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Released March 21, 2005



Hattiesburg– More than 30 years ago, William Ward Wicht spearheaded the founding of The University of Southern Mississippi's award-winning All-American Rose Garden, an icon of the university's Hattiesburg campus that draws admiring visitors year-round.

Today, Wicht's grandson, William Ward Wicht III, hopes to do for small business in South Mississippi what his grandfather did for roses - help it grow and blossom.

The younger Wicht, a Hattiesburg native and a resident of Ocean Springs, opened his own franchise of Sunbelt Business Advisors two years ago, which has offices worldwide and now in Hattiesburg and Ocean Springs. Sunbelt offers services to those interested in selling their business or in owning their own company by providing them opportunities to take over an existing business. The company also values businesses and handles the complete sale transaction from start to finish

Wicht believes South Mississippi is one of the best places in the nation for small business development and the area provides a plethora of opportunities for him to do what he enjoys - help people achieve the goal of owning their own small business.

"It (small business) drives America," Wicht said. "A small business can grow faster than a big business, because it has fewer obstacles for development."

Wicht learned the values that make any business, small or large, a success from his late grandfather, who served as president of the Hattiesburg Rose Society when the rose garden at Southern Miss took shape. The elder Wicht was also a business owner, with a variety of interests that included beekeeping, a roofing company and an insulation company, known locally as Wicht Insulation.

More and more people are examining the possibilities of owning their own small business as a way to maximize their earning potential and as a shield against the effects of outsourcing and uncertain economic conditions that have harmed larger businesses, as well as the movement of many other industries overseas, he said.

"When the (national) economy falters, small business is what picks it up. It can be a shelter and haven (economically) and more and more people are taking advantage of the opportunity."

Dr. Harold Doty, dean of The University of Southern Mississippi College of Business said a firm like Sunbelt that provides opportunities for small business growth can help the state through lean economic times. "A real advantage for Mississippi with this type of service is that small business and entrepreneurial activity is a primary source of economic development and growth, and can help lead our state out of problems like our current state budget crisis," Doty said.

One of the keys to making South Mississippi fertile for small business is Southern Miss, where Wicht attended college. He also earned degrees in international business and engineering from Auburn University and Mississippi State University, respectively.

"(Southern Miss) is an economic engine not only for Hattiesburg but South Mississippi," Wicht said. "In addition to providing resources and expertise from its faculty and students in the College of Business, the university as a whole also adds to the quality of life in our region through its cultural and educational offerings, and helps make it a great place to live and work."

Owning a small business can also help a person achieve his or her earning potential as opposed to working for someone else. "When you work for someone else, often you hit an artificial (earning) ceiling or salary cap," Wicht said. "No matter how much harder you may work, you can't go further. Owning your own business allows you to have more control over those factors."

Founded in 1979, Sunbelt is the largest business brokerage in the United States. The company has approximately 360 offices and more than $1 billion in transaction values annually. Wicht's offices handle transactions of businesses with annual sales ranging from $100,000 to $50 million.

Sunbelt provides an information bank of potential acquisitions and education for new business owners, as well as assisting in finding financing for the purchase, among other services. "We work with a lot of first-time buyers and entrepreneurs who need assistance from professionals through the process," Wicht said.

The company also helps educate potential entrepreneurs about the myths about starting or purchasing a business, including what Wicht said is the false notion that the full asking price of the business has to be paid up front, or that the asking price is non-negotiable.

Wicht encourages buyers to learn the seller's motivation for putting their business up for sale and determine if it's a viable investment. "It's important to understand that--to test them up front about why they want to sell," he said. "Get into the (financial) books of the company. See if it can support you and your family."

For those who want to sell a business, Wicht encourages them to consider helping finance the purchase. "That tells the buyer that they believe in the success of their business."

Hattiesburg businessman Chris Happ took advantage of Sunbelt's services when he sold one of his restaurants, Cane Creek, so he could devote more time to his family and his other restaurant, Chesterfield's, a longtime favorite among area residents.

"I wanted to spend more time with my kids and devote more of my energy to Chesterfield's, plus I had begun building a new house," Happ said. "They (Sunbelt) do a really good job, and the whole process went rather quick."

Happ said Wicht and his associates were professional and handled a majority of the details of the transaction, including providing information for potential buyers in a confidential manner to prevent any rumors that Cane Creek was closing. "It was more of a situation where they met with the people (who wanted to purchase Cane Creek) and they took care of everything. They just called me a couple of times with questions. I had listed it with someone else, but nothing came of that, and then I got a recommendation for them (Sunbelt) and that worked out real well. They were just real professional."

Jennifer Larson was ready to pursue new professional interests this past summer, but had mixed emotions about giving up the popular Gulf Coast restaurant that she and her business partner, Patty Jenkins, started 15 years ago.

Larson and Jenkins opened Toucan's Mostly Mexican Café on U.S. 49 in Gulfport in 1989, and over the years enjoyed a healthy business and a loyal clientele, including Pine Belt residents traveling home from visiting the Gulf Coast. And although they were ready to make a break from the restaurant business, a strong sense of attachment to the eatery made the decision difficult for fear it would close forever.

"We didn't want to see it go away," Larson said of Toucan's. "It was like our child. We wondered, 'What would we do?'"

A call from Sunbelt Business Advisors intermediary Ben Bulot inquiring if Larson would be interested in selling Toucan's provided an opportunity to turn the restaurant over to someone looking to own their own business and still keep the cafe open.

The reasons business owners sell vary from customer to customer, Wicht said. "We help a lot of people who want to retire, and on occasion, we have people who want to sell because of illness, divorce, or who need to cash out the value of their company. Others may be seeking an investor to help them grow their business, or like in the case of Chris (Happ) may want to spend more time with their family and concentrate on one of their other business interests."

Often Wicht and his associates work with clients with an emotional attachment to the business that they began from the ground up. As Larson and Jenkins indicated, making the break can be difficult. However, finding a new owner can mean an improvement in the company if the buyer has more resources to grow the business, or in the case of Toucan's, keeps a well-known venue from closing.

"It's like sending your child off to college, when you've raised your business from nothing to something and then decide you want or need to sell it," Wicht said. "But sometimes it turns out better for the company to divest."

Larson said Sunbelt and its staff helped her and Jenkins match the restaurant with a suitable owner by screening potential prospects, allowing her to solicit a buyer confidentially without putting a 'for sale' sign out or advertising.

Openly advertising the restaurant could have disrupted its day-to-day operation and unnecessarily upset loyal customers, Larson and Wicht said.

"I was very happy with their service," Larson said. "They also sent information about it (Toucan's) to the local Gulf Coast Restaurant Association publication (without revealing the name) which kept people from calling the restaurant to 'tire kick' it or just to shop around."

The transaction allowed both Larson and Jenkins to determine the best fit, through Sunbelt's screening of qualified buyers, before disclosing a financial statement about the restaurant.

Kevin Moore, who purchased Toucan's, said the major advantage of using Sunbelt was that it gave him an opportunity to acquire a business that was already up and running, allowing an entrepreneur like himself to know what he was getting into rather than starting a business from scratch.

Moore said the transaction was a smooth one, and he felt that the commission he paid was well worth the cost. "They gathered the information I needed to make the purchase on a timely basis and were very professional," he said.

With any transaction between buyer and seller, Wicht's primary goal is customer satisfaction on both sides. "We like to see win-win situations."


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April 14, 2005 1:04 PM