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Mind Your Own Business: Small business owners get a crash course in management from McCombs School faculty

The Community Minority Business Advancement (CMBA) program at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business is like the shortest line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Everything about it seems too good to be true.

Pat Flanary, CEO of Advantage Mortgage
Pat Flanary, CEO of Advantage Mortgage, has taken the CMBA course twice and credits the classes with helping her advance her business to a higher level.

For $250, small business owners in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin can take a seven-week, 45-hour, evening course that covers everything from business planning and financial management to marketing strategy and accounting. The classes are taught by the same award-winning faculty at the McCombs School who teach MBA students and are made possible by the funding of corporations such as HEB, Southwest Airlines, Guaranty Bank and Bank of America.

Testimonials from former CMBA students such as businesswoman Pat Flanary vividly illustrate the potential of the CMBA program to change students’ lives.

Flanary refers to herself as a “slow learner,” and the irony of that self-description is not lost on anyone who knows her. Six years ago, Flanary became CEO of Advantage Mortgage, a modest business that was operating in the red at the time and had seven employees. She did not have a business degree and had never taken a business course before.

When Flanary took the reins, Advantage Mortgage had been in existence for about 10 years and had experienced varying levels of profitability, but, according to Flanary, it had never done really well. At the end of Flanary’s first year on board she had turned the company around, and it was showing a profit, but she had much bigger hopes and dreams. Flanary realized that she could use some formal training in order to make those dreams come true.

“I came to Advantage Mortgage from a very large corporation, and in a large company you have an insurance department and a marketing department and an accounting department,” says Flanary. “I was coming to a little business that had a bookkeeper who doubled as receptionist. So much about it was different. I’ve taken the CMBA course not once but twice, and I’m thinking about taking it a third time. What I’ve learned in those classes has allowed me to move from one phase to another with my business.”

Dr. Jim Nolen
Dr. Jim Nolen is a faculty member in the Department of Finance and an instructor in the CMBA program.

Last year Flanary’s company had revenues of $4.6 million, and her staff has expanded to 51. From 1998-2002, the company’s volume grew from $59 million to as much as $183 million, its revenues increasing more than 500 percent in five years, and it now has four offices in Texas.

“One thing that the CMBA teachers emphasize over and over is to always have the end in sight and plan, plan, plan for the future,” says Flanary. “And, of course, to think big.”

To show her appreciation to Dr. Ernest Walker, director of the McCombs School’s Center for Small and Middle-Sized Enterprises, and the CMBA program, Flanary has donated money to the program and sponsored several small businesspersons, allowing them to take the course and enjoy an opportunity that proved invaluable to her.

“It’s a way to give back to Jim [Nolen] and Ernie [Walker] for all of the consulting, advice and time they’ve given to me,” says Flanary. “If I have a business-related question, even now, I call Ernie Walker and he meets me for breakfast and we talk out my problem. They’ve helped me immensely, and every time I have a chance I tell others about the CMBA program – it’s just that good.”

Like Flanary, most students come to the CMBA classes with a high degree of motivation and a burning desire to take their businesses to the next phase. Many simply lack formal training.

“Most all small business owners are fairly good at operations and marketing,” says Jim Nolen, senior lecturer in the Department of Finance and associate director of both the Center for Small and Middle-Sized Businesses and the CMBA program. “But they’re lacking financial decision-making knowledge. The CMBA classes get them well-rounded in all areas. What they learn here forces them to ask the tough questions to their accountants, for example. Or to see how deadly that fast growth can be for a small business.”

Linda Golden, David Shepherd, Jim Nolen and Ernest Walker
Linda Golden, David Shepherd, Jim Nolen and Ernest Walker teach the CMBA classes.

Linda Golden, Jim Nolen, David Shepherd and Ernest Walker, the instructors for the CMBA classes, each teach different modules that are devoted to particular business principles, such as marketing, finance and management. Even though many of the students come to the course with business acumen in one area, most have knowledge deficiencies that may be holding them back and keeping them from growing, or saving, their businesses.

