(May 3, 2004) — Many minority-owned companies would like the spotlight to shift away from them.
For a lot of companies, being called a minority-owned or even a woman-owned supplier has been a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't proposition. The idea, when you look at it in sociological terms, makes a lot of companies uneasy. No one likes being defined by their minority status or their gender.
These are companies that don't want to be fenced in by what they cannot control. It would be similar to people with slight disabilities being told that they are special, being patronized for every small accomplishment. They want to be like everyone else. So do minority-owned suppliers.
Covering the topic of minority- and women-owned businesses over the years has been a bit of a tightrope act.
I've been reamed out by female corporate executives — still a sad rarity at most large plastics-related companies — for focusing on their womanhood and not their credentials. I've been put in my place by African-American owners of processing companies who don't like having their skin color pointed out. “Why is that important?” they ask.
And I can't argue with them. If you're white and male and in plastics, you don't get the same treatment. If you're white and male and run a hair salon in Chinatown, you might.
That's the crux of it. Let's go back in time, shall we, pre-1993, before the dawning of business set-aside programs that were adopted by the automotive industry and then by other markets. In Plastics News, as elsewhere, we didn't broach the topic of minority-owned companies a lot. It was not really an issue.
Then again, without any programs to help those companies, few of them succeeded. You generally had your all-male, all-white clubs of processors controlling the supply chain.
Not only that, but banks generally weren't doling out many dollars for small, minority-owned enterprises. Mentors were hard to find for business owners who did not have the deep roots of many of their competitors.
And company executives didn't have any great talent pool of minority candidates waiting for promotion. Maybe that glass ceiling that prevented past generations from advancing their careers was too confining to such candidates to consider a career in plastics.
Then came the U.S. Small Business Administration pushing industries to advance the minority agenda. The Big Three and Japanese automakers followed suit, asking their large suppliers to purchase a slice of their products from minority-owned companies. Then came companies such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Motorola Inc. making similar promises.
For women-owned busi-nesses, some companies now source spe-cif-ically to them. Still, the amount has paled compared with the revolution seen for minority-owned companies. Has it helped? You betcha. Today, a huge minority-owned automotive supplier, Plastech Engineered Products Inc., is owned by a woman originally from Vietnam. You have a lot of joint ventures created with large suppliers, allowing minority-owned processors a crack at contracts that they could not have dreamed of in the past. And they have mentors now.
Go to an exposition in Detroit for minority companies and witness the palpable excitement many companies feel. You'll see processors owned by immigrants from many lands, with people who might never have been given a stepladder in past generations.
And in Detroit, which still is a hub for minority-owned businesses, you'll see prominent carmakers and suppliers out looking for the next minority star.
Yet, there have been disasters. Some of the more prominent mi—nority-owned names in the past quietly flamed out, the most recent being pioneering injection molder Regal Plastics Co.
Many of them were hampered by the too-much, too-soon syndrome. You know the one: Suddenly you're a company flush with success and with contracts rolling in. Suddenly, you can't handle the load. You get buried, and your customers leave for the next supplier.
No one waits for a minority-owned company to recover. The business world is impatient.
The common theme among minority-owned suppliers has been that sourcing programs only offer a crack in the door. Only a well-run company that knows its limits can kick the door open and make those contracts pay off. With the spate of both dramatic successes and failures in recent years, that rings true.
Still, let's focus on the positives. Some of the companies, such as blow molder Madras Packaging LLC of Charlottesville, Va., give a percentage of their profit back to communities to support minority educational initiatives. Others have set up shop in inner city areas that once were neglected. And many of them have become a United Nations of employees, hiring recent immigrants and underprivileged people.
That's the true spirit of the SBA proposals started in 1993, to allow those companies that prosper from contracts to give back to others. It's Christmas year-round for many people who couldn't catch a break before.
Maybe that's worth the onus that goes with being a “minority-owned company.” There's still the perception that a minority-owned company needs help or isn't quite as good as its majority counterparts.
But if the program continues to succeed, it will live up to the dream espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: that all people live in harmony. Without the need to be branded a minority-owned company to survive.