Welcome to the Neighborhood - Black Enterprise

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Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

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What kind of dues do you have to pay to gain entrée to the prestigious BE 100s club, which is characterized by entrepreneurial excellence and dazzling achievement in the horse race of corporate America?

Perhaps it’s working for free for nine months, while at the helm of a company trying to gain its footing. Or pursuing an entrepreneurial path that started with selling African wares in college bookstores and evolved into overseeing a conglomerate of construction, real estate development and broadcasting companies. Or even working as an accountant for 20 years before switching gears to head a full-service office furniture and systems dealership.

Sound rigorous? Certainly three of the new entrants into the BE 100s universe would say yes, having respectively lived through the above scenarios to drive their companies toward success. And what success they’ve seen: combined, they have more than 85 years of business experience and $150 million in revenues last year.

Clearly, they’ve earned their BE 100s membership cards-and we welcome them to the club.

In the first nine months after taking the helm of Fort Wayne-based WireAmerica of Indiana Inc. in October 1991, Lionel Tobin worked for free. It was a sacrifice that cost him thousands of dollars in personal income, and a gamble that could have caused major setbacks in his professional career. In a nutshell, WireAmerica’s new CEO, who had left AT&T after over 20 years with the company, had everything to lose and everything to gain staring him in the face all at once.

“It got scary,” Tobin, now 51, admits. In fact, at the time, WireAmerica was nearly at the end of its financial rope. That is, until Tobin successfully negotiated a $3 million deal with Ameritech in June 1992 to supply the company with outside plant repeater cases-metal boxes that regenerate telephone signals which can transmit for longer distances. But the road to that success was an arduous one.

WireAmerica was established in August 1988 by a group of entrepreneurs including Clarence Stewart. The company provides distribution, manufacturing and system-integration services necessary to make their clients’ telephone networks operational. As regional account manager for the Network Systems division of AT&T, it was Tobin’s job to increase the sales of AT&T products to minority businesses and also provide technical support to its vendors. Tobin met Stewart in 1989, as WireAmerica was one of the nine minority businesses across the country that Tobin managed and it had previously won a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) contract with AT&T.

In 1991, “When AT&T determined our unit was not generating the kind of profits they wanted to see, I was encouraged to find a job somewhere else within the company,” he says.

After 22 years with the biggest bell, Tobin opted for a different path. After working closely with minority businesses over the years, he felt he had the acumen and experience to run a network business of his own. But when his decision came down to partnering with one of his distributors or striking out on his own and starting

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