When it comes to Prince George's County economic development, Shelly Gross-Wade is “one of the two or three most important people in the county,” a veteran state economic official said.
She has spent 27 years helping Maryland small businesses secure millions of dollars in loans, turning around floundering financial assistance programs in two different counties and persuading numerous banks to join her cause.
All this from a childhood spent helping her nine-child family on their 100-acre tobacco farm in Lothian. Her father, a share cropper who milked the cow for their breakfast milk, would work on the farm with her brothers while she and her sisters cooked the meals.
“It helps to have humble beginnings to understand the struggles of others,” Gross-Wade said.
Gross-Wade, 56, has been an economic development staple in the state since the early 1980s, when she led the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. toward becoming a national model.
As president and CEO of the Prince George's County Financial Services Corp., Gross-Wade is also now involved in County Executive Rushern L. Baker III's (D) effort to award $50 million to business projects that boost economic development and employment in the county.
The corporation is a nonprofit organization that is partly funded through the Prince George's government. It was originally part of the county's Economic Development Corp. but broke away in July 2001, with Gross-Wade's help.
'Back office' of the EDI fund
For the corporation, which typically helps small businesses secure financing ranging between $25,000 and $250,000, as well as commercial real estate and equipment loans up to $4 million, Baker's program represents the largest program it has ever managed. Baker's program, known as the Economic Development Incentive Fund, includes a minimum loan of $250,000 and no maximum.
“We're ready,” Gross-Wade said. “We're not intimidated by the size of the fund. We're excited.”
The corporation will be the “back office” of the fund, which was passed by the county council last year and began taking applications in February, she said. Her organization will analyze applicants' credit, determine pre-payment, handle the underwriting, make recommendations to an advisory committee and continue to monitor the loans throughout their 10-year term.
“It's a sign of the county's confidence in Shelly that in putting together the EDI Fund, the county gave the FSC a critical role in doing the credit analyses of all applicants,” said David Iannucci, assistant chief administrative officer for the county's economic development team and the former secretary for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development.
Iannucci was also responsible with establishing the process in which the fund money is awarded. He said he relied “heavily” on Gross-Wade's experience throughout his task.
“She's an incredible asset to the county, along with Gwen McCall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation,” he said. “She's got more hands-on experience than anybody I know. She's one of the two or three most important people in the county when it comes to economic development.”
Gross-Wade said her corporation has been encouraged by the fund applicants thus far and will try to be as flexible as possible for their needs. The goal is to award $18 million by the end of the fiscal year, with another $11 million next year.
But before Gross-Wade was involved in managing a $50 million incentive for Prince George's County, she was making a name for herself in Anne Arundel County.
'Spearhead for dealing with the banking community'
Gross-Wade began her public servant career as an assistant to the Anne Arundel County Council in 1978, where she was appointed to the Charter Review Commission in 1981.
Bruce Bereano, a Maryland lobbyist who served as the commission's chairman, described her as a “combination of a very positive, diplomatic and beautiful attitude toward people and a tremendous internal work ethic.”
“We had a lot of work to do, particularly with redistricting, and we could not have done what we did without her,” he said, adding that he has been pleased to watch her growth and development from the sidelines. “She's absolutely executive material.”
Gross-Wade's success has come from aiding governments in helping businesses, Bereano said.
“You're only as good as your staff and she can make anybody look good, Bereano said.
When Gross-Wade moved on to become the executive secretary for then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer (D), she was gradually nudged toward the county's economic development division. She said she was told she would be much more able to live up to her potential at the division, which was in the process of privatizing into a nonprofit.
While at the corporation, Gross-Wade launched a small business revolving loan program that grew to $1.6 million through the cooperation of several local banks.
“She was the spearhead for dealing with the local banking community during the privatization,” said Michael Lofton, former CEO of the corporation. “The goal was to expand economic development efforts without spending more of the county's money.”
The corporation created a consortium of 16 banks with lines of credit to commit to the cause, largely through Gross-Wade's persuasiveness and ability to instill confidence, Lofton said. He said Gross-Wade's decision to join the privatization movement also inspired her fellow county employees to join her so that the corporation started with its original county staff.
“She has a lot of confidence in herself. That becomes somebody who's not difficult to follow,” Lofton said.
Rescuing the revolving loan program
After 23 years with Anne Arundel, including 13 with the corporation, Gross-Wade was toying with the idea of going into the private sector in 1998 when she received a call about another troubled loan program: Prince George's County's Financial Services Corp.
The corporation's revolving loan program had fallen into the habit of making loans but not managing them afterward, leading to incomplete reports and a 68 percent default ratio, Gross-Wade said. Back then, the corporation still operated mainly under the county.
“The banks were threatening to close the program,” she emphasized.
Gross-Wade was given 90 days to prepare a report on the program's more than 45 Small Business Administration loans to evaluate their risk; she had it in 30, she said.
She then set to using her Anne Arundel reputation and focus on best practices, such as regular business site visits, to persuade 12 banks to remain with the program. The program's loan portfolio increased to $5 million from $2.5 million in less than two years. Gross-Wade grew the corporation from just herself and two underwriters to eight employees and five consultants, boosting the budget to $1.1 million from $185,000.
“We've lost some banks over the years, but we gained others,” she said, adding that the corporation now has a $4 million line of credit.
Having helped the county through its struggles, Gross-Wade finally left the public sector in 2000 to form her own consulting business. She managed to contract with the county for six months, just in time to be summoned back yet again, as the corporation prepared to go private. Knowing she could not juggle both, Gross-Wade gave up the business.
A public servant“This job is like public service. You have to be available 24/7. You could get that call at 3 a.m. and you have to answer it,” she said.
Though she later restructured her business into a shell business, Gross Wade & Associates, her commitment, for now, remains with the corporation, she said. But the business awaits her should she ever decide to set out on her own again.
Throughout fiscal year 2012, which ends June 30, the corporation has helped finance $5.6 million in loans, impacting 12 different industries. Thirty more applications wait in the pipeline, she said.
The Goddard School in Bowie, a private early-childhood education center, is among the corporation's recipients, receiving about $1 million in 2011 to open.
“Shelly saw my vision and appreciated what I was trying to do. She ensured I was able to open in a timely manner and went to great lengths to help with licensing issues. She provided wrap-around services,” said Nita Armstrong, owner of the school. “We were looking for a long-term finance partner and we found it in Shelly and the [corporation].”
Carolyn Walker of TDP in Largo said the county's Financial Services Corp. was “critical” for her company, as it grew to 35 employees from six upon receiving a contract with the 2010 U.S. Census.
TDP had been turned down by several banks due to the recession environment, before finding Gross-Wade, Walker said.The corporation helped TDP secure $500,000 in financing.
In addition to the new challenges managing Baker's economic incentive fund, the corporation also has to deal with businesses struggling to close and the potential competition of banks, as they return to more regular lending, Gross-Wade said.
“I have a passion for what I do. It feels like a ministry to me,” she said. “I don't want anyone coming in and feeling intimidated.”