While he’s still young and could have other life-changing conversations, David Belitz remembers such a discussion that occurred three years ago with the late Jack Lupton, the well-known Chattanooga business executive and philanthropist.
At the time, Belitz had been with The Lupton Company, LLC almost a decade, serving as Chief Financial Officer. Through this work, Belitz knew just how much of an impact his mentor and boss had on the dynamic growth in Chattanooga in the past several decades – much of which entailed economic development in Chattanooga’s urban core, a community building strategy that The Lupton Company has recently pushed to Ooltewah at the Cambridge Square mixed-use development.
Belitz recalls that he and Lupton were talking about future leaders in Chattanooga one day, and he asked his mentor, “Who is going to be next?” The answer that Lupton gave was a challenge that has driven Belitz since then. Lupton simply asked, “What are you going to do about it?”
Most would agree that Belitz and two of his friends that he engaged in the endeavors – Charlie Brock of FourBridges Capital Advisors, and Roddy Bailey of Miller & Martin, PLLC – have accepted the Lupton challenge to step-up and make a difference.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the executive, who is a Knoxville native and has strong ties to both cities, related the ways in which he and his partners have focused on continuing the Lupton legacy of community service and philanthropy.
Belitz said that the trio quickly decided on three strategies that would make a difference and have a lasting impact on Chattanooga.
The first was venture funding for start-ups. Fortunately, the State of Tennessee had just announced in mid-2009 a solicitation for proposals under the new TNInvestco program. The Chattanooga trio did not have the resources in Chattanooga to submit an application that had a reasonable chance of winning, so they decided to partner with other teams. David joined with XMi High Growth Development Fund, LLC, and Charlie joined the Tennessee Angel Fund.
“We hoped one would win, but both did,” Belitz said, although he admits that Chattanooga companies have not realized as much benefit from these affiliations as he and Charlie expected.
The second strategy was to “create a front door for entrepreneurs,” he said, adding that “this is the CO.LAB that evolved from Sheldon Grizzle’s ‘CreateHere’ initiative.”
Belitz said that Grizzle “was doing great things . . . so we got behind him.” ‘CreateHere’s’ initiative was intended to sunset, but with support from its founders, CO.LAB was able to continue its mission under the existing not-for-profit charter. In addition to his FourBridges work, Brock serves as the CO.LAB’s “Executive Entrepreneur” while Grizzle serves as “Air Traffic Controller.”
Consistent with its “front door” strategy, CO.LAB is the lead for the Chattanooga regional accelerator that is one of nine such organizations partially funded by a grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Its most noted activity is the “Gig Tank” summer-long initiative involving eight teams developing applications to take advantage of Chattanooga’s unique “gigabit to the home” capability.
“We will do other events . . . more than just the ‘Gig Tank,’” Belitz said.
His passion for the CO.LAB’s work was clearly evident when he proudly noted that 50 mentors have already been trained but quickly added, “There’s more to do, there always is. We’re never finished. It’s an entrepreneurial venture.”
The team’s third strategy has focused on the always-critical early stage or angel investment availability. The trio added three partners – Jack Studer (Lamp Post Group), Stephen Culp (Smart Furniture) and Miller Welborn (Welborn and Associates) – and founded Chattanooga Renaissance Fund (CRF).
“It’s a real investment fund,” Belitz said. “We have taught all the partners to be mentors as well as investors.”
The six partners perform the due diligence, prepare term sheets, and finalize the agreements.
He added that the geographic focus of the CRF includes not only Chattanooga but also Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville and Nashville. The one-year old fund has done all of its deals thus far in Chattanooga with the exception of two in Nashville.
“We are looking at two opportunities in Knoxville,” Belitz said.
Consistent with its commitment to Chattanooga, the CRF provided $6,000 to each of the eight teams that competed in the recently concluded “Gig Tank” activity.
Belitz talks about the unique bird’s eye seat from which he has been able to observe how servant leaders can make a difference in a city’s economic growth. As a result, he has some distinct thoughts.
On the local basis, he says, “I hope we can make a dent (and) create a platform where the next wave of new companies comes from.”
On a regional basis, Belitz says, “We need to create an economic region from ETSU through Knoxville to Chattanooga.”
In terms of how to organize for success, he believes two organizations are needed – a not-for-profit to focus on “education and connections” and a for profit to handle “investments.”
His mentor and that meaningful conversation have clearly made a difference.