Economic Development Inside Technology Village Cullman with newly-named Director, John Wessel | CullmanSense

Economic Development

Inside Technology Village Cullman with newly-named Director, John Wessel

Director John Wessel in the Technology Village Cullman office (W.C. Mann for The Tribune)

CULLMAN - On Monday evening, the Cullman City Council took a major step toward the full operation of Technology Village Cullman (TVC), approving the hiring of John Wessel as director.  On Tuesday, The Tribune sat down with Wessel to talk about his new job.

But first: What is a technology village?

TVC is a joint venture between the City of Cullman, Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce and Wallace State Community College, in partnership with the University of Alabama (UA).  A UA press release issued at the beginning of its technology village program included the following description:

The Technology Villages program assists communities in constructing and operating storefront technology-focused incubators by fostering entrepreneurial culture, developing a resource ecosystem and linking University of Alabama resources with emerging tech companies across the state.

The program will soon launch centers in Cullman and Fairhope, where business leaders and city government officials are supporting the program through annual funding and business space. Both community centers are fully funded for the first year, and training will occur over the next six months.

“I’m excited about the University’s strategic partnerships with Cullman and Fairhope,” said UA President Stuart R. Bell. “One of our primary goals as Alabama’s flagship is to increase activities that drive economic development for our state. As we reach out to emerging tech businesses in these areas, we look forward to helping small businesses thrive and bolster their local economies.”

The program is unique in its structure, operating less as a traditional incubator and more as a start-up resource hub where entrepreneurs receive real-time distance learning with hands-on consulting support.

Additionally, The University of Alabama will provide research, preliminary patent searching, contract manufacturing strategy and a host of other business-related development services in its multi-state network of collaborative programs. UA undergraduate and graduate students from the Office for Technology Transfer will participate in coordinating services, which are funded by participating communities.

“Small and rural communities can’t spend a lot of money, so this is a unique bend on economic development that will help roll in services and do it at a much lower cost,” said Dr. Rick Swatloski, director of UA’s Office for Technology Transfer. “I’m convinced every community has entrepreneurs, and the communities that can leverage and support them will move forward and grow their tax-base.”

The city of Cullman has renovated a 2,200 square-feet building for its Village in its downtown business district. In Fairhope, BBVA Compass has pledged space for “Hatch,” its Technology Village, in its downtown location.

“The program will help Cullman retain young professionals by diversifying jobs and sparking growth in the burgeoning tech fields,” said Peggy Smith, strategic plan coordinator for the Chamber. “It is exciting to be one of the first communities selected by The University of Alabama for the program. I am excited about the opportunity this partnership affords our citizens to showcase their great business ideas.”

The Technology Villages program is based on a five-year pilot conducted in five South Carolina cities by Clemson University under its Institute of Community and Economic Development. Programs in Bluffton and Rock Hill created more than a dozen companies in the first 18 months and close to 70 new jobs with an estimated payroll of $2.8 million.

“Most successful entrepreneurial development centers have a four-year university cemented in the community to help support their entrepreneurial centers,” Lawson said. “Having The University of Alabama as our partner gives us the resources, brainpower and support we have been looking for a successful entrepreneurial development center make-up to grow these types of companies in our community.”

In a separate release announcing the hiring of Wessel, the Cullman Economic Development Agency (CEDA) added specifics about the local entity:

TVC is a partnership between the City of Cullman, Wallace State Community College and Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce.  The University of Alabama is also a partner, providing training, research and business coaching assistance. A seven-member Board of Directors, made up of representatives from the partner organizations and community business leaders, has been established and given the task of overseeing the TVC.

Members of the Technology Village Board of Directors include: Jamie Troutman, Chairman, Cullman Economic Development Agency; Leah Bolin, Vice Chairman, Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce; Brian Dove, Cullman-Jefferson Gas; Dr. Vicki Karolewics, Wallace State Community College; Todd Self, HH Technologies; Zac Smith, AGCOR Steel; and, Jeremy Wootten, HomTex Incorporated.

“It is an honor to work with such an outstanding group of community leaders,” Troutman said.  “Without the partnership between the City of Cullman, Wallace State Community College, the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce and UA, TVC would not be possible.”

Technology Village Cullman will be a center for entrepreneurial small business startup.  The program is still under development, but initial plans indicate that participants will be selected through a competitive process.  These participants will use TVC to help get their business venture off the ground. They will receive assistance in: Business coaching, mentoring, networking, product pricing, creating a business plan, identifying and securing funding, identifying and contacting customers, etc…  Once these businesses are ready, they will leave the program, and another one will take its place.

In that same release, Mayor Woody Jacobs was quoted as saying, “I believe Cullman is going to set the standard for entrepreneurial incubators in the State of Alabama.  We have been successful in economic development in recruiting new industry and expanding existing industry. TVC is just adding another piece to that puzzle. I know our community will get behind this project and help make it a success.”

For more, see www.cullmantribune.com/articles/2017/10/11/cullman-chosen-university-ala....

Introducing Technology Village Cullman’s director

In a press release Monday, the Cullman Economic Development Agency (CEDA) introduced its new TVC director:

Wessel will oversee daily operations of Technology Village Cullman (TVC), and its Foundation which has been established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity.

