Hitting the Big 5-Oh: Mississippi’s Better Business Bureau raising its profile at half-century mark

A long-ago conversation on a golf course led to next month’s 50th anniversary of the Better Business Bureau of Mississippi.

Dr. Heber C. Etheridge, a retired plastic surgeon, no longer recalls the specifics of the late banking lawyer Wayne L. Nix’s lament over a business victimizing a customer. He does, however, recall the result of that conversation with Nix: A pledge to start a Better Business Bureau in Jackson.

bbb-better-business-bureau-logo_rgb“Wayne did all the legal work and the things required to get it started,” Etheridge said of his friend and longtime attorney for First National Bank (now Trustmark Bank).

With the idea of bringing increased accountability to the Jackson area’s business community, Nix incorporated the Better Business Bureau of Central Mississippi on April 14, 1964, according to Dun & Bradstreet.

He hired William H. Baker as the first director, a man Etheridge remembers as a strong office manager who took the local BBB from its infancy into its full consumer watchdog role. “We told him to take care of whatever needs to be done. That’s the only thing we had to do with it,” said Etheridge, now 88 and living in Madison with wife Miriam.

“We had our businesses to tend to,” he said of Nix and himself.

Etheridge said the two of them did sign their businesses up as certified members, a move he thinks helped to bring other Jackson area businesses into the BBB ranks.

The retired surgeon said he thinks the bureau got going without any cash outlays. “Apparently, Wayne got credit” initiated for the BBB, allowing it to cover its start-up costs with membership dues as time went on, he said.

“It helped a lot” that Nix headed up the legal department at one of Jackson’s main banks, added Etheridge, who started his practice in 1960 and has the distinction of being the first plastic surgeon to train at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

The Better Business Bureau launched by Etheridge, Nix and Baker has since expanded to include all of Mississippi, with the exception of a few northern counties that are part of the Memphis BBB. New York native John O’Hara runs the Mississippi BBB, a job he took shortly before the national Better Business Bureau celebrated its centennial in 2012.

John O'Hara

John O’Hara

A former computer company executive who came to Jackson from Atlanta, O’Hara travels the state to spread the word about the important job the BBB has taken on in today’s Internet age. O’Hara will travel down state, up state or across the state for an early-morning TV interview that lasts 30 seconds or to speak to a half dozen business people on the benefits of becoming BBB certified.

At the pace he’s keeping, O’Hara said his 10-person office in Brandon won’t be seeing much of him this year.

On a recent morning he traveled to Hattiesburg for a 6 a.m. television news taping, then drove to the coast to talk to a group about how to hire honest and effective tax preparers and later that day participated in a financial education panel organized by Keesler Air Force Base officials. “I got home at 2 a.m.,” he said.

The goal is to raise the BBB’s profile while also spreading the word about the new dangers consumers face from cyber crooks, fraudulent contractors and others out to take advantage of consumers.

“We’re an organization on the move,” he said. “I’m in the middle of a chamber tour. I’m starting to fill my calendar up.”

A second priority is teaching college students and young military personnel to be financially savvier and to understand disreputable businesses see them as easy prey. He said he hopes to eventually persuade colleges and universities to let him speak at orientation sessions.

His focus on the military also includes recent retirees and those soon-to-retire who want to start their own businesses. The emphasis there, he said, is on using caution in signing contracts for goods and services and other things businesses need in their start-up periods.

The Better Business Bureau role is to serve as a depository of information on businesses. It assigns grades to both certified members and non-members. Grades range from A+ to F.

Businesses become certified through purchase of an annual membership and undergoing a review by BBB staff. Those certified are awarded BBB certification signs to place on their premises and in their advertising and promotional materials.

Fall below a B+ and your BBB certification is subject to revocation, O’Hara said in a 2012 interview for the national BBB’s 100th anniversary.

Grading of members and non-members is essentially based on 16 factors, including company history, type of business, time in business, licensing and government actions known to the BBB, the honoring of commitments to the BBB and advertising issues.

A non-member business typically ends up with a BBB rating after a complaint is lodged against it. Those that respond to complaints go through an assessment process. Those that don’t respond get a failing grade by default, according to O’Hara.

“We monitor businesses whether they are accredited or unaccredited,” he said.

Standards used to establish BBB ratings are uniform across the country. Ratings are shared by each BBB office, O’Hara said. “Instead of people having to make five to 10 phone calls to find the right BBB, you call me in Mississippi about a company and I’m reading you that report.”

Jim Finley, owner of “The Growth Coach” in Jackson, is in his second year as chair of the BBB’s 16-member board made up of representatives from across the state. At 50, the Better Business Bureau of Mississippi is becoming newly invigorated, Finley said. “It should be the go-to resource for anyone in business or anyone wanting to make purchases. It is a way to ensure you are getting the best benefit for the dollar spent.”

The strategy for this year is for O’Hara and his staff to make more Mississippians aware of what the BBB can do for them. Next year could lead to establishing an increased physical presence around the state, especially on the coast, Finley said.

The BBB already has a full-time representative in Hattiesburg, according to O’Hara.

Plans are to celebrate the 50th anniversary with events later in the year, perhaps in late summer or fall, Finley and O’Hara say.

Meanwhile, for O’Hara it’s “Have Message Will Travel.”

“I’m just that crazy New Yorker who travels all over the state,” O’Hara said. “You see the effort at the office pick up when they think, ‘If he’s willing to do that, we are willing to do that.’”

 

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