classes and materials.
“It became my task to gauge if we were doing any good, if we had any impact,” Lunsford said, recalling those months. “You can buy a Lexus or a Yugo — it is not what you spent, but what did you get for the money that is what’s important.”
After a five-year study, Tulsa Technology Center and Tulsa Community College executives learned that direct tax revenue generated 167 percent of the program cost. Over the five-year study, total costs were $874,674. Yet, employee compensation over the same period was $10 million. Tax revenues for the county were 103 percent of the program costs. For every $1 spent on the program, the return was $24 in tax revenue for the county.
Amazingly, if 100 go through the course, 30 will actually go out and start a business. The other 70 will decide either it is not worth it, their ideas were not sound or people realize they were not cut out to be a businessman or businesswoman, Lunsford said.
“You have to realize, too, that when they first started, they all really wanted to do this,” he said.
The BAC meets its objective. Surveys show that three years later, 90 percent of those who went into business were still in business, Lunsford said.
The overwhelming majority of people, 68 percent, want to enter service. Three other categories are 26 percent retail, 3 percent construction and 3 percent manufacturing.
Even after 10 years, when the state economy was humming along, there was a demand for the BAC.
“Actually, in the ‘90s, the economy was going great, and I sat here with my fingers crossed,” Lunsford said. The thought at the time was that if the economy was going well, it would be a real down time for training.
“But then the small business management classes picked up. So, it was like the yin and yang.”
This decade, one of the most successful classes the center had was about five years ago when Citgo Petroleum Corp. announced its move to Houston.
About 500 jobs were impacted with the decision. The Business Assistance Center met with the out-placement executives and Citgo paid for attendance. The result was that 80 percent of the people who attended went out and started a business, said Conder.
The common denominators were motivation, knowledge and cash, Conder said.
“These folks were used to getting up in the morning and going to work. They almost all had a college education, and the third leg of the stool was that they had severance packages. So, they all had cash behind them,” he said.
Currently, the myth circulating on the street is that Web-based business is a cheap and quick way to make money. Part of the blame lays with the 3 a.m. infomercials on cable television. The truth is, potential entrepreneurs have to treat the Internet like a brick and mortar operation, Bishline said.
“If you have business you want to put on the Internet, you have to approach it like it is a storefront,” he said. “It takes just as much planning. You have to understand marketing, advertising and the back-end stuff. It can be enjoyable, but you have to know what you can and cannot do with it.”
Conder agreed.
“You still need to know how to price things. How to handle the accounting and all the financial aspects,” he said.
It is a matter of understanding the direction the entrepreneur is going. How to determine the niche in the marketplace… who is under served and if that matches the entrepreneurs’ technical abilities,” Conder said. Otherwise, everyone approaches the Web differently.
Bishline tells the story of two Amoco layoff victims who went through the course and both pursued an Internet-based business. One worked out of his garage and deliberately kept the operation a one-man show — independent lab testing.
“He wanted to be there when his kids came home from school,” Bishline said.
The second had a similar testing process but he took it to the oil industry, performing soil samples and looking for hydrocarbons. He built it into a large million-dollar company and sold it for “upper seven figures,” Bishline said.
What the program offers is a vision.
“We give them the tools,” Bishline said.
“The genesis of the Business Assistance Center was tied to training people,” Lunsford said. “The focus was job creation and job retention.”
The BAS has kept that narrow focus for more than 20 years.
“We stayed away from being all things to people,” Lunsford said. “We’ve been successful because we do not get distracted.”

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