Finding The Right Formula for Growth

It was good to be African American and a business owner in 2004. With more attention given to diversity in America, minority-owned companies found themselves in high demand. From the private sector to the government, America recognized black businesses as quality suppliers or good acquisition targets.

“There are more corporations who see the business case for doing business with minority suppliers,” says Harriet Michel, president of the New York-based National Minority Supplier Development Council. However, she adds, “The reason you may see a jump in revenues in the top 100 black-owned companies is because corporations have cut the number of suppliers they are working with and doing longer contracts with a few of the larger minority companies.”

“It absolutely helps to be a minority-owned business,” says Ronald Hall, CEO of Bridgewater Interiors L.L.C. (No. 3 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $645.3 millions in sales), which saw a 285% increase in revenues over 2003. In 2004, Bridgewater made history twice, receiving the largest contract ever awarded to a minority company from Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group. The car seat systems manufacturer received a contract for $400 million from Chrysler and a $500 million contract from Ford. Both contracts are for work to be completed over the next three to five years.

But the primary reason for Bridgewater’s triple-digit growth was the opening of two new plants to service existing contracts. It opened a plant in Oxford, Alabama, in March to build seats for the Honda Pilot SUV. “We project that with the one morning shift and not a full year of production, we probably did about $95 million to $100 million,” says Hall, who plans to add an afternoon shift and 125 more employees to the Alabama plant.

Bridgewater also opened a third plant in Warren, Michigan, to meet seat demands for the Ford F150, the Lincoln Navigator, and the Ford Expedition, which created nearly 500 jobs for minorities. “About 98% of our employees are Detroiters, and 90% are people of color,” boasts Hall of the Michigan location. Hall was tapped six years ago by Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. to serve as a 51% owner of Bridgewater Interiors. The deal made it possible for JCI to gain a piece of the contracts slated for minority-owned businesses. In turn, JCI gave big dollar backing to a black-owned company that may otherwise not have been able to meet the overhead necessary to service large automotive contracts. With the muscle of JCI, Bridgewater Interiors is looking to hit the billion-dollar mark within five years. “I believe there is strength in numbers,” says Hall of his joint venture with JCI.

Such strategies enabled our industrial/service companies to post an impressive performance in 2004: Gross sales grew 11%, from $12.92 billion in 2003 to $14.29 billion in 2004. And these firms increased productivity by reducing headcount by about 5%, from 64,402 to 70,569. As in previous years, there have been a number of casualties in a somewhat unforgiving environment.

Community Pride Inc., for example, left the list