How a minority-focused small-business incubator helped Sandra Walls chart her own course.

Sandra Walls

Fueled for success

How a minority-focused small-business incubator helped Sandra Walls chart her own course.

BY JON W. SPARKS
MemphisED’s focus on innovation and entrepreneurship is all about opening doors. One measure of success in providing meaningful opportunity is through its relationship with the Mid-South Minority Business Council, the region’s top minority economic development organization.Luke Yancy III, President and CEO of MMBC, points to the organization’s business incubator known as the Center for Emerging Entrepreneurial Development (C.E.E.D.), which has provided assistance to a number of companies. “The whole purpose of the incubator is to help minorities.get into industries where barriers are fairly high,” Yancy says. “And we want to help those businesses grow through strategic partnerships.”

In Memphis and Shelby County, there are areas vital to a healthy economy in which minority firms are under-represented. “We’ve got Memphis as a major cargo airport, and with FedEx and MATA using a lot of petroleum products and jet and diesel fuel — but with scant minority participation,” Yancy says. “But one glowing exception provides a case study of how to take a small minority firm with potential and grow it.”

That exemplar is AVPOL International, with expertise in depot maintenance, logistics, assistance and advisory services and engineering. Sandra K. Walls, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, is the firm’s owner and, by any definition, a force to be reckoned with.

Her 22 years as a logistics officer in the military provided her with the knowledge and expertise to run AVPOL International. Her savvy includes knowing when to use available resources to keep her business strong, such as the incubator.

“I thought it was a great opportunity for me to … position my company to move in the direction of my personal and corporate goals,” Walls says.

AVPOL International started in 1997 and Walls has been the sole owner since 2004. She worked out of her home until about three years ago, when she connected with C.E.E.D. “Most of my business is outside of Memphis and I worked from home doing federal contracts,” she said. But growth brings growing pains, and soon she needed better space.

“At MMBC, we help with best practices, getting connected, planning, marketing and the whole nine yards,” Yancy says. “We provide a facility within the incubator with a live person who answers the phone, and we provide clerical services, a fully furnished office, strategic planning activities, paid parking and Internet. She took advantage of those services, and you see agrowing business that’s helping within our community.”

For Walls, it was about combining the advantages of the incubator with her already well-honed business sense. “I thought it was a good opportunity to set up a presence in the city rather than work out of home,” she says from her office on Peabody Avenue. Since then her firm was awarded a contract with Shelby County government to deliver fuel — another victory added to her already solid list of national clients.

“I want to take the company to where we can stand toe-to-toe with the best,” she adds. “I’m not interested in just making money. I want to provide a quality name and service.”

She is indeed making money, though. “Our revenues have tripled since 2005,” she says. “We’re averaging about $2 million growth a year and this year we expect to exceed $8 million.”

Walls was born and raised in Memphis. She graduated from Manassas High School and LeMoyne-Owen College.  While she did not plan for a military career, “at the time people didn’t want to hire me because of my ethnicity, gender and having no experience,” she says.

But she is by nature someone who faces the negatives head-on. “I look at negatives and see how I can turn them into positives,” Walls says. “I thought about the military as a place to get experience and get a master’s degree and make myself marketable in four years. But I was having fun and just ended up doing 22 years.”

Soon after joining, she received a master’s in business administration and found herself working with executives in large firms. “My level of responsibility in the military was equivalent to many of those vice presidents,” she says.

Since retiring from the military in 1995, she’s been making the most of her business knowledge. Part of her plan for the company is to bring in her son, Timothy Walls, who graduates in January from Tennessee State University with a degree in economics and finance.

“There is a legacy here to come home and do what needs to be done,” she says. “He’ll have a title, but he’ll have to work his way up, learn federal acquisition regulations and learn the business.” It’s that sort of work ethic that brought her into the MMBC incubator and propelled her to ongoing success.

“We’re continuing to work with other companies and maybe we’ll be able to go international,” she says. “The people I work with respect us and where we are.”

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