Since 2015, Wessel has served as CEO of Piedmont Ray Associates, LLC.  Piedmont Ray is a full-service management consulting and executive coaching firm located in Huntsville, Alabama.  Prior to founding Piedmont Ray, Wessel worked for Wesfam Restaurants, Inc. in Huntsville, Alabama for almost 25 years.  During his tenure with Wesfam, the organization nearly doubled in size and revenue. Wessel managed key departments such as administration, marketing, operations and human resources during these years of unprecedented growth.

Wessel has BS and MBA degrees in marketing from The University of Alabama.  He completed the Executive Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, is accredited in public relations through the Universal Accreditation Board, certified by the Galliard Family Business Advisor Institute and serves on Auburn University’s Entrepreneurship Council.  He has published numerous articles related to franchising and family business and spoken to university classes and civic groups on a variety of business related topics.

At the city council meeting Monday evening, CEDA Director Dale Greer said, “We had 50 applicants.  A consultant who helped us said it’s the best slate of applicants he has ever seen. He was involved in hiring five different directors in South Carolina towns and has been in several others across the country.  And he said our two finalists were in his top 10 all-time, and John won.”

In the CEDA press release, TVC Board of Directors Chairman Jamie Troutman was quoted as saying, “I look forward to working with John and think he is the perfect mix of what we were looking for in a director.  He is extremely knowledgeable, educated, has experience in the business and entrepreneurial world, and has an enthusiastic down-to-earth personality. We have been impressed by his ideas for the center and the passion he has demonstrated for leading this endeavor.”

Q&A with John Wessel

The Tribune caught up with Wessel near the end of a very busy first day and visited the work-in-progress TVC office adjacent to the Clark Street side of CEDA’s Warehouse District headquarters.

How’s your first day on the job?

“First day on the job is going very, very well.  I got to go to the Opportunity Zone meeting today and see a lot of familiar faces, a lot of people I met with during the job search process and met with some people to talk about the website, looked at some furniture next door.  Been a great first day!”

Do you have a ballpark idea about when TVC will receive its first clients?

“I don’t have a ballpark figure. I’ve already had some initial inquiries which I’ve been very excited about--you can almost call them pre-incubators and virtual clients--that want to talk.  So I’m setting up meetings with those folks. A lot of it will be driven by the arrival of the equipment and some of the furniture and things like that, which should be in within the next few weeks.”

How does someone get into the program?

“These things are still in the process of being formalized . . . at some point in time there’ll be an application on the website that they can complete.  We’ll come up with some formal process at some point in time, but at this point it’s just been word of mouth, and people that are just inquiring. There’ll be a variety of services available, and in some cases, you may not need a formal application to benefit from some of those services.”

Wessel is still in the process of getting his phone, email and office set up.  In the meantime, interested persons may call CEDA at 256-739-1891, or contact Troutman at jamiet@cullmaneda.org.

Any tips and pointers for those interested in applying for this competitive program?

“A good business plan would be a great place to start.  At some point in time, we’re going to encourage people to use the Business Model Canvas tool, which I think you can see online, or you can purchase books that show you how to do that.

“So, a good plan prepared through Business Model Canvas would be good and just good management skills: good business skills, or people that are willing to learn those skills if they don’t already have them.  I think those two things would give you a good edge: good skills and a good plan.”

Wessel added later that, in a competitive marketplace, standing out from the crowd is important, and he encouraged potential TVC clients to come up with a good way to differentiate their product/service from those offered by others.

TVC has not established a specific number of clients it will serve at any one time.

What is your goal for TVC?

“The goal would be to create an ecosystem: an entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is something that you hear a lot about.  And it’s very important in this day and age, because people in Cullman that have ideas or people that come to Cullman with ideas, you’d like them to be able to stay here.  You’d like them to become members of the community, to hire in the community, support the tax base in the community, and be a good civic partner and not leave to go to a larger city where they feel like they have to go to get employees, or they have to go to get patent attorneys, or they have to go to get funding or any of the things they need to grow their companies.  We’d like them to be in a position to stay here.”

You were successful in Huntsville, so why come to Cullman?

“Our business was based in Huntsville, but we operated all over north Alabama: 13 or 14 communities when all was said and done, and certainly Cullman was one of those communities.  I’m very familiar with Cullman, very familiar with the business environment here.

“I’ve had a passion for entrepreneurship and coaching and mentoring people throughout the years, whether that was inside our own organization or people I came in contact with outside the organization.  And so, I hoped that, in my next career, I would have an opportunity to continue to help people doing those things and also do something to give back to the business communities in north Alabama that were so good to me and my family over the years, and this is certainly one of them.”

The final word

Wessel shared, “Cullman has the potential to really break loose with this village.  We have to thank the folks at Wallace and thank the folks at UA for partnering with us in this project, the chamber and the City.  You know, I think that the support of the board and the support of the city government really gives everyone an opportunity to really work together to help the new companies.

“And I think I’m the right person to help glue all the pieces together.  I think the key to success for the director and for TVC is going to be somebody that can help the entrepreneurs build their network, someone who is a good listener, someone who has good business experience, and somebody’s who’s kind of walked the walk that they’re walking now and can be a good resource for them as they move forward.”

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