Gaining The Competitive Edge

Small black firms are forging alliances and applying new technology in order to increase market share and boost profits

Deborah Sawyer has found a brass tacks way to position her $6 million engineering firm as a major player in its industry. As president and CEO of Chicago-based Environmental Design International Inc. (EDI), Sawyer heads a company that provides environmental, industrial hygiene, engineering, and information technology services.

Sawyer recently received a second SBA-guaranteed loan, for $250,000, from South Shore Bank. “We purchased several computers, a server, a photoionization detector, and got an upgraded software license,” she says. “It [the loan] helped us get a lot of the equipment we needed to do our job effectively and competitively.”

As a member of several business organizations, including the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), she has been able to use her contacts to build her company with financial assistance, increase her client base, and build her profit margin.

Each year, Sawyer attends the WBDC’s business opportunity fair for women-owned businesses.

Prior to the fair, she obtains a list of the corporations scheduled to attend, decides on the top 10 business representatives she wants to meet with, then does research on each company. “Almost every year I leave with an opportunity,” she confides. To date, Sawyer has secured an environmental services agreement with Commonwealth Edison, and has done asbestos testing for United Airlines and People’s Energy. sales contracts total $200,000.

As a result of her involvement with the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program, which assists small (and economically) disadvantaged businesses in securing federal contracts, she has secured contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sawyer’s engineering firm, which she started in 1991, is just one of the 800,000 small businesses that start up every year. According to a report by the SBA’s Office of Advocacy, some of the fastest growing and most competitive industries for small businesses are in the service sector-mostly businesses that provide services for other companies.

Thriving industries for minority businesses also include retail trade, mining, insurance, real estate, and finance. “The plus side is that there are all of these new businesses being started every year,” says Monika Edwards Harrison, associate deputy administrator at the Washington Bureau of the Small Business Administration. “The downside is that there are many more businesses competing.”

According to industry experts, the economy is slowing down, but African American businesses will need to pick up the pace when it comes to positioning themselves as the “vendor of choice.” Egos aside, black business owners will need to form alliances in order to survive in today’s market. The days of “I’m bigger or better than you” are long gone because of merger mania among large corporations.

MERGERS, ALLIANCES, AND PARTNERSHIPS
Small businesses that provide services and products to corporations are currently facing a new roadblock. Corporate mergers have enabled conglomerates to rely on each other for services they had previously purchased from small companies. As a result, this trend has reduced the number of small-firm contracts.

The benefit of mergers for the corporate and government sectors is a reduction in the cost of productivity and a more efficient way of

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