Toan Nguyen’s C’ville Central gives small business owners a leg up

Steven Ally (right) has been doing home repair work including remodeling, additions, and painting for 13 years. He recently graduated from the Community Investment Collaborative, and said he was excited to tap into a new market through C’ville Central. Photo: Elli Williams Steven Ally (right) has been doing home repair work including remodeling, additions, and painting for 13 years. He recently graduated from the Community Investment Collaborative, and said he was excited to tap into a new market through C’ville Central. Photo: Elli Williams

The movement to buy local is growing beyond homemade jam and freshly picked tomatoes at the City Market. It could be the key to solving the city’s growing poverty problem. The goal of fledgling corporation C’ville Central, the latest brainchild of C’ville Coffee owner Toan Nguyen, is to connect local business owners with the area’s anchor institutions like UVA that regularly give contracts to larger out-of-town firms. The goal is simple: Connect people who need jobs with those who need their services, keep the money circulating within the local economy, and help overlooked entrepreneurs get on their feet.

A recent Darden study on the local contracting business estimated Charlottesville-Albemarle’s market to be over $1 billion, Nguyen said.

“And all that is not going to the local businesses at all, which is a crying shame,” Nguyen said. “How do you harness that and channel it to small micro-businesses?”

Nguyen, a UVA Architecture and Darden graduate, has had an itch for years to address Charlottesville’s economic problems of disparate growth and concentrated poverty, and C’ville Central is his most recent effort on the front. Two years after founding the Community Investment Collaborative (CIC), a nonprofit that offers education, mentoring, and loans for low-income entrepreneurs, he decided to take it a step further. After the release of the Orange Dot Report, a 2011 study that showed 20 percent of Charlottesville families make enough to be considered above the poverty level but not self-sufficient, Nguyen spearheaded Green Dot, a collaborative nonprofit aimed at steering jobs to the low-income community. But he said he ultimately realized a benefit corporation, which he describes as a “non-profit and for-profit hybrid,” would be a more efficient model.

He launched C’ville Central in April 2013. The business serves as a liaison between customers in the area who need jobs done, and small local businesses that don’t yet have the resources to market themselves or bid on multiple contracts. It’s a central resource that handles the day-to-day ins and outs of running a business that are tough for one-person operations to juggle. In return for a 10 percent commission on each contract, C’ville Central offers small business owners—particularly women and minorities—access to widespread marketing and new clients.

Homeowners and institutions of all sizes will go through the umbrella corporation, which will be responsible for invoicing, customer service, and project oversight. Eventually, Nguyen hopes the area’s largest institutions like the University of Virginia, Martha Jefferson, and Piedmont Virginia Community College will start contracting jobs through C’ville Central rather than outsourcing to larger companies.

“If you’re a small business, a one or two person shop, you’re not going to be bidding on UVA. You’re too small,” Nguyen said.

Terry Lee Jones, a CIC graduate and one of C’ville Central’s original service providers, started painting houses at age 10, when he helped his parents cover his childhood home with a fresh coat. He started a part-time painting business after graduating high school, and said he can’t imagine doing anything else, but started struggling financially in 2005. With the realization that running a successful business required more than precision and a love for the craft, Jones signed up for CIC last year and joined C’ville Central after graduating.

Jones said he came away from CIC with a new understanding of bookkeeping and other business skills, and was eager to get on board with C’ville Central to improve his service and revenue flow.

“If you ain’t really got your ducks in a row, it’s hard to survive out there,” he said.

And it’s paying off already. Last year, Jones brought in about $17,000 in revenue with his painting business. During his first month contracting through C’ville Central, he’s earned $8,000.

Local resident and homeowner John Whitlow used to hire landscapers or repair workers based on Internet reviews, and after using C’ville Central’s services twice already, described it as a “win-win situation.”

In addition to creating economic opportunity for those who may have fallen through the cracks, he said, the corporation gave him the quality assurance he wanted. Nguyen performs thorough background checks on each of his contractors and examines the worksites before and after each project.

“The advantage of it is there’s always a point person,” Whitlow said. “So if I do have any concerns, I can contact them immediately.”

C’ville Central’s entrepreneurs have already brought in more than $10,000 in the month it’s been up and running. In two years Nguyen expects to have enough business to need a full-time staff that will function as backup workers when contractors are unavailable, and by 2017 he hopes to move the corporation into the IX building, the former industrial warehouse on Second Street Southwest.

In the meantime, he said he’s always looking for new service providers and customers, and he wants to see the community embrace the idea of local contractors. Charlottesville is full of people who want to contribute, he said, who are inclined to reach out to those who are willing to help themselves.

“There are a lot of rich people in this town who want to help,” Nguyen said. “And they’d rather provide work than give charity.”