Association Promotes Awareness, Opportunities In Construction

October 15, 2007
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As a life-long resident of Grand Rapids, Eric Brown has seen the city grow from a collection of aging and outmoded buildings into a thriving and vibrant Midwestern hub through a series of construction projects that has brought health care facilities, hotels, condominiums and an abundance of restaurants, civic arenas and night spots to a refurbished downtown area.

He has also witnessed — and continues to promote — an influx of diversity to the construction industry that is rebuilding West Michigan in his role as director of the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association.

“Our mission is to provide excellence in the construction trades while promoting diversity through leadership, innovation and inspiration,” Brown said. “We try to bring high-quality minority contractors and minority-owned and women-owned businesses to the marketplace.

“We also try to get them involved in projects, because historically they have been underrepresented. We try in some ways to use methods that have not been used to a great extent and to get creative to create supplier diversity.

He added, “We are not just a voice crying out in the wilderness, but we identify a problem and come up with a solution. We are an organization that can problem solve and come up with solutions that are advantageous to all parties involved. We provide viable, diverse solutions.”

Since being named executive director in July 2006, Brown has re-energized and re-focused WMMCA’s mission and goals by connecting minority-owned and women-owned businesses into some mainstream projects in the health care, housing and public sectors.

“I think the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association is continuing to grow and is having a very positive influence on our community,” said Jeanne Engelhart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “Eric is one of the professionals coming in and helping that organization move to another level. It has been around since the early 1980s with various people and volunteers. But with Eric involved on a full-time basis, he has moved the conversation to a higher level through networking and discussions.

“He is raising the profile of the entire organization, whose goal is to increase the level of awareness for minority and women construction contractors and vendors. I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more about him over the years.”

For those efforts, WMMCA is being honored by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce as the 2007 Minority Business Advocate of the Year. Brown will be honored at the chamber’s 26th annual Minority Business Celebration on Oct. 23.

“To me, it’s such a high honor, particularly with the other nominees involved,” Brown said.

WMMCA is concerned with all aspects of the minority- and women-owned business community as they relate to the development and expansion of such businesses by advocating for diversity on public and private projects.

“A lot of what we do is advocacy,” Brown said. “We speak out on behalf of these businesses and try to get involved in civic affairs for greater Grand Rapids, Kent County and West Michigan and try to find opportunities for our members to be involved in construction projects.

“We always have the informal opportunities and scheduled networking opportunities. And then we try to take it to the next level to bring complementary companies together so diversity can be achieved in a greater manner.”

WMMCA is also able to promote minority- and women-owned businesses through active involvement in civic affairs that have a potential effect on its membership. Advocates such as Brown regularly attend Grand Rapids City Commission meetings, meet with state representatives regarding matters of interest to members, and actively seek out local businesses to encourage diversity and find ways to best utilize the resources available for projects.

“Most that are in the membership have a history, and we are familiar with their companies,” Brown said. “Some are pioneering, minority-owned companies that are around and may come certified from another company or agency, such as MDOT or the Michigan Minority Business Council.

“As far as the performance side, it’s like any other contractor. We provide a list of qualified contractors and connect the opportunities for those qualified contractors and help those companies who are still emerging, put them in contact and help them become qualified companies.”

Major contractors are able to utilize WMMCA to secure diversity on their projects, which can sometimes provide those companies an advantage in the bid process for potential state, local and federal government projects, medical facilities and educational institutions.

“We try to have a good base of minority suppliers or owners, and then try to recruit minority-owned contractors. At the same time, we are working with minority-owned and non-minority-owned contractors,” Brown said.

WMMCA was founded in 1982 to provide a network of contractors who shared their knowledge and experience with each other and serve as a source for the city of Grand Rapids to tap into for the local minority- and women-owned firms in the construction industry. In 2001, WMMCA’s focus expanded into the private sector and, most recently, has established a voice regarding civic matters.

“Although we’ve been around since 1982, most folks would not have known who we were two years ago,” Brown said. “There has been a lot of resistance, but the business climate for construction — as well as investment dollars — wants a more diverse community. Part of having a more diverse community is having a bigger and driving diverse minority business community. It just makes excellent business sense.”

WWMCA has become a major networking source for getting minority and women contractors into West Michigan’s building mainstream, but there still is a long way to go, according to Brown.

“It’s very challenging,” Brown said. “Fortunately, we are at a time when those pioneering and visionary owners, construction managers and lower-tier contractors are seeing the need for more diversity.”

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