"It's almost a little funny," he says with a half-crooked smile.
Walking out of his office in the center of the square, Baker extends his arm eastward and points out the building where he began his work 38 years ago. He had just finished his bachelor's degree in business management at Delta State University, having married his high school sweetheart from Clarksdale, Cathy Willis, on New Year's Eve, 1976. "Doc" and Joe Ann Ward, Cathy's uncle and aunt, had opened Briarwood Animal Hospital on Canton Mart Road in the early 1960s. By the time Baker arrived in 1977, he says that "Doc and his guys" had transformed the six acres surrounding the hospital into a small and vibrant shopping center.
The animal hospital, The Book Rack and Briarwood Package Store--now Briarwood Wine and Spirits--were there "since the concrete was poured," and Briarwood Enterprises began in 1966, with the Pet Shop, Briarwood Yard and Garden Center, and Briarwood Shop for Men coming along over the next decade.
Ward kept the books for all those businesses. Although Baker was initially tasked with running both the garden center and men's clothing store, his green thumb and hands-on proclivities led them to "get out of the men's business forever," he says. So he spent the next 15 years managing the garden center and helping Doc and his men develop Canton Mart Square into the 26-store, 80,000-square-foot retail property it is today.
As Home Depot, Lowe's and Walmart came to the area, with their all-inclusive yard-and-garden offerings, Baker says it hurt Briarwood Yard and Garden, which was a small-scale retail center selling plants, chemicals and supplies for locals. So in the early 1990s, the company leased the building to Latitudes Furniture, and Baker moved into his current role as property manager of Canton Mart Square.
Baker's humble demeanor leads him to eschew all formal titles. "I'm not a landlord, I'm just Steve," he says.
At some point, however, Baker says he promoted himself from "nominated deputy to U.S. Marshall of our little territory," a more austere title than those that current tenants give him, seeming to prefer "the kindest man you'll ever meet," "an ever-present worker-bee," "Mr. Fix It" and "Canton Mart Square's Santa Claus."
The Ward and Baker clan lost Doc in 1998 to a tragic car accident. Joe Ann Ward, who lives in Ridgeland with Baker and his wife, Cathy, owns the property and remains head honcho for Briarwood Enterprises LLC. Baker's oldest daughter, Stephanie Maley, now handles bookkeeping and business management.
"They pay the bills, and I handle the headaches," Baker likes to say.
With a background in interior design, Maley, now 33, left an architecture firm in 2011 to come and work for the family business full-time, which has allowed Ward, 77, to ease up and enjoy the fruits of her and Doc's labor. Maley and her husband, Collin, have two kids, Brennan and Claylon. Baker and Cathy's second daughter, Joanna Keith, runs Red Bird Paper Company out of Hattiesburg, where she lives with her husband, Matthew, and two children, Elleigh and Carson. As the Ward and Baker clan look forward to their 50th year at Canton Mark Square in 2016, Baker and Maley both refer to their four little ones as the "fourth generation" of future Briarwood Enterprises management.
A Safe Haven for Smart, Local Business
While Baker is definitely the point person for the day-to-day operations of the square, its tenants and the customers, he is quick to point out that he is just one lucky man in a network of hardworking, smart and successful women. "When I makes business decisions of some consequence," Baker says, "I run it by Ms. Joe Ann, Cathy, Stephanie and Joanna, out of courtesy for the Wards, but also because I depend on their insight and practical wisdom."
The square's reliance on the wisdom of women doesn't end there. Women own and run 16 out of the 25 stores in operation. Baker says the predominance of women-led businesses is not by design. "It's just what happened naturally, but we're blessed for it," he says. Intentional or not, Baker is well aware that maintaining a family-friendly, boutique-style shopping center with a strong female presence is good for business.
It speaks to the square's success that its turnover rate is low, but when a space does become available, the company doesn't advertise it.