It’s no wonder John Cox was a busy man as director of the Office of Private Sector Initiatives at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) in the 1980s. He was the primary contact for anyone in the country seeking information on the newly hatched business incubation industry.
Cox started as a loan officer with SBA in New Hampshire in 1967, and moved on to SBA headquarters in Washington in 1975. Under SBA Administrator James Sanders, he opened the Office of Private Sector Initiatives, which was looking for a niche. Some articles Cox found on business incubation provided the idea he was seeking and the administration gave him carte blanche to get involved in the fledgling concept.
Under Cox’s leadership the Office held the first-ever national conference on business incubation in 1984. To the surprise of many, including Cox, the conference drew a sold-out crowd of more than 500 in the 100-plus degree heat of Chicago. People were packed into the ballroom like sardines, and the air conditioning wasn’t able to keep up with the heat outside and the crowd inside. To say the conference was a success would be an understatement. It brought together for the first time incubation professionals from throughout the country, giving them a chance to meet others who shared their knowledge and passion for this fledgling industry.
Over the next three years, Cox sponsored a whole series of SBA conferences. It was this effort, plus newsletters, directories and publications on business incubation (all produced by John’s office) that disseminated the word about business incubation broadly. There is no doubt Cox’s efforts resulted in explosive growth in the industry. From 1985 well into the ’90s, incubators opened at the rate of one a week.
An approachable and jovial person with signature white hair and a broad New England accent, Cox believed strongly in what he was doing and was able to channel his spirit to his young staffers at SBA. "We saw that business incubation was a good thing for the agency to support and would have a lasting effect on small business. It was an exciting and fun time," Cox says.
SBA’s involvement in incubation lessened after a few years, partly due to agency budget cuts but also because Cox had successfully channeled seed money to the industry, and created support for incubation in the public and private sectors nationwide. Cox passed the mantle of leading the incubation industry to the pioneers he had brought together, and he moved on to other roles in the agency. At one time he directed the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and the Small Business Development Centers (SBDC). He ended his tenure at SBA as associate administrator for financial assistance, the top senior management official in charge of all SBA loans made nationwide.
Following his retirement from SBA, Cox founded JRC Consulting, which served the lending industry and government organizations in developing economic development strategies, lending programs, and commercial lending training and problem solving with special emphasis on small business. In 2002, he became CEO of Newtek Small Business Finance, where he still serves as chairman.
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