A Helping Hand

Major corporations are mentoring small businesses to become competitive suppliers

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Margaret Garner

Margaret Garner, president of Broadway Consolidated Cos. Inc., a general contracting firm based in Chicago, holds a portfolio worth bragging about—nearly $10 million annually—thanks to her partnership with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. When the retail giant entered Chicago’s 37th ward around 2004 to construct its first store in an urban location, it sought assistance from local minority and women-owned businesses. Garner, whose firm is 8(a) certified, was selected to manage the project, becoming the first African American woman  to construct a Walmart store.

It wasn’t an easy undertaking, but when challenges with the project arose, Garner was able to solicit help. “I had direct access to all the levels of decision makers within the construction division so I had immediate conflict resolution,” she says. Wal-Mart’s mentoring enabled Garner to successfully complete the 150,000-square-foot, two-story retail store in September 2005. Since then, she has constructed another Wal-Mart property, Sam’s Club, which she completed in October 2008.

Mentoring programs help small minority companies learn about a company’s culture and expectations, develop a stronger network, and address their weak functional areas with corporate expertise, thereby learning what it takes to become better and more competitive suppliers. For corporations, mentoring minority suppliers means “building stronger suppliers for their supply chain,” explains Harriet R. Michel, president of the National Minority Supplier Development Council. According to the NMSDC, its corporate members purchased $104.7 billion in products and services from NMSDC-certified minority suppliers in 2007.

Wal-Mart’s supplier diversity program began in 1994 and is currently doing business with more than 2,500 minority suppliers. It does not have a formal mentoring curriculum but its initiatives, include initiating mentor and protégé relationships with existing suppliers and providing guidance to the suppliers on a one-on-one basis.

While Wal-Mart is a fairly recent player in corporate mentoring, a veteran is IBM, whose mentoring program began in 1968. In 2003, the firm partnered with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College where during a three-day retreat IBM executives are paired with diverse suppliers for 18 months, and required to meet at least twice on a monthly basis.

IBM also hosts the Tuck-WBENC (Women’s Business Enterprise National Council) Executive Exchange program, an intensive, five-day executive development program for up to 60 women CEOs.

Wal-Mart works with its suppliers to identify  companies that have the potential to continue to grow to scale with the company over time, however, one of the biggest challenges for small businesses is scalability, explains Anthony Soto, Wal-Mart’s director of supplier diversity. Often, many small firms do not have the capacity to meet increased demands for their products or services.

At IBM, Michael K. Robinson, director of the global supplier diversity program, says because of challenges in the economy minority-owned businesses need to pursue broader areas for supplier opportunities. “Many suppliers are in the service area because the cost of entry is low,” he says, “but I emphasize to diverse suppliers to go into the manufacturing area, where it is low competition [and room] to create joint ventures.”

Small businesses interested in a supplier contract with a corporation and mentorship, should be familiar with the company’s competition, customer base, and growth areas, and be able to demonstrate how their services can further the business interests of that company.
For more information on mentoring opportunities, visit www.walmartstores.com and www.ibm.com.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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