Wednesday, February 10, 2016 || By Michael Romain
Last week, I sat down with Bridgette Chatman Lewis, pictured, a business strategist who was raised in Maywood and now owns a consulting firm, Chatman Lewis Consulting, which has offices in Oak Brook and Washington, D.C.
Lewis is looking to bring in a manufacturer and a grocer to town, among other developments. It’s all part of her plan to “adopt Maywood,” one among many communities throughout the country that are underserved, yet full of economic development potential.
Lewis talked in depth about her plan to “adopt Maywood” and to start pitching the town to prospective developers — much in the way that she said her firm has adopted various communities in emerging markets around the world.
Where did you get the idea to “adopt” Maywood?
My firm had focused on disenfranchised communities in emerging markets and were partnering them with multinational companies here to show that manufacturing can be done on a reasonable scale and profit can be had. So we started working on this initiative several years ago and developed a business model that proved that this could be done.
I looked around and said not only can we go to emerging markets and do this, but we can do it here in underserved areas. I embarked on Maywood first because one) the population, two) I know it very well and three) I know it can succeed her, because the village had a great manufacturing base in the 1960s and 1970s.
That said, I reached out to the mayor, who is very progressive in her thoughts in embracing what’s going on and wanting better for the village. We ran into some obstacles, but the plan is still moving forward. We went into our think tank of about 10 very bright minds and we thought about how to move the initiative forward in regards to improving the economic base here and circumventing crime.
The end goal is to create a bustling local economy, create jobs, decrease crime, improve the aesthetic landscape and increase per capita incomes. That can be done through supermarkets, restaurants, other businesses and manufacturing.
It’s all about making a difference and giving back. This is why it works. You get maximum impact, social growth, financial resources are improved and it’s sustainable. You can’t have one without the other. I think that’s the great disconnect that underserved communities face. You have to connect all those pieces in order for something like this to work. In addition, when your motives are based on integrity, transparency and accountability, it works.
We’re going to be working collaboratively across the country. We’ve joined many associations and are partnering people daily in order to get this done, but we’re looking at making these disenfranchised communities, whether it be Ferguson, Danville, Baltimore, Gary, IN, Detroit, we’re looking at going in and making this work.
How do you plan on cutting through the red tape and the political reality in many of these places?
We have chosen to disengage from the politics. I believe it’s important to go the proper route of protocol and try to work together. If you can’t work together, you can still get the job done. You don’t have to be tied up in the bureaucracy or the day to day politics. We just don’t believe in that. We do believe in aligning strategy. We’re smart enough we need to partner and to research public policy and reform before you can seek a partner.
Have you sought to partner with local community organizations, small business and other stakeholders?
Yes, they’ve already reached out to me. Several have reached out to me in the last week. I welcome the opportunity, but it has to be a right fit. We’re focused on quality, excellence and sustainability.
How do you pitch Maywood to prospective developers?
We let them know about the community adoption program, how it works, what the business model is, what the goal is and we walk them through the mission, the vision, the value proposition and why it works.
We also let them know about the different events we’re doing. One event is the Global Initiative Network Event (GINE), which is not just a business card exchange. There are people there you can make connections with right on the spot. They’re not there to give you a business card and say, ‘Well, call me next week.’ You can actually break out into another room and really discuss plans and strategies. To be able to make those types of connections is crucial.
The first GINE we hosted was in 2014 and we had three speakers who delivered such value. We had delegations from other countries there that were talking about their disenfranchisement and talking bout how partnerships help them.
A couple of the keynotes talked about crowdfunding and traditional bank financing. One keynote, Chris Baggott, is the co-founder of ExactTarget. He sold the company for $2.3 billion. He gave the keynote of his experience and how he travelled through his journey — from getting funding to getting the company sold. It was really inspiring and he stuck around the entire event.
When you make those type of connections and put it out there — they’re valuable. This year’s event has a capacity of 500 people and will be held in the Chicagoland area.
There was a recent Crain’s report that mapped all of the Dominick’s stores sitting vacant in suburbs that are in much better financial condition than Maywood. Even those places are struggling to attract development. How do you get Maywood to all of a sudden be this hub of development when even those places are having a hard time?
The places aren’t having a hard time in our trade area. That’s what makes Maywood unique.
So you’re pitching Maywood as part of a much larger trade area?
