From troubled youth to model entrepreneur

At 17, Victor Chapron was just another boy in the 'hood facing one of three probable futures: drugs, jail, or death. Instead, he was rescued from his high-risk life in Los Angeles and sent to live with his aunt in Chicago. That's where he caught a break and turned his life around... maybe even saved it. Today, at 40 years old, he's come full circle. He's back in LA--this time at the top of his game.

I. Troubled beginnings

Victor Chapron was born in Los Angeles, one of eight children with a single, working mother. He says it was a bad time to grow up there. "The school system in LA was probably the worst in its history," says Chapron. "I was constantly in trouble with school and with the authorities. I was a very confused individual."

His troubles brought him into contact with a juvenile judge named Roosevelt Dorn. The judge took an interest in the young man, and they developed a close relationship, says Chapron. "He tried to help raise me, basically. He had me cleaning up churches." And if Chapron "messed up," the judge sent him away to reconsider his choices.

When the crack epidemic hit, "It was either in jail, dead, or on drugs," says Chapron. "My mother decided, 'Hey, I'm not going to leave this kid here to get swallowed up by the streets of LA.' My mother saved me from that when she sent me to Chicago."

Dorn is now mayor of the City of Inglewood. "We still connect," says Chapron. "He saw all his tight punishment and strict ways worked out to help me." Looking back on those times, he says, "I managed to survive that through the blessing of Mayor Dorn, and my mother's hard work of sending me to Chicago to live with her sister."

II. Chicago: street executive

Chicago came as a shock for the 17-year-old. Unlike Los Angeles, he says, Chicago is very segregated. Living with his aunt, he found himself in the midst of a completely African American community. The cold weather was another shock for the southern California teen. So was the news that his aunt was sending him back to school.

"I'm not a guy who had any luck at school, so I'm not too excited about that," he says. He had been in 12th grade when all this happened. "While everyone else was preparing to graduate [in LA], I was coming into Chicago."

His aunt enrolled him in a GED program at Olive-Harvey College, on the South Side. To his surprise, he liked it. His class was in the basement of the school, near the computer lab. One day walking to class, he spotted the lab. "I say, 'Ahh, interesting,' and walked on to class. The next day I go back in this lab, and my intentions were not the same as most people have. Ten to one, I was walking in there for something wrong."

But another surprise awaited. "I saw the lab guy, started talking to him, and started going in there every day, just playing on the keyboard." This was 1983, the early days of the personal computer--in this case, the IBM XT. Chapron began hanging around the lab, helping students in the computer classes with such basic tasks as untangling the paper in the tractor-feed printer. He soon became an unofficial lab assistant, and when his GED class was over, he'd hit the lab.

In the following months, Chapron developed a good relationship with the lab technician. More important, he says, "I wound up feeling good about myself. Coming from LA, having trouble with school, and not having the adequate reading and math levels, to find out that I'm good at something that everyone else is not good at boosted my self-esteem."

Over the next year, he taught himself about computers and became a programmer. He also began helping one of the computer teachers with a class. "He turned all the time I put in into work hours, and got me certified with the State of Illinois to teach computers."

Chapron started teaching computers to an adult continuing class at Olive-Harvey. "It just went uphill from there," he says. Soon he was teaching at another local college and at a business school downtown and had half a dozen clients. "Remember, this was when computers first started. So when I went to an interview, it was really easy to get the job because I understood computers," he says. "I had a passion for it."

To boost his income, Chapron began doing some consulting for people with small businesses. His first clients included a a gas station, and other mom-and-pop businesses in the area. Using WordPerfect, WordStar, dBASE, and Lotus 1-2-3, he says, "I was simplifying their manual processes and automating them into a simple computer application."

Catching a break

One of his clients on the West Side was in the paging business when it was still new. "He had girls sitting at a desk beeping customers to come in and pay their bill," says Chapron. "I designed a program that saved him hours and made him thousands." He called it the Beeper Keeper.

