Learning big-league business skills

Entrepreneurial League System baseball

TEXT OF STORY

SCOTT JAGOW: Baseball uses a farm system to develop players. Players go through Single A, Double A, Triple A on up to the major leagues, if they're good. Now, why doesn't business do that? Well, it turns out that some people are trying it. In Central Louisiana they've created a farm system for entrepreneurs. We asked Kate Archer Kent to check it out. And she found a rookie business owner who's pitching some hot tamales.


Kate Archer Kent: Irma Rodriguez's tamales are a big hit in Forest Hill, Louisiana. Laborers in the town's plant nurseries often call in orders for 80 dozen at a time. The tamales are so popular that Rodriguez is planning to sell them wholesale to supermarkets. She claims she's perfected what she calls "heaven in a husk." But she admits she's a rookie at running a business.

IRMA RODRIGUEZ: I can do manual work. But when it comes to, you know, computers and stuff like that, I'm just, like, not there at all.

Rodriguez is one of 41 entrepreneurs in Central Louisiana's Entrepreneurial League System or ELS. Business owners are separated into teams based on their business sense and growth potential. The teams are structured like the minor league baseball system, starting with new blood -- the rookie league.

Keith Rabalais: Almost without fail the rookies we concentrate mostly on financial management from the get-go.

Keith Rabalais is general manager of the Central Louisiana league. In just over a year he's built up two teams of rookies, a single A and double A division. While the rookies make sense of their profit and loss statements, the single A entrepreneurs size up their competition and learn marketing skills. He says the double A team might grapple with regional expansion.

Rabalais: As a person, their skill level increases. And it's kind of a call from the GM and the coach that we think this person is ready for the next level.

The entrepreneurs try out through a series of interviews. Rabalais says they don't pay a dime for the coaching. The local Rapides Foundation funds the league.

Rabalais: If 8 out of 10 businesses fail in three years, if we just keep one from failing in that three-year period, we've done a pretty remarkable thing. And it goes to the health of a community.

Irma Rodriguez meets weekly with coach Gary Perkins.

RODRIGUEZ: I call him for anything that goes wrong in here, and he'll give me an answer for everything.

Perkins draws on 30 years of running successful restaurants. He coaches 12 rookies who run a variety of businesses, from electrical contracting to floristry.

GARY PERKINS: The most successful system in the world is the minor league baseball system. So you take a great template and you can apply that to other things.

Peer-to-peer business coaching is hardly new. Mark Weaver is an entrepreneurship professor at Louisiana State University. He thinks the Entrepreneurial League System is an innovative twist on the model. But he's concerned that business-school fundamentals may get short shrift.

MARK WEAVER: My biggest problem with models that rely on just the mentoring and coaching types, they get the nuts and bolts, but don't know the underlying reason.

RODRIGUEZ: How are you? [sound of a kiss].

PERKINS: Don't get that on the radio.

Irma Rodriguez and Gary Perkins have been slugging it out together for 18 months. Now Rodriguez says she's almost ready to launch her wholesale business.

RODRIGUEZ: I was kind of hoping for to have some kind of help from somewhere. And I felt like this was the hand of God helping me, you know.

She's got mixed feelings about being called up to the single A team. Part of her wants to stay a rookie so she won't have to part ways with her beloved business coach.

I'm Kate Archer Kent for Marketplace.

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