Late last week at the Knight Theater, about 200 people met to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of owning a franchise.
They got advice from a panel of executives and franchise owners representing popular brands such as KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Subway and Chevrolet. They asked questions, snacked on hors d oeuvres and exchanged lots of business cards.
The occasion was the 3rd Annual Gray Classic Business Roundtable, an event that pulls together some of the city’s most prominent African American professionals and business owners for a two-hour learning session.
Not familiar with the Gray Classic?
It was started five years ago as a casual golf outing among friends. It has since morphed into a four-day event that includes two rounds of golf, parties, networking, a women’s empowerment brunch and, of course, the business roundtable. This year, as many as 2,500 people were expected to attend one or more of the events associated with the Gray Classic, which benefits 100 Black Men of Charlotte and its male mentoring program (Disclosure: I own Qcitymetro.com, which supports the Gray Classic philanthropically).
The roundtable is the kind of pro-business event that came to mind in March when I wrote a column here suggesting that the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association had missed an opportunity to nurture the black business community in Charlotte during the eight-year run of its popular CIAA basketball tournament.
Herb Gray, who, along with his wife, Felicia, founded the Gray Classic, wasn’t about to make that mistake. As the Gray Classic has grown and attracted a host of corporate sponsors, the Grays have steadily improved the business-networking component. (Wells Fargo has sponsored the roundtable for each of the last three years.)
Gray, president and CEO of Life Enhancement Services, which provides mental health services for individuals and families, said he wants to demystify the notion of business success, especially in the black community.
“In Charlotte, I’ve heard so many people who come to talk to me say, Herb, I want to do this, I want to do that, but I don’t know how to finance it, or I don’t know how to do the legal part of it,” he said.
“I want people to understand that it’s no mystery how you can make it,” he added. “The opportunities are out there. You just have to know who to talk to and who to connect with.”
Gray graduated from North Carolina A&T with a political science degree. He got his start in business owning a commercial cleaning franchise. It was there, he said, that he learned the basics of business management.
When he decided to launch his current company, he said, he needed to raise about $40,000, so he went to six friends who each loaned him as much as each could, and he worked out a repayment schedule with each.
Gray said he tells that story because he doesn’t want others to think that they must necessarily get a bank loan to pursue their business dreams.
Gray said business success often boils down to a combination of factors: “It’s not super intelligence, but it’s a good grasp of common sense,” he said. “It’s not the wealthiest guy with the money behind him, but how you manage what you have.”
Gray also emphasized the importance of networking and knowing one’s target audience.
At the roundtable, some of the young beneficiaries of that program served as greeters and ushers.
Gray said he believes it’s important for young black males to see their mentors as professionals and business people. At the roundtable, James Waters, who owns a Concord company that holds the franchise to five Subway stores, received applause when he announced that he had recently bought a fifth Subway franchise as a 21st birthday gift for his son.
In addition to the Gray Classic, the Grays also host a series of monthly happy hours that are two parts social and one part networking.
“What I’m trying to do is break that barrier down,” Gray said. “I want a group of people who are interested in achieving some goals and achieving some success to know that it’s alright for us to have social events, but we also want to conduct business in a more serious format.”
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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