After serving on the Valley Economic Development Center (VEDC) Board of Directors for three years, Don St. Clair has been chosen to be the new chairman of the group, which specializes in offering financing, consulting and training to small and medium-sized businesses. While he’s only been in the position since April, St. Clair,Woodbury University’s vice president of marketing and chair of the School of Business’ Organizational Leadership Department,seems poised to use his background and community connections to the betterment of VEDC, purportedly the largest nonprofit business development corporation in the region. That’s because, in addition to his role at Burbank-based Woodbury, St. Clair serves on the governing boards of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, the Burbank YMCA and the Burbank Chamber of Commerce. The Business Journal spoke with St. Clair about why he is uniquely suited to lead VEDC, his goals as chair and the challenges he expects to face in that capacity during a period of economic downturn. Question: Describe the process of becoming chairman. Why were you offered the chance to serve in that role, and what do you think you bring to the table? Answer: Francisco Uribe, the former chair, moved from Verizon to Home Depot. He’s in government affairs. He wasn’t going to serve a second term as chair. The board voted on April 1 for a new chair, and I think the notable strengths I bring to the table are that I’ve been a nonprofit executive in universities and colleges for 22 years. I understand nonprofit leadership and management very well. I think that’s a real strength. There’s a real strong synergy between that and working in universities. VEDC is engaged in economic development. Universities are also engaged in economic development, so there’s a nice synergy. Q: Do you think the other roles you play in various organizations throughout the community will help you as chairman? A: I think specifically that there’s a great deal of crossover between VICA and VEDC and the Burbank Chamber. I’m open to leveraging the contacts that I have in the East Valley to the part of the Valley that’s closer to VEDC. Q: What is your vision for the VEDC as chairman? A: I want to build a sustainable organizational focus on our strength financially. I want to make sure we’re building an organizational infrastructure that will have long-term viability, a long-term financial base, stability of leadership and staffing. I’d also like to make sure we don’t forget what our mission really is, which is the dream of entrepreneurship; to have prosperous, safe, clean, livable communities. Q: Do you plan to change anything as chairman or add any new programs? A: Decisions will not be driven by the chair. Decisions will come from the organization itself, from [VEDC President] Roberto Barragan and his staff. As chair, I will find ways to support people doing their everyday work. I want to create an environment where creativity and innovation can grow. Q: Will VEDC expand its micro-lending? A: We would like to expand all lending programs, including micro-lending. We want to expand more of what we do best,loans. It’s a matter of having enough money to lend. When financial institutions provide us opportunities for lending, we move pretty quickly. [Money] doesn’t sit around. Q: What impact will state budget cuts or the economic downturn generally have on your lending programs? A: It’s a mixed bag for us. Some of our programmatic services could be impacted. We don’t see that happening. So much of our money comes from financial institutions. Problems in banking could cause us some trouble because more people are coming to us for alternative lending solutions, but we don’t feel that sense of gloom. We’re pretty optimistic, pretty confident that we can meet those challenges Q: Discuss any other challenges you think you’ll face. How will you overcome them? A: I inherited a pretty good situation. The challenge of leading a nonprofit board is always about how you best leverage the many talents around the table. You’re surrounded by smart, talented people. The challenge is encouraging talents but not overworking them, not asking for too much, using board members in a way that they’re effective and feel like they’re contributing. Q: Some would argue that VEDC does more work to help businesses than the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley does. Yet, the Alliance is probably better known. Why is that? A: VEDC and the Alliance are not mirror organizations. The Economic Alliance engages more in promoting the San Fernando Valley as a business environment, bringing jobs and business to the Valley, retaining those that are here. But we assist small-to-medium businesses with lending, technical assistance and training. We have a very different mission. They’re not better known than us within our clientele. When small-to-medium businesses need assistance in lending and technical assistance, they call us. When there are larger issues of promotion in the San Fernando Valley, that’s when they go to the Alliance. There’s nothing competitive about us at all. Q: Have you had a chance to visit the City of Los Angeles’s new website, Los Angeles Business Solutions? It’s billed as a one-stop shop for businesses. Do you think it will be helpful? A: I think the devil’s in the details. Conceptually, it’s a good idea. We would all agree that any steps that streamline the process of doing business in Los Angeles is a good idea. Earned or not earned, true or false, the City of Los Angeles has earned a reputation as not being business friendly. I applaud any steps the City of L.A. is taking to [counteract] that image. Q: How does the city’s reputation affect business here? A: If somebody from Virginia is thinking of relocating to California, they may decide not to. We have to examine areas where we truly are unfriendly to business, and we have to work on that perception. SNAPSHOT: Don St. Clair Title: VEDC Chair Age: 49 Education: Pepperdine University doctoral candidate (Doctor of Education, Organizational Leadership) Most Admired People: Historically, I’ve always admired Winston Churchill. He epitomized how to lead in crisis. There’s so many people that I work with on a daily basis that I admire, members of the board of VEDC,Dutch Ross, Pegi Matsuda. On the Burbank YMCA board, there’s real estate developer Vic Georgino; his wife, Sue, director of community redevelopment for the City of Burbank. My chief concern is all the names I’ve left out. Career Turning Point: I was 28 years old. I was in insurance and finance in a small town in Northern Indiana. I hated it, and, by absolute happenstance, I applied for a job with a local college [Indiana Institute of Technology], and the president of the college, much to my surprise hired me. I’m still not sure why 22 years later. Only in the rarest moments have I thought about doing anything else other than working in a university. I love what I’m doing. Personal: Married with three children.
Chairing the VEDC