ANDERSON — The chair at the desk in Terry Truitt’s small office at the Flagship Enterprise Center remains unoccupied most of the time — even when he’s there.
When he welcomes a visitor, Truitt prefers to remove the formalities, often choosing to step out from behind his desk and sit directly next to the person while carrying on a conversation.
“He doesn’t like to sit over there,” said Adam Hoeksema, gesturing toward Truitt’s empty chair. “He wants to be on the same level (with you). He’s definitely personal in his approach. He’s definitely a servant leader.”
Hoeksema, the executive director of Bankable, the Flagship’s loan program, says Truitt’s ability to make people feel at ease in any situation has built confidence among the members of his staff who are responsible for building relationships with entrepreneurs in Madison County and elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of people in the community who have lots of different ideas on what we could be doing, what we should be doing,” Hoeksema said. “He does a good job of really asking the right questions, taking those things into consideration and trying to distill it all into strategy and plans for us. He’s a likable, personable guy.”
Since becoming the Flagship’s CEO on a permanent basis in early June, Truitt has immersed himself in one-on-one meetings with staff members, clients and other partners. He’s made the rounds at a variety of community business gatherings, Rotary Club luncheons and other functions, in part to introduce himself, and in part to tout the Flagship’s identity as a technological business incubator with a mission of creating jobs and providing mentoring, networking opportunities and capital to small business owners locally and across Indiana.
“He is in the perfect position for his skill set in order to build bridges into the community,” said Greg Winkler, executive director of the Anderson Economic Development Department. “But he’s also able to help people dream, to help people hope, to help people be able to take those dreams and that hope and put it into a business plan, and then from that business plan, go about the process of putting together the pieces that they need to take an idea, a dream, to the next stage so that it becomes a business and, over time, becomes a profitable business.”
THE IDEAL CANDIDATE
The Flagship Enterprise Center, conceived as a way to help Anderson rebuild its business sector in the wake of General Motors’ departure in the 1990s, began as a partnership between Anderson University and the city of Anderson. In the course of its five-month search to replace CEO Chuck Staley, who retired late last year, the center’s board of directors sought a leader who would both cement that partnership and return the Flagship to its roots as a business incubator.
“Our goals were to strengthen that partnership between the Flagship, the city and Anderson University,” said Tim Lanane, a member of the board who served on the search committee to replace Staley. “We also had the idea that we do want to make sure that our emphasis is on job creation and promoting new businesses within the community.”
Board members received dozens of applications from nearly every part of the country, Lanane said. But the ideal candidate was among them. As the dean at AU’s Falls School of Business, and as a founding member of the Flagship’s board of directors, Truitt possessed in-depth knowledge of the relationship between the university and the Flagship — and its importance to the city’s economic well-being.
“The Flagship was created by the city of Anderson and AU as a not-for-profit business incubator, a joint enterprise,” said AU President John Pistole. “Given his prior experience and position at AU, Terry was uniquely qualified to serve as CEO of the Flagship Enterprise Center.”
When the idea of taking over for Staley was first mentioned to him, Truitt brushed the suggestion off. However, it didn’t take long for him to reconsider the opportunity.
“It was not a desire of my heart at the time,” Truitt said. “For me, calling matters. Eventually, I began to have a sense of desire to serve the community and help folks do great things.”
Filling the shoes of Staley, who guided the Flagship for 15 years and oversaw its growth into one of the state’s top tech incubators, is considered by many to be a daunting task. But in his first two months on the job, Truitt has put many apprehensions to rest.
“I loved Chuck and what he’s built here and would never want to take anything away from that,” says Kyle Fawcett, the Flagship’s director of marketing. “I think that there was a lot of concern, as there always is with leadership transition, with how things could be impacted. But one of the things that has been so encouraging is that before Terry did anything and started chasing after new ideas, he just observed a lot and asked a lot of questions. He asked how he could support projects we were already working on and why we were doing certain projects … just offering whatever resources he could to make those things continue. So I think even (with) that approach at first, it was like, OK, this is going to be a good fit.”
SERVING FROM A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Having provided support to more than 150 companies — including several international ones — that have created more than 2,000 jobs, the Flagship will continue to be an important cog in the area’s economic engine. The Flagship and Bankable have averaged more than $5 million in loans over the last two years. The center has provided more than $24 million in loans during its existence, and Truitt says it currently averages between $300,000 and $600,000 in loans per month.
“Madison County is the highest per capita in terms of loans that we make out,” he said. “This is our base. This is where we are. So we’re trying to support economic growth in our home, where we are.”
Truitt said he doesn’t see his new title and responsibilities as a career change, but rather as “a continuation.” It’s the perfect role for him to pursue his dual passions of training students and seeing them become contributors to the area’s economic development.
“This job allows me still to serve the university and serve students, but to do so from a different perspective,” Truitt said.
Many of his peers believe Truitt’s easygoing demeanor, his soft-spoken personality and his skill at bringing contrasting viewpoints to a discussion will make him effective in his new role. But, they add, another quality will set him apart.
“You come to trust him very quickly,” Winkler said. “Based on that trust, then, he has the ability to bring people together and build new relationships. That’s critical, because you’re combining an academic organization with an organization that is public, but is also by nature political. So that trust aspect is absolutely critical, and Terry has the ability to do that.”
Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.