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For MBWEs, gaining City biz not simple

  • Written by Tony Jones

(The New Tri State Defender is exploring the behind-the-scenes work in building more minority- and women-owned businesses. This is installment two.)

The revolution would be televised if the City of Memphis lost much-needed funds because its Division of Finance used vendors that were not up to snuff – minority- and women-owned businesses or not.

Avoiding potential mistakes in the process of finding qualified MWBEs is part of the job assigned to the city's Office of Contract Compliance. That work is being carried out amid periodic expressions of sheer dissatisfaction, such as voiced at the Minority Business Development Oversight Committee (MDOC) last week (April 17). In that instance the rub was unhappiness about the level of MWBEs the Division of Finance uses to assist in managing the city's $2 billion pension fund.

There apparently is a local point of reference to work from. Sources familiar with the Shelby County Finance Department said it maintains a list of 200-plus MWBE investment advisors.
The City of Memphis' Office of Contract Compliance is a three-person operation staffed by analyst Joyce Douglas, Taunya Falkner and Contract Compliance Officer Mary Bright. "We maintain a list of vendors qualified for doing business with the city, but we only deal with companies that have been certified as an MWBE," said Bright.

"We don't have the manpower to vet the entire workload that we face, so we outsource much of the work to three separate firms, then vet their work again for accuracy," she said.

Those vetting firms are the Uniform Certification Agency, the Women's Business Enterprise Council and the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development. All are privately owned and some used to dealing with the compliance process say minority- and women-owned businesses desirous of gaining certification would be well served to find out more about how the firms do their jobs.

The compliance office does extend its expertise to businesses that have not yet secured certification.

"We work with them to become certified through our partner agencies," said Bright. "But when seeking businesses to place for city contracts, we only work with certified firms."

Bright said the office's database lists close to 350 MWBEs qualified for city contract work.
TSD's "On Our Way To Wealthy" contributor Carlee McCullough worked in the compliance office for several years as the list grew.

"When you have a disparity or diversity program that is race-based, you have to utilize firms that have gone through a rigorous process to make sure they are minority- or women-owned. Sometimes it is a considerable process, but it is designed to prevent fraudulent and front companies."

Still, there is more to it than weeding out ownership cheaters.

"You have to be sure that they are ready to perform in the capacity that is needed," McCullough said. "A few years ago we were searching for commercial roofers but we could not put a goal on the contract because we didn't have any (MWBE) firms that were truly capable and certified.

"When you are talking about city projects you are talking about large commercial structures such as the FedExForum. You can't place a company there because the government cannot set forth a goal for one company. But we have many, many that are qualified, such as in basics such as masonry, HVAC, plumbing."

The certification process and pursuing the course to get government business may seem tedious, but Black Business Association President Roby Williams said the potential rewards are real.

"I can think of several member businesses that have benefited simply by going through the process of applying for a city contract, even when not successful the first time," said. "It improved their processes and how they did their business."

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