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Alexander Nichols Featured

1:00pm EDT June 22, 2004
To hear it from Alexander "Nick" Nichols, president and executive director of the Pittsburgh Regional Minority Purchasing Council, many of the problems - and opportunities -- for minority business owners aren't much different than those of their mainstream counterparts.

Correspondingly, the strategies and tactics for business achievement aren't all that different, either. To encourage success among minority business enterprises, or MBEs, Nichols preaches a gospel of networking, collaboration and relationship-building to owners of minority business enterprises.

Nichols, a winner of the SBA's 2004 Minority Business Advocate award, has plenty of experience on the procurement side in positions with GE, Rockwell International and Alcoa, and a stint as an entrepreneur running his own computer company, Computer Friend, before taking the post he's held since 2001.

While The PRMPC's mission isn't to create new companies, it does have a hand in helping its members build their enterprises and create new jobs, and that's where its efforts have the most impact. The PRMPC helps MBEs qualify as minority contractors and get in front of major corporations that are also members of the organization and that have combined billions in contract opportunities to pass out.

One vehicle it uses to put members and companies together is its annual Opportunity Fair, held the past two years at Heinz Field and PNC Park. More than 800 MBEs get an opportunity for face time with representatives of more than 100 corporations and other large purchasers, including government agencies and nonprofits. This year's event, says Nichols, was the most successful to date.

But as much as the PRMPC can help bring interested parties together, Nichols says, it takes a self-starter to make a business relationships grow. Too many expect the organization to do what only the entrepreneur can do for himself.

"I think they feel like, they join the organization, and now, what is it going to do for me?" Nichols says. "But it doesn't work like that."

Smart Business talked with Nichols about the needs of MBEs, what it takes for them to get into the business mainstream and how it his organization does work.

What are the biggest challenges that MBEs face?

Most of the companies today are looking for larger companies to do business with. All small businesses are having a tougher time because the big companies are saying, 'You've got to be able to supply us globally. We want to sit down and we want to cut a deal with somebody who can supply us everywhere.'

I'll give you an example. PPG, Alcoa, U.S. Steel --these are very global companies. There used to be a time when they would say, OK, I'm in the Pittsburgh community, I care about the community. Right now, I don't think that's as much of an issue to them as getting to that bottom line.

They're all bottom-line oriented right now, so they're looking for companies that can save them money. There's not that sense of trying to build companies in our community.

One of the strategies we're trying to use in our organization is the concept of industry groups. We want to collaborate and form joint ventures and partnerships, go in together where we can utilize everybody's strengths and go after some of these big contracts.

What things would have the biggest impact on helping MBEs compete for contracts?

I think financing. I think that's probably the main one. I would also say training. I think a lot of our contractors still lack technical training.

Again, these big corporations are throwing out terms like Six Sigma and ISO 9002, and our guys might not really understand what they mean. The corporations want to know that contractors are ready to come in there and perform.

We're talking GM, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, who require very high standards of quality throughout their organizations, and then they're leaning on their suppliers, like PPG and U.S. Steel and Alcoa, and that flows right down to their contractors.

What motivates these large companies to participate as members of the Pittsburgh Regional Minority Purchasing Council?

I think it's customer-driven to some point. For example, the automobile manufacturers seem to get it right. They say, 'You know what? We realize that the Hispanic community is a very fast-growing group. They're going to be the ones buying cars, so we better get on board and embrace this diversity thing.'

They'll tell PPG and Alcoa, 'If you want to supply us with the glass that goes into our cars, and if you want to make the aluminum hoods that go into our cars, we're going to require that you embrace diversity as well, and we want to see what your (diversity) program is and what you're doing about it.'

Is there a single accomplishment at the PRMPC that you are most proud of?

The Opportunity Fair is a good example. We just had a debriefing on it, and we had several of the MBEs that served on the committee who said this was the best event that they've ever attended. One said she had been trying to get into UPMC for years. She said the next day she got a call from them.

One woman said that normally, she'd identify anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 in opportunities. This year, she had a shot at a $2 million opportunity. I've had several people call me and tell me how successful this fair was for them.

What would make the greatest difference in improving the chances for MBEs?

I think anything in the area of loans, low interest loans, grants or education. Anything in those areas would be a tremendous help to our MBEs.

We send people to the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University to learn how to serve on boards of directors. You get into boardrooms, that has a ripple effect that's far-reaching into the community. The more of those things we can do - I'd like to send 10 people. Right now, we can only send two.

What things should MBEs be doing to increase their participation in the business mainstream?

I think they should learn how to network. You join an organization, and people will notice you if you become active in it, no matter what it is. I would say join, get active, get involved. How to reach: Pittsburgh Regional Minority Purchasing Council www.prmpc.org