When paging first appeared, its early customers were doctors, attorneys, and "street executives," says Chapron. "Paging was just going consumer--it hadn't even hit consumer yet." But it was about to play a huge role in his business career; a major step on the road that would take him to success, and eventually back to Los Angeles, with a wife and two children, more than a decade later.

Other people in Chicago's paging business heard about the Beeper Keeper, and he began selling the software to them too. One prospective client said he had no money and offered to pay with beepers. Chapron said he didn't want them--and had no idea what he could do with so many beepers. He got them anyway.

"He paid me with pagers. I think he gave me probably 100 pagers. So I put the program on his computer and set him up. I took those pagers and sold them for $250 each. That was the going price at the time. And that's what got me started in the paging business."

He did this all from the trunk of his car. "I never had a store. I would just go on the South Side where the guys hung out, pop my trunk open, and they would come over and pay me $250 cash." Every month, he would drive to the same places and sell more. "I would beep them with my program and tell them I would be at this corner, come pay your bill. And they would. Most of them paid it up for six to seven months, so they didn't have to come out every month. I just started that routine, and it grew and it grew."

Chapron met a paging carrier from Ohio, who told him he should get into the paging business himself and become a carrier. Soon Chapron owned his own frequencies and an antenna on both the John Hancock and IBM buildings.

"I grew that business from the trunk of my car all the way up to close to 100,000 subscribers," he says. "I became the largest paging company, minority-owned, in Illinois; definitely the only African American paging carrier that I know of in the state. I created my own brand, Hyde Park Beepers."

Chapron ran that business for almost 12 years, until he connected with an emerging company called Cellular One. "They came out and said, 'We want your business.' Paging was dying at the time, so I wind up doing a deal with them and converting those paging customers over to customers."

One of the things Chapron understood that the big companies did not was the urban economy: it's often cash-based, meaning that traditional credit checks and payment methods don't apply--or reflect the strength of a potential customer or community. Billing a customer each month and expecting them to mail it in doesn't work in many cases. What does work is to have customers pre-pay. This requires a change in thinking on the part of white corporate America. And urban entrepreneurs like Chapron have spent years trying to show them the light.

"I pioneered pre-paid for Cellular One, which was Southwestern Bell. They didn't know anything about pre-paid and didn't know if it could work," he says. "They used my customer base to trial it out. We made a ton of money together off that; and then I wound up converting those customers to traditional post-paid customers."

III. Los Angeles: homecoming

When Pacific Bell was launching its wireless business in 1998, someone in Cellular One's Chicago office remembered Chapron had been raised in Los Angeles and asked if he was interested in becoming a there. The answer was yes. "Paging had died, and that was my life and bread. I was never making as much in cellular as I was in paging," he says.

He and his brother, Tracy Chapron, met with executives at Pacific Bell Wireless. (Note: The early cellular business was continually consolidating. Cingular Wireless was formed in 2001 as a joint venture of SBC Communications (now AT&T) and BellSouth. It included the wireless businesses of about a dozen regional wireless companies, including Pacific Bell Wireless and Cellular One.)

"They listened to our story and they loved it. We had the experience, and they signed us up that day," says Chapron. They incorporated as West Coast Digital and were on their way as an exclusive premier agent for Pacific Bell in the Los Angeles market. "I think at the time there were only 10 people they issued this exclusive license to," he says.

Chapron sold his Cellular One business in Chicago and moved back to Los Angeles with his wife, Monica, and his sons Tyler, now 12, and Victor, Jr., now 15. "I've been Cingular Wireless's only African American dealer in the LA market. And I've been with them since that day in 1998 when they signed us up."

Coming from an urban market where he'd done very well, the first thing Chapron said to his brother was, "Let's go into the Hispanic and African American market." Easier said than done. They knew it would work, but they needed corporate to agree.

Authorized to open branded stores, they submitted urban locations that included Huntington Park, Compton, and East LA--"areas where most people don't feel comfortable driving," he says, laughing. These also were areas where they knew people. "They need service too--and it's always been my goal to take upscale services to the community."

All those locations were denied. "They said 'No, it's not an average household income of $105,000.'" Shot down from doing what they wanted most and knew best, they went back to the drawing board and submitted locations more likely to be approved.

