He chuckles and notes in his slow bass voice that after 2½ years, his car pretty much knows the way and he can just put in on autopilot.
Besides, he said that if he and his family were to move to Grand Rapids, he no longer could continue his other calling: service as board vice president of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District.
Education is important to him, he said, both in his occupation and personal life. He notes that though he began his career in loan research with Lumberman’s Bank (now part of Huntington Bank) and though his work with the center technically is a form of banking, the center’s work actually falls more in the realm of education and training.
The center’s technical purpose, he said, is to help obtain financing for people who want to establish their own businesses.
But because financing — be it a Small Business Administration loan or some form of grant — requires approval by bankers or municipal officials bound to federal funding guidelines, the budding entrepreneur must be able to show the banker or bureaucrat in a solid, well-researched business plan, how he or she plans to succeed.
And that is something, Garner says, that most laymen wanting to start a business haven’t the first idea of how to undertake.
“They usually have pretty solid technical know-how about how to repair motors or to do customer service. But most of them don’t have business skills.
“They really don’t know how to wear all the other hats of being a business owner,” he said. “In fact, sometimes they don’t even realize there are other hats because they have no experience in business. They don’t know that they’re going to have to do research or marketing, bookkeeping or environmental issues, or quarterly reports.”
To many people thinking of going into business, learning the depth and breadth of what a business plan requires, he said, often is as welcome as an icy shower. He said the vast bulk of them decide these are things they’d rather not face.
Out of each hundred people calling or making an initial visit to KAMLS, he said, roughly 97 percent decide to stick with their day jobs.
“And that’s for the best,” he said.
“It’s better that they find out what they’re facing first than to plow their savings or somebody else’s into something and lose it all because they didn’t know what business would be like.”
He said that to some business wannabes, it may seem as if KAMLS exists just to keep people from going into business.
“But actually,” he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever received a complaint from anybody who’s upset because we make business look too hard for them.
“And I certainly have received some very heartfelt expressions of gratitude for preparing people for how demanding business can be.”
But the reality, he said, is that KAMLS wants people to succeed in business and people almost certainly can’t do that if they don’t know what they’re getting into.
And that’s exactly the viewpoint he says is shared by the banks, businesses and governmental agencies that make up KAMLS, a not-for-profit organization.
KAMLS holds orientations for its clients and also steers them to other programs such as Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, the Michigan Small Business Development Center at Grand Valley State University, the Service Corps of Retired Executives and the Business Assistance Program of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.
Before starting up KAMLS in 1999, Garner ran the Muskegon satellite office of the Michigan Small Business Development Center and then worked here in the center’s regional office.
In the two years since KAMLS got up and running, Garner said entrepreneurs have started 15 companies by working and obtaining financing through the agency. He said a 16th company has had to fold.
Garner said KAMLS actually turned three years of age in August, but as with most other new enterprises, he said getting into operation took longer than anticipated.
“That’s one of the first things they discover after they get going,” Garner said, “is that everything doesn’t work strictly according to the business plan. Some of the new people need a bit of handholding sometimes.”
Strictly speaking, KAMLS is not a lender. Instead, Garner explained that it serves more as a conduit for money from the agency’s constituent banks to small, start-up businesses. Loans can range from $1,000 to $25,000.
Garner said his goal is to expand KAMLS services to include all of West Michigan.