The guy started out peddling cassette-tape cases. He bought three on sale for a dollar, then sold them for a dollar each. The next day he bought more cases, then handbags, and gradually took his salesmanship onto the streets of Compton, working bus stops and storefronts for a couple of years--until the City Council banned sidewalk vendors.
That might have been the end of a bootstraps businessman had it not been for Timothy R. Burchett, a banker able to overlook the requirements of credit and collateral when he encounters someone with character.
"He was an industrious, hard-working person," Burchett recalled recently from a corner desk in the Compton Boulevard lobby of Capital Bank. "He was gonna make up some (silk-screened) T-shirts. He said, 'Tim, I know I can do it.' . . . I made him a little small loan, just a little $1,000 loan. He took out the money and I think within 30 days he brought back $10,000."
Now, three years later, Siddiq Mumin operates the Cuddle Me Shirt Company from a Beverly Hills mailing address, successfully marketing T-shirts emblazoned with a cartoon teddy bear.
"I had never been able to get any loans from any other source. . . . Tim was the first," Mumin said. "That loan more or less catapulted me to the level where I am now an employer." Without the money, "I don't think I would have been able to break the gravity of where I was at."
Andrew Maxey has a similar appreciation for Burchett. Maxey's Interiors had sold floor coverings in Compton since 1957. But it stayed strictly small-time until Burchett became Capital Bank's branch manager five years ago.
"No banker can do anything for you if your credit is no good," Maxey said. But Burchett "just went out of his way" to build Maxey's string of occasional $10,000 loans into a credit line that now commands up to $200,000. Before that, Maxey was able to employ 10 people. After that, he was able to employ 30.
"Tim is just a good, fair, honest businessman and he just doesn't give you a lot of jive," Maxey said. "He's the best (banker) that we have ever had in this community."
The independently owned Capital Bank has done business in Compton since 1926. It used to be headquartered there, but that changed in the 1960s, when the city went from a vibrant commercial center to one of the most economically depressed places in America.
"In the 1970s," recalled bank President Terry Luft, "you could drive through Compton and find city block after city block just boarded up." Capital's headquarters moved to Downey. And the Compton Boulevard office, near Santa Fe Avenue, was scaled down to become one of the bank's five branches in southeast Los Angeles and northern Orange counties. Then Luft brought in Burchett, who, as well as having a decade of experience at other Southern California banks, had grown up in Compton.
"Before I took the job," Burchett said, "I walked in here and looked around. And, to be honest with you, I felt kind of bad. Because I'd worked for five other banks and I had never walked into an office where no one greeted me."
That made him wonder if he was stepping back into a community crippled by despair.
"I can remember standing in (the Centennial High) graduation line, marching through and going 'This is it. I'm gone. I'm out.' . . . All you heard about was shootin', or there was this, or was that. People ask you where you're from, you go, 'Los Angeles.' Nobody was from Compton."
He decided to take the job after weighing the city's potential and the flexibility of working for a bank not burdened with layers of bureaucracy.
"Now, I tell everybody I'm from Compton," said the 38-year-old Burchett, wearing a gray pinstripe suit over the 6-foot-9 frame that won him a basketball scholarship to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
"These are the best customers I've had," the banker said, "and I've worked in five different banks in probably 40 different cities. Probably 95% of the people here are hard-working, good people and I wouldn't mind living next door to them. I can't say the same for some of the cities I've worked in."
Although Burchett lives in San Dimas, he is an unrelenting Compton booster who not only makes small loans to businessmen like Mumin and Maxey but large ones to firms engaged in redevelopment.
"We have been aggressive in helping with the redevelopment of some of the commercial properties," he said. "I think a lot of banks shied away from investing in real estate here for quite a while."
Bank President Luft said Compton's economy "certainly has improved in the last couple of years." And he credits Burchett for helping Capital keep pace by being attentive to the sometimes special needs of the community.