By this point, however, all the best locations were taken. "Keep in mind, we're coming in after they had dished out the Laguna Niguels, Newport Beaches, and all the upscale communities to the other agents. So we took pretty much the crumbs," says Chapron.

But one man's crumbs are another man's bread. "Because of the population density in LA, we did well--and we also still serviced our core market. No matter where you go in LA, you're still urban. We became very successful and we performed well," he says.

They kept submitting their preferred locations, and in 2002 Cingular approved a store in Inglewood, near the airport (LAX). And again, they were proven correct. "Our Inglewood store was always ranked in the top five in the state. It wound up breaking all the records," he says.

"They started listening to us from that day, and they allowed us to open up in Huntington Park, Compton, and East LA," he says. "We opened beautiful-looking stores in those areas--the same stores you would see in Manhattan Beach or Newport Beach."

His stores became successful, he says, because people in those under-served communities "were excited that someone cared enough to do that." Also, he notes, "We were the first one in there, so we got good deals on our rents--and the respect from the community. We did very well."

¡Hablamos español!

In Los Angeles, City of Angels, about half the city's 4 million residents are of Latino/Hispanic origin. (African Americans are about 11 percent.) Chapron knew the importance of this market, but it took corporate longer to catch on.

"We were working that market with no Spanish dealers, no Spanish literature, no Spanish contracts, dealing with 100 percent Spanish-speaking communities. They didn't even have a pre-paid product at this point," he says. Cingular finally created a program called the Hispanic Initiative and put a lot of marketing money into it, including those missing marketing materials, he says. "We pretty much launched that for them. We were in the Hispanic market since day one anyway with them."

The benefits flowed both ways. "We helped them learn and understand the Hispanic market. We taught them a lot, and we learned a lot," he says. "I thank God I went to the Hispanic market, because it has really blessed my life financially to be able to understand it. And that's been one of the key points that gets me into these chairmen, because they just don't understand it."

Change, change, change

After Cingular acquired AT&T Wireless in October 2004, he says things began to change--and not for the better. The new head of the western region, who came over from AT&T, did not believe in the agent indirect channel. This marked the beginning of a downturn in his relationship with Cingular. "All of the love and treatment we had went away. It went away slowly, and it's still going away," he says.

Cingular, he says, feeling they'd learned how to market in urban settings, began opening its own stores in his territory, some a mile away, some just a block or two from his stores. "This just happened within the last year," he says. "That made me look, and say 'Well, I guess this relationship is coming to an end.'"

With the changes at Cingular, Chapron started shopping his options. He recently sold his remaining interest in six Cingular Wireless stores in Chicago, and now he'signed a contract with Verizon Wireless in San Diego. As of September, he'd signed six leases for stores in San Diego, which were scheduled to open October 15. "They're all Hispanic and African American locations," says Chapron. He plans to open a total of 15 in the San Diego market by year-end.

"Verizon wants us to grow their urban market for them. That's where I am today, going over to the Verizon side of the fence because there's growth there and they're happy to have me. Go where you're wanted, not tolerated," says Chapron.

He's also looking at potential deals with Metro PCS and Cricket Communications, the new carriers on the block. He says both offer products more suited to the urban cell phone user. "There's no credit check, there's no contract, they text you your bill, and they're a low-cost provider," he says.

So when Cingular asked him to go to Atlanta and help them, as he did in Chicago, "I took one look at Metro PCS there and I said no way. Every location accepts cash payments and they have a rate plan with unlimited incoming and unlimited outgoing. It's just local coverage, so you can't go outside of Atlanta and use your phone, but they give it to you for $35 a month." (Most people who live in the urban community don't outside it, so unlimited local coverage works well for them, he says.)

"Metro's going to hurt the urban market here for Verizon and Cingular, who have never really figured out how to handle that customer anyway," he says. "Sprint, Verizon, and Cingular are all taking a hit in that area of business because they don't have a true product for that community."

And yes, Chapron is looking at potential deals with Metro PCS and Cricket in Texas and other areas across the South--as well as a future in franchising.

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