Samuel S. Young Jr. and his business partner, Ken Ampy, have become known as an entrepreneurial success story in the Richmond region.
The business they started more than 24 years ago — from an idea they had when they were in college at Old Dominion University together — is now a downtown Richmond stalwart.
Their company, Astyra Corp., is a technology, health care and administrative staffing firm that has been ranked among the nation’s fastest-growing inner-city businesses.
Yet Young, a frequent civic volunteer who became chairman of the Greater Richmond Chamber three months ago, points out that the business certainly wasn’t an overnight success story.
“For six years or so, we did the business part time and never made a penny,” he recalled.
“We were 20-something guys who had this vision of money falling out of the sky. Then we realized it was going to be a little more difficult than that.”
Young said he and Ampy found out early on that personal relationships were the fuel that drove the engine of business in the Richmond area.
“But nobody knew who we were,” he said. “We weren’t cool.”
He recalled visiting one executive to make a business pitch, when he and Ampy were still trying to get their feet in the door with potential clients.
On a limited budget, they had spent about $80 to buy just three folder-sized color brochures describing their company and its services.
After the pitch, they handed the executive the brochure, but she slid it right back across the table.
“She said she didn’t need that,” Young recalled. “She wasn’t interested. She didn’t know who we were.”
Now, though, Young says he can see the culture changing, as a new generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs takes the helm in the Richmond region, with different ideas about how business should be handled.
And Richmond itself, he said, is developing a more “cool” vibe.
As chairman of one of the region’s largest and most influential business organizations, Young said he wants to use his pulpit to influence the business community in ways that will help other small firms grow and succeed.
Young, 47, sees himself serving as an “ambassador” for economic development in the region, while encouraging other business leaders to do the same, as well as being an advocate for entrepreneurs.
He also wants to encourage the business community to show more interest in the problem of poverty in the Richmond region and make investments in neighborhoods that have been neglected.
Young said he brings to his volunteer leadership role a life of diverse experiences. His own professional path has been quite multifarious.
“I’ve worked in construction,” he said. “I have been a bartender. I drove a truck for a catering company. But I also have been a database manager, and a network support technician, and eventually a network engineer, so I have seen a lot of different types of things.”
He added: “I maintain even today that one of the best jobs I have had was when I worked at McDonald’s. I was in college, and you could take food out, so that job served two purposes.
“They never really let me out in public,” he said jokingly about his job in fast-food. “I cooked and cleaned in the back and did prep work.”
Born in Danville, Young grew up in Henrico County, the child of schoolteachers in the Richmond city schools. His mother taught business, and his father taught shop and coached wrestling.
“So, in our household, we had rules,” he said. “My parents did little things to plant seeds in me. My father would take me to work sometimes, and he would say, ‘This is how I pay the bills, and you will do it someday. too.’ ”
“My father was also the local director of a nonprofit,” he said. The group was Young Life, a nondenominational Christian organization that provides enrichment activities for teenagers and encourages spiritual development.
“So growing up, I had a pretty diverse set of people I interacted with,” Young said. “I could be in a suit one day at a charity event, helping my dad with the program and talking with donors. The next day, I could be playing basketball with other kids in North Side at Hotchkiss Field.”
At the same time, Young grew up as a self-described “computer geek” who fell in love with technology during the early years of the personal computer’s rise to ubiquity.
When he was a child, “we couldn’t afford a Commodore 64,” he said, referring to an early home computer introduced to the market in 1982.
“So I asked for a book — the programmers guide,” he said. “I was actually writing programs before I had a computer. That is how excited I was about it.”
“I think my background has helped me work with people more effectively,” he said. “It has definitely made me more tolerant. I am not always a patient person, but that background helps me to be more patient than what I probably normally would be.”
Ampy, Astyra’s co-founder and chief executive, calls Young “a forward thinker and straight shooter.”
“He doesn’t beat around the bush,” Ampy said. “He tells you what he thinks.”
“As a business partner, Sam is a great analytical thinker on the spot,” he said. “He has got a thought to share with you at all times. He doesn’t need much time.”