“In some areas of the class, I found that I knew more than I had thought I would,” says Leslie Hill, an Austin attorney and CMBA student. “But not when it came to the financial stuff – I needed a great deal of help in that realm. I’ve just gone into private practice, and the CMBA classes are showing me where to go in the future if I need to draw up a new business plan and what sort of marketing strategy might work best for me. In this economy, small business owners need the kind of edge that these classes give you.”

To say that the CMBA program’s goal is to help small and middle-sized businesses overcome significant obstacles in today’s challenging marketplace is an accurate description of its mission. But the statement fails to reflect the extent to which the program is a labor of love for the faculty members, staff and partners who participate.

“I agreed to be the director for this program back in 1993 when it started because I strongly felt that we had a responsibility to help small businesses, particularly those owned by minorities,” says Walker, Gale Chair Professor Emeritus and a faculty member at The University of Texas since 1954. “We had done great work with executive development for large companies, and I wanted something like that for the smaller ones. Small business owners can’t pick up and travel to Austin for training or pay a big fee for a course, so we take the classes to them, and we only charge them $250 for a batch of classes that would normally run around $4,000. The faculty members who teach these classes also make less than those who teach executive education classes.”

Juan Meza, owner of the Juan in a Million restaurant
Juan Meza, owner of the Juan in a Million restaurant, is taking the CMBA course to learn how to expand his business to include property management.

Sensitive to the pride that business owners have in their enterprises, no matter how small or unprofitable, Walker decided not to approach specific small business owners in the participating cities. The CMBA program, instead, relies on recruiting partners to promote the course. Recruiters are typically local organizations, such as chambers of commerce, that have a close relationship with community businesses and the opportunity to spread the word about the CMBA program’s benefits.

Qualified candidates for the course are owners or managers of small or middle-sized businesses who have been in business for at least one year. Although the program accepts any businessperson who meets the requirements, CMBA was initially formed to assist community minority groups such as Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and women.

“Hispanic small business owners are the fastest-growing group of small business owners in the nation,” says Eliza May, president of the Greater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Austin and a student in the Austin CMBA course this spring. “And Hispanic women make up most of that group. In the CMBA course I’m taking right now, I’m seeing that our class is a microcosm of the national statistics. The majority of the Hispanics in the class are women.”

In the 10 years since the program was born, about 1,700 students have graduated from it. And every student represents a success story, a testimonial to the importance of educational opportunities for everyone.

Dr. Ernest Walker presents an Honorary Longhorn certificate to Brea Williams
Dr. Ernest Walker presents Honorary Longhorn certificates to the children of CMBA graduates.

“Before I started the course I was worried about the time commitment and that the professors might be difficult to understand,” says Juan Meza, owner of the Juan in a Million restaurant and a student in the Austin CMBA course. “As it turns out, every single thing about the course is geared directly to the small business owner, and the classes are so clearly valuable that you actually look forward to going each Monday and Wednesday evening. The professors give real world examples that make me understand how the business principles apply to me and my own business.”

True to Dr. Walker’s philosophy that the success of the students in the CMBA program is as important for their families as it is for their businesses, the graduation ceremony at the end of each CMBA course includes not only the graduates but also their families. In addition to presenting diplomas to the graduates, Walker also gives children of the graduates a certificate naming them “Honorary Longhorns.”

“We give the children a certificate that states that in order to accept the honor they have to study hard and stay off drugs and, when they get old enough, go to UT,” says Walker. “One little girl was smiling ear-to-ear when she took her certificate and yelled, ‘Hook ’em Horns—I’m going to UT!’ We’ve had several of the graduates’ children enroll at UT. I like to think that they remember how UT helped their parents.”

Kay Randall

Photos courtesy Kay Randall
and McCombs School of Business

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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