Operating In Rough Waters

B.E. Industrial/Service 100 companies seek to grow earnings by battening down the hatches

For the captains who helmed America’s largest black-owned businesses, managing those businesses in 2002 was like navigating a vessel in an unmerciful storm. Their companies were rocked by crashing waves of hammering forces: a choppy economy, soggy business and consumer confidence, rising oil prices, and the uncertainty — and then painful realization — of Gulf War II. These developments capsized some companies. Others were pushed off course, propelled toward treacherous waters with no safe harbor in sight.

Despite the challenges, one characteristic has always exemplified the skippers of the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100: resilience. Applying innovation, focus, and a boatload of determination, a number of companies not only stayed afloat but set sail to new opportunities and areas of profitability. Many companies had to batten down the hatches, getting as much as they could out of every employee and every cent. Other companies saw the flagging economy as an opportunity to chuck the deadwood by selling poorly performing assets, or as an opportunity to soup up their operations with strategic alliances and new products and processes.

Take The Bing Group (No. 7 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $344 million in sales), for example. The Detroit-based automotive supplier posted a healthy 19.9% revenue increase over the last year — from $287 million to $344 million — by putting emphasis on a lean manufacturing operation, increasing employee productivity, and implementing tight-fisted cost controls and top-flight customer service. Those moves earned The Bing Group, one of 91 General Motors suppliers worldwide, the coveted BE Supplier of the Year award for outstanding performance in 2002. With a growth goal of 10% — 15% for 2003, the company plans to expand business with existing customers and possibly undertake an acquisition or joint venture within the steel industry.

Despite the company’s bright outlook, CEO David Bing is watchful of storm clouds on the horizon. “I think we are going to continue to see strong downward pricing pressures,” he says. “The industry, from a volume standpoint, has been strong for the last three years. But ’03 is going to be a bigger challenge because I think the market is going to soften a bit. I think we are going to see a lot of companies in trouble.” Bing’s sober prediction can be made about firms across industries.

SINKING FORTUNES
How did the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 fare as a collective in 2002? To attest to these companies’ resilience, total sales were $12.77 billion, up 11.55% from $11.4 billion in 2001. In comparison, sales for the Fortune 500 dropped 6%. Unlike their white counterparts, the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 expanded their crews as well. In 2002, these firms employed 75,020 workers, a 17.91% increase from the 63,627 workers they’d employed in 2001. The La-Van Hawkins Food Group, with 7,133 workers, emerged as this year’s employment leader.

Several companies dropped off the list because of divestitures, bankruptcies, failure to meet our eligibility standards, or the inability to meet this year’s revenue threshold.

One of last year’s freshmen, Thor Construction Inc., felt the harsh winds of the past year’s economic squall as

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