Astyra, which Young and Ampy founded as Automation Concepts Inc., is primarily a technology staffing firm, though it has expanded its services to include staffing for health care and administrative work.
“We felt that we needed that diversity because it would strengthen the business,” Young said.
Astyra is based in downtown Richmond and has local and national clients. It has had its office in the core of the city since Young and Ampy took the business from part time to full time in 1997.
It typically employs about 90 people, including people it has placed on staff for clients, but the company’s staffing can swell at particular times of the year and for special projects, such as the UCI World Road Championships, the nine-day series of bike races held in the Richmond area last week.
Astyra provided about 100 people to work during the races.
Having Young as chairman of the Greater Richmond Chamber is appropriate as the organization develops programs designed to nurture what seems to be a renewed entrepreneurial spirit in the region, said Kim Scheeler, the group’s president and chief executive officer.
“We are doing a lot of work on the entrepreneurial front and trying to create opportunities for businesses to grow,” Scheeler said.
“Sam has certainly got an entrepreneurial spirit, which is great for us in terms of having a chairman with that perspective,” he said. “Certainly, Astyra is a local success story. It started out as a idea that a couple of guys had, and it has grown.”
“Sam grew up in the Richmond area, so he understands the ins and outs of the region and has a great perspective on it.”
Young talks about the Richmond region with a sense of optimism, tinged with his view that a lot more could be done to help the region develop, and develop at a faster pace.
“Internally, I believe the region is perceived as slightly disjointed, but getting better,” he said. “The various localities could be collaborating a little better to get some things done that would be positive for the region.”
“Externally, I think the perception is that we are kind of cool, and we have got some neat things going on right now. That was not the case, let’s say, five or six years ago.”
He pointed to the UCI Road World Championships as one example of that.
“In the mid-’90s, when Ken and I were starting the business, our friends from other cities would say, ‘You guys (Richmond) are just a sleepy city,’” Young said.
“That has changed, and definitely for the better,” he said. “We can actually attract employees now to move into this region, and I think that is the same for many other members of the chamber.”
The ability to recruit talent to the area, “is not where it could be, but it has dramatically gotten better,” he said.
On changes in business culture, Young said he perceives the way that business is conducted in the region is evolving, in a way that has advantages and disadvantages.
“From my perspective, we don’t do business the way other cities do business,” he said. “I think it has been very much relationship-driven here, which is still important, but less about qualifications. We do business with people we are comfortable with.”
“In a larger city, a staffing firm like ours would be a commodity,” he said. “Here, it is Ken and Sam’s company.
“That is an advantage if you are from this area,” he said. “But I have heard from the local businesses that have migrated here and set up shop that it is more difficult for them to do business in Richmond. They say that is frustrating.
“Richmonders have a way of going about figuring out who you are,” he said. “And I have been caught doing that myself.
“I think that is going to change because of the direction the city is going,” he said. “We are a younger city now, and from a business standpoint, we are a more diverse city.
“We’ve paid a lot more attention to entrepreneurship than we did 20 years ago, and that is going to drive a lot of change, too.”
Young said he also would like to see the chamber take a more active role in workforce development and training. “We can not only attract talent to the area, but create it within the region,” he said.
“Someone who may be a blue-collar worker now could become an IT professional in two or three years, given the proper training,” he said. “I would like to see the chamber do some of that.”
And he wants to see the chamber and the business community be more proactive about tackling poverty in the region.
“I would like to remind the business community about the needs of the poor and the opportunity to do something about poverty in the city, from a business perspective,” he said. “I don’t think we pay attention to that as much as we should.”
“Making that situation better only helps us,” he said. “It improves our neighborhoods. We would have a greater talent pool that we could tap.”
As an example of that, Young points to a program led by health care provider Bon Secours to offer $100,000 in grants each year to start or grow businesses in Richmond’s East End.
“They are making an overall improvement in that neighborhood,” said Young, who serves on the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s board of commissioners and will soon finish a term as its chairman.
“The perception in the business community is if you invest in a poor area of town, you are taking a chance,” he said.
“I don’t think so, I think it is good business,” he said. “If done correctly, it really benefits the community and it is a great for business.”