The Donut Man
For the last 20 years, Clayton Turnbull has preached the virtues of politics and business
Some people thought Clayton Turnbull was crazy.
A successful businessman, Turnbull had decided to open up a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in, of all places, Mattapan Square. It was 1992, and ,at the time, Mattapan was one of Boston’s busiest crime zones — not exactly a neighborhood where billion-dollar, international chains like to operate.
But Turnbull had a vision, an urban vision, one in which he saw businesses serving a vital role in developing inner-city neighborhoods.
He saw Newbury Street on Blue Hill Avenue.
But six weeks after he opened his store, someone set it ablaze. Most people would have considered that an omen.
Not Turnbull. He re-opened the store 11 months later, and hasn’t looked back since. As it is now, Turnbull, who often introduces himself as the “Donut Man,” owns 18 different franchises throughout the city, including a handful at Logan Airport, Northeastern University, and the South End.
More important, he has been an unwavering voice in the fight to increase the role of minority -owned businesses in a city still overcoming its troubled reputation earned during the days of busing. In Boston, that means politics, and, more than most minority business owners, Turnbull has been a player.
“Neighborhood leaders often fail to understand the critical role of economic development,” Turnbull says. “But everything is linked. One of the things that I have learned is that business owners must understand the economics of politics and the politics of economics.
“One doesn’t exist without the other,” he explains. “Politicians must have policies in place that continue to feed the economic engine. If there’s not a vibrant economy, all bets are off.”
Of course, that assumes that there are businesses that want to venture into neighborhoods that don’t fit into neat little business models. Turnbull is having the last laugh now.
“You can’t equate the challenges of a neighborhood with the challenges of operating a business,” he says. “You must know the environment. It’s been my belief that if you treat everyone with respect and maintain high-quality standards, your future is secure.”
Turnbull has come a long way. Born in Jamaica — his family moved to the States when he was six years old — he graduated from Dorchester High School and later UMass Boston with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.
As chairman of the Waldwin Group, Turnbull has sat on several boards over the years, including those of Dimock Community Health Center, the Boston Neighborhood Housing Trust and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. He also served as Marie St. Fleur’s campaign manager during her 1999 state representative campaign.
Turnbull was also vice president of Boston 2004 and, with then — Boston Chamber of Commerce President Paul Guzzi, was co-chairman of the Boston 2004 business liaison committee. The specific goal then was to increase minority participation in the Democratic Convention at which event organizers had planned to spend $50 million at local businesses.
“I would be embarrassed if I have to sit down with businesses and explain diversity,” Turnbull said at the time. “So I would say to those large companies who traditionally get this kind of business, start partnerships up with small businesses in the community and minority businesses….”
More than most, Turnbull, 53, doesn’t simply talk about economic development. He has about 250 people on his payroll, but it’s not unusual to see him at one of his stores, pouring coffee or sweeping floors or chatting with long-time friends and customers. His stores in Mattapan, Dudley Square and Grove Hall have become gathering places for young and old, white and black, and everything in-between.
The reason is simple, Turnbull says. “It’s about respect. At first people thought that I was crazy. But now they come to one of my stores and see how many people are there, and how clean and professional the operation is, and they now see what I saw years ago.”
It’s also about operating a good business. And having a vision and, most important, the ability to execute in even the most trying of times.
“We want to bring the urban village concept to fruition,” he once said, “where both businesses and homeowners are strong entities. Newbury Street is one of the most viable areas in the city, and it is loaded 98.9 percent with small businesses. We’d like to see that in the Dudley Square-Grove Hall-Upham’s Corner area — the parameters of our urban village.”
Turnbull readily admits that his vision requires a partnership — not simply with current business leaders, community advocates and politicians, but young people.
“I tell young people that, if they want to start their own business, go and work for someone and be the best employee,” Turnbull says. “Once you become a great follower, then you can become a great leader. Learning how to follow teaches you how to lead. And you better love the business you have chosen. Money can’t be the only incentive.”