Alumni Profile: James Courtney, The Proving Grounds

When James Courtney (BBA-FIN ’12) had reached a point in his professional life where he wanted to try something new, he used what he learned at Walsh to figure out which idea would be the best to pursue. That is how The Proving Grounds Coffee and Ice Cream, which Courtney owns with his wife Jodie, came to be.

Courtney’s entrepreneurial experience started when he was 15 years old and opened a power washing business with his father. “My dad thought it would build my confidence and help me come out of my shell,” Courtney said. It worked. As he learned about the product and process, he was able to speak about the benefits to his customers and sales evolved easily after that.

Finding the right path

In fact, sales came so naturally that Courtney ended up spending several years working as a securities broker. “I was a very successful sales manager,” he said. “I never had to make cold calls and always surpassed my goals.” While the money was good, the work left him feeling unfulfilled. He decided to take a step back from work and stay home with his daughters. A few years in, he made the decision go back to school. “I loved being home with my girls, but I was ready for adult conversation again.” Courtney started at Macomb Community College and made the transfer to Walsh to finish his bachelor of business administration in finance.

Courtney’s wife encouraged him to really think about what he wanted to do after he finished school. He spent six months researching options based on his interests. He thought about a general store and even considered veterinary school (he loves animals) but ultimately, his thoughts kept returning to a coffee shop. He and his wife loved the cafes they had encountered in their travels through Europe and wanted to create that same experience at home, where families would be welcome and encouraged to linger over coffee while their children played nearby.

A Walsh education at work

With this idea in mind, Courtney got to work. He developed a business plan which he finalized at the Small Business Development Center at Schoolcraft College. He created a heat map within a desired radius of his home based on population, potential population growth, and how much people spent on coffee in the area. With this information he and his wife chose five possible locations to open their coffee shop. “Walsh helped me understand business from a world view,” he said. They took their business plan, heat map and research to a bank for funding and to the downtown development agency (DDA) in each city they were interested in. “Even if space wasn’t available, we wanted to introduce ourselves and our desire to open a business that would be part of the community, in hopes that they would remember us if a space did open up.”

The strategy paid off. When a space became available on Main St. in Milford, Courtney was the first person the DDA called. Now, The Proving Grounds just celebrated its third year in Milford and recently opened a location in Royal Oak. “Our Royal Oak location is unique to the area. There are parks and a library, but nowhere else can you relax with coffee while your kids play within earshot.”

Building a culture

The Proving Grounds is a warm, inviting space. The aroma of fresh coffee, roasted in-house, beckons you in. The walls holds work by local artists for sale (which the Courtneys refuse to take commission on) and a beautiful installation made of wood that Courtney salvaged, sanded, stained and installed himself. Behind the counter are smiling, knowledgeable baristas and an enchanting case of artisanal ice cream flavors like PB&J (It’s vegan! And delicious.) and Cookie Monster. Courtney strives for The Proving Grounds’ core values: quality, community, and continuous improvement, to be woven through every part of the business. One way he does this is by empowering his employees. 

“Our managers do the hiring and deliver the company culture to the staff. We encourage our employees to always make the best decision to make a customer happy in a given situation. If a decision is coming from a good place, it will not be questioned. We have found that when our people are empowered, happy and valued, that carries to the face of the business.”

Facing unexpected challenges

A few weeks after The Proving Grounds’ Royal Oak location opened, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, mandating the closure of all in-house dining facilities. With the ingenuity and determination required in business, the Courtneys found several ways to continue to serve and engage with the communities they have built, such as roasting coffee beans to order and delivering them to customers’ doorsteps, offering virtual story times (to replace the beloved story time offered in the shops), live sidewalk concerts, and reopening a walk-up carryout window at each location as soon as it was safe to do so.

“They were meticulously clean and always made sure people were keeping a safe distance in line,” said one customer. “It was the only place where I felt 100% comfortable ordering carryout during that time.”

Both locations recently reopened with limited capacity and plenty of plans for the future. Courtney credits his Walsh education with strengthening his natural business sense and abilities. “Walsh helped me understand how to apply what I learned in my classes to both my work and my world.”

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