Pro-Diversity Companies Reach Out To Disadvantaged Businesses

October 15, 2007
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As president of one of the largest construction firms in West Michigan, William Schoonveld values diversity in the workforce.

The president of Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. said he believes the construction industry is in the forefront of building stronger communities for the present and future, and inclusion of a diverse workforce is a key to pulling it all together.

“Diversity is important for the health of our community,” Schoonveld said. “In any industry — if you look at the greater good of our community, the health of our community, the health of our schools and the health of our workforce and our company — you need diversity.

“Everybody included brings greater health and harmony to the greater community. It starts with giving companies and people an opportunity.”

Schoonveld said it also makes good business sense.

“It’s good for our industry,” he said. “If you look back to the late 1990s especially, there were concerns about not having an adequate workforce in any industry, but in our (construction) industry in particular.

“In the past, our industry has been overwhelmingly white-male oriented. We needed to diversify that by promoting, encouraging and recruiting not only minority-owned companies, but women as well, to ensure an adequate and quality workforce in years to come.”

Owen-Ames-Kimball deals with literally hundreds of contractors on a regular basis. As a result, the company has been able to take the lead on opening doors for minority contractors who are building their reputations of quality workmanship and on-time completion of projects.

“We need to continually talk as a community and prove it by putting our money where our mouth is,” Schoonveld said. “We need to provide opportunities to the companies that are termed as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.

“Those companies still have to prove themselves, but you have to give them the opportunity to do that. It is an ongoing process, and one we need to keep in the forefront.

“We have a duty to provide opportunities. We need to advocate for any small business. We need to be a mentor for those businesses and create relationships with the wealth of knowledge that most of us will gladly share.”

Barriers — perceived or real — that in the past may have prevented minority- or women-owned businesses from getting contracts still exist to some extent, according to Eric Brown, executive director of West Michigan Minority Contractors Association.

“There traditionally have been three factors,” Brown said. “No. 1 is what was perceived as ‘the good ol’ boy network,’ where people don’t care to look outside of the box. Fortunately, we have those who are stepping outside of that and saying there is enough work for everyone.

“Secondly — and perhaps the biggest obstacle — is capacity, either financial or in the workforce. Some minority-owned companies may have the inability or ability to take on larger jobs. Mostly, there has historically been a lack of capital. Thirdly, there is a perceived lack of business understanding. And while the first two things have been real obstacles, lack of business understanding is a myth.

“Many first-time business owners will have a capital challenge, but we are working with some wonderful financial institutions that understand that and are overcoming some of those hurdles. The rest can be solved with training and understanding your company’s capacity.”

Workforce capacity is a major issue, according to Schoonveld.

“It’s not so much an issue of stereotypes or exclusion, but more about not being familiar with the company,” Schoonveld said. “The most important question is can they do the work?

“Some of those packages of work are too big for smaller contractors, so we encourage forming partnerships where they go together and bid for the contract. We strongly encourage them to show us what their participation will be percentage-wise, so we can monitor it and make it a diverse project.”

Schoonveld — along with William Edwards, diversity programs manager for the Hunt Construction Group — will discuss the challenges and successes of working with minority- and women-owned business contractors at The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 26th annual Minority Business Celebration, scheduled for Oct. 23 at Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

“It’s a continual effort, and it’s something we’ve got to continue to talk about and keep in the forefront,” Schoonveld said. “The bigger companies are in the same mode as the smaller companies: To be successful, we all have to find the right work and make it profitable.

“In order to find that out, they have to be given the opportunity to prove they can do the work. And that can be achieved by reaching out and giving the opportunities for those companies to prove themselves.”

West Michigan companies such as Owen-Ames-Kimball, Erhardt Construction, Triangle Associates and Spectrum Health, among others, have taken the lead on building relationships with Disadvantage Business Enterprises. That, according to Brown, will help keep those companies in the forefront for generations to come.

Outreach meetings hosted by groups such as the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Council and the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association continue to put larger contractors together with smaller contractors of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises and to build on the relationships that continue to grow.

“In order to be good businessmen you have to see off in the horizon,” Brown said. “The horizon and demographics are changing, and in order to be competitive going forward, companies need to be involved with contributing back to the community.

“The way we did things in the past is not going to help the overall economy in the long run. We can have environmental and economic sustainability, but with it, we also need social equity. Without having them overlapping, you won’t have a sustainable outcome.

“This is a can-do community. If we want to do it, we can get it done.”    

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