How a family business might save Southlake Mall

Call center uses empty space, adds foot traffic.

In early 2014, Mark and Shelly Wilson went shopping for a site for their newest business venture - a giant customer service call center - and ended up at the mall.

Opening Chime Solutions in the former J.C. Penney at Southlake Mall in Clayton County made sense, they decided. The mall sits off a busy stretch of I-75 in Morrow and along a MARTA bus line. More important, it had ample parking and a food court with plenty of gastronomic options - amenities sorely lacking for a similar business the Wilsons previously owned.

The Fulton County couple had considered the now-defunct Union Station (formerly Shannon Mall) in Union City, but ultimately decided on the Clayton location.

“Southlake was active and vibrant,” said Mark Wilson, a former Dun & Bradstreet executive who teamed with his wife, a microbiologist who worked for several pharmaceutical and health care companies, 15 years ago to start a customer service and outsourcing business out of the basement of their home.

“The south side of town hasn’t been tapped into. We thought it was a tremendous opportunity to tap into the availability of rich talent there. It’s kind of a well-hidden secret.”

Their move was not only a creative use of empty mall-space, it was also the largest job-generating venture in two decades in Clayton County, prompting Gov. Nathan Deal to trumpet the deal on the steps of the Capitol.

“It’s a huge impact for the county,” said Courtney Pogue, Clayton’s economic development czar.

Two years later, the Wilsons’ enterprise - which include children Ryan, 26, and Lauren, 22 - is intent on keeping its promise to provide jobs in a part of metro Atlanta that needs them most.

Chime now has about 600 workers in a beehive of state-of-the-art on two floors that once housed women’s wear, household appliances and power tools.

They expect that number to grow to nearly 2,000 by the end of this month as more space is converted. The facility will balloon from 67,000 square feet to 115,000 square feet of space - a bit bigger than two football fields.

To ensure the company gets the 1,100 customer service reps they need, the family hired Hire Dynamics, which specializes in matchmaking workers with companies.

Questions and answers

Where sales clerks once helped customers with department store purchases, Chime’s call center workers help people from around the country with appointment-settings or Open Enrollment questions for health care providers and issues that pop up about insurance.

Chime currently serves four Fortune 50 clients — the Wilsons declined to name them — during two shifts that run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., weekdays. The Wilson eventually see the operation running round-the-clock servicing global customers.

“This non-traditional use has proven to be a valuable addition to Southlake Mall,” Southlake General Manager Judy Pritchett said. (Chime isn’t the only non-retail tenant in the mall. The Morrow Convention Center occupies the former Aaron Rents on the other end of the mall.)

Depending on experience, workers can earn anywhere from about $10.55 an hour to $30,000 a year or more with bonuses and incentives.

At 6.4 percent in July, Clayton has the highest unemployment rate among the five core counties and its neighboring Fayette and Henry county.

“Our goal is to get our unemployment down,” Pogue said, so the Chime jobs are seen as “a good starting job.”

On a recent weekday, Chime was swarming with new recruits and would-be employees set for interviews. A large projection screen hung overhead on the second floor giving time and temperature as well as monthly birthday greetings to employees.

“This is my first opportunity to be involved in what’s near and dear to my heart, quality customer service,” said Vernell Clark, a Chime recruit who lives in College Park.

It’s a tightly-run ship, but the Wilsons say they want to build a family culture.

There are strict stay-focused rules - no headphones pumping in music or other such distractions during work hours - but the company also is looking into providing day care for the many workers who are single mothers.

The Wilsons also hired a 23-year-old public relations executive, Mikyle Crockett, who’ll work with their daughter Lauren to attract and keep millennials.

“We’re looking at various aspects of making their lives easier,” Crockett said.

Progress for Clayton

It’s fitting progression for a part of Clayton trying to regain momentum. In the last five years, Southlake - like many malls these days - has been struggling. Vintage Real Estate bought the mall in 2014 and has been working since to retool it. Chime is playing a big role, mall officials say.

“Not only is Chime Solutions steadily increasing the number of quality customer service, operations, and managerial jobs available in Clayton County and the city of Morrow, but fellow mall tenants are benefiting from the additional traffic that Chime’s employees provide,” Pritchett said.

At the food court recently, Farmers Basket manager Yogi Yasa set out steaming batches of greens, broccoli, squash and sweet potatoes for the lunchtime rush. With Chime next door, he says business “has picked up a little.” He is surprised to learn that Chime is adding even more people.

“I’m glad they’re here,” he said.

While most new entrepreneurial ventures have set their sights on the northern metro Atlanta, the Wilsons bucked the trend. They started out on that side of town but decided there was an “untapped diamond” to the south.

The couple got into the business by opening an outsourcing firm in Kennesaw called Ryla Inc., named after their children. They built a reputation for hiring and training workers for big corporations and running call centers that offered customer service and tech support. Ryla was sold in 2010 after the firm had grown to more than 5,000 workers.

At the time Chime launched in 2014, Mark Wilson was working with investors including former NBA superstar Magic Johnson on the acquisition of an employment background screening firm called eVerifile.

Shelly and the kids concentrated on Chime. In May, the Wilsons divested themselves of eVerifile to focus solely on Chime.

Commercial real estate expert Rod Mullice called the family’s venture “a wonderful story.”

“His commitment to that community should be applauded,” said Mullice, an Atlanta-based executive with Colliers International, a real estate services firm. “If we had more people like Mr. Wilson, the south side of Atlanta would be further along.”

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