Exactly. If you don’t know what you have, you won’t get that destination shopper. You can’t take a look at it and say, ‘Oh, there’s Maywood and then there’s Englewood.’ There’s no comparison. The trade area is completely different. There’s no comparing Maywood with, say, the West Side of Chicago. It’s not in the same trade area.
So you have to focus in on consumerism, the trade area and what’s going to work. That’s where we do our research to understand that dynamic and put the puzzle together.
There was a grocery store, called Maywood Market, that was here several years ago, but only stayed in business for about a year. Insofar as you know about it, what do you think went wrong with that development? How will the prospective development you’re seeking be different?
I think the model for [Maywood Market] was all wrong. And I don’t say that to run anybody under the bus and I won’t mention names, because I don’t know all the names, but I do know that I shopped there and I know where the disconnects were.
When you don’t understand the consumer that’s walking in your door or the consumer that’s in your area, let alone your trade area, you will miss on making that connection with your customer.
So what are some specific examples of that disconnect?
The owner didn’t understand the dynamic or statistics. They didn’t understand the money that’s in the town. So, if there are 2,000 homes that make between $50,000 and $200,000 in income, it’s projected that 12 percent of that goes to food. That’s a lot of money.
You have to understand what they like. Where do they buy? Where do they go? What makes them feel good about making a purchase? You have to be able to understand all of that in order to get their business.
You’ve got a whole base of a total aggregate income of $404 million. If you do 12 percent of that, that’s millions of dollars that’s being missed. So let’s break that down.
Who is in Maywood and what do they buy? People in Maywood don’t like shopping at Payless … They want Air Jordan shoes. They want to go to a good eating establishment. They want good, quality food.
People look at Maywood as an impoverished, dire community and there’s just no hope. Well, the income alone tells you that residents are spending money somewhere.
So, you don’t think a Starbucks in Maywood seems out of place?
Not just a Starbucks; if many businesses can just be made to understand what’s here in Maywood and can mitigate the risks through a proper mitigation strategy, then you’re talking their language and I think that that’s what’s been missing. Nobody understands that language here. They just want the businesses to come. No corporation is going to come, unless they’re going to profit.
Can you share a bit of your personal and professional background?
I went to Proviso East in Maywood, where I had a great upbringing. I then went to college and eventually earned my MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
My greatest ride was working for companies like Xerox. Back in those days, they put a projected $20,000 a year in training each sales and marketing rep, so you really understood how to run a business. They gave you a territory, told you it was your business and they taught you how to run that business and market it. They also taught you how to represent the company and not yourself. And they trained you to the extent that it came second nature.
What kind of possibility do you envision for Maywood, particularly with respect to reinvigorating the infrastructure here in town?
Back in the 1970s, White Flight happened. As more people of color moved in, the white population would move out. Companies weren’t immune to that. They began to move as well. So, when you see the big whole there on 9th Ave. and St. Charles, I believe that was American Can Company. Over by Winfield Scott Park, Canada Dry was over there.
Right on Madison, where the currency exchange is on 17th Ave. and going back to 19th Ave. Burroughs Corporation was there. My dad worked at Burroughs. He was a paper cutter and he made a decent salary and then the company moved out. When those companies moved out, they took numerous jobs and devastated the community, so the economic base was no longer there.
So, your team is identifying some of those old manufacturing facilities to pitch to prospective developers?
Sure. There are absolutely some jewels in this town. There’s proper ingress, egress and regress. A lot of towns can’t say that. A lot of surrounding communities, the trucking and rail routes aren’t there, the route to get to the international airport isn’t there. This town is so beautifully situated that it takes minutes to get to one point or the other. That’s why it’s perfect for this type of economic growth initiative. It can work.
It’s just been in this state for so long that people take it for granted. They say, ‘Oh, it’s so crime-ridden or there’s nothing there.’ If you actually ride around the town, you see many, many beautiful homes. By and large, most of the homes are kept up. There are some eyesores and some homes that went by the wayside, but that happened everywhere after the housing collapse. That happened in the wealthiest suburbs.
To clean that dynamic up, it takes multiple business strategies going at the same time. You have to implement them at the same time — so with the homes, you have to start a strategy and implement that; for job creation, you have to get that going. You’ve got to have a mix of things going at the same time in order for economic progression to move forward. VFP
Chatman Lewis will be hosting a business forum on Feb. 29, from 3 PM to 7 PM, at Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St, Oak Park. U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp will be a featured guest. A guest reception will take place before and after Zopp’s remarks. This event is open to the public, but guests are asked to RSVP in advance by sending notification to firstname.lastname@example.org.