Teaching Small Firms to Do Business With the Giants Object of Conference

Times Staff Writer

Big corporations have needs of all sizes.

Think of the number of paper clips that Xerox Corp. uses in a year, the demand for widgets at Hughes Aircraft Co., the automotive maintenance workload at Chevron USA.

But many corporations don’t look to small businesses to fill those needs.

“They either do business with each other or with a select group of firms,” said Pamela Thigpen, who works in the Inglewood city manager’s office.


Thigpen is one of several city officials and business leaders who are preparing a conference next spring to help small, minority- and female-owned companies get a bigger share of corporate contracts.

“Major corporations have a problem identifying reliable small businesses they can work with,” she said.

Entitled “Providing the Link,” the event is sponsored by the City of Inglewood, the Inglewood Redevelopment Agency and the Inglewood/Airport Area Chamber of Commerce. Each sponsor has donated $5,000 and staff to help organize the conference, scheduled for April 28.

“We want to bring in the big guns, the Northrops and the TRWs, and expose them to businesses in a minority community,” said Roger Scott, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.


Some Key Participants

Corporations and small businesses--the federal definition is a business that grosses up to $5 million annually--are being invited from all over Los Angeles County. The list of big corporations that have been contacted includes Xerox, TRW Inc., Hughes, Mobil Oil Corp., Southern California Edison Co. and Pacific Bell, Thigpen said. Conference organizers say the response has been positive and they hope that corporate representatives will bring specific information about coming contracts.

“We’re not looking for the major corporations to send their PR people, but the people who are empowered to negotiate contracts, whether they’re settled (on) that day or at a meeting in the future,” said James Brown, who heads business development for the city.

James Gillory, a Chamber of Commerce representative in the planning group, emphasized that the conference is not meant exclusively for minority firms. “Businesses in the Inglewood area aren’t all black,” he said. “They’re Hispanic, Korean, white. Everyone’s invited.”

Councilman Daniel K. Tabor has been active in getting the project under way, Thigpen said, and Tabor and Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) are working to involve federal, state and city procurement officials.

Federal law requires that 10% of corporate projects using government funds be dealt to small or minority-owned contractors. But conference organizers said they want to prepare small businesses to be able to compete, whether set-asides are required or not.

The conference will also offer what Thigpen called “professional development” workshops in areas such as financing, marketing, certifying and bonding businesses, and the mechanics of the bidding process.

Many family-run businesses provide quality service or merchandise while remaining unsophisticated in other areas, Gillory said, adding, “A mom-and-pop business might do a good job, but not be able to pay the bills.”


One of the corporate representatives who will attend the conference is Wesley Greenwood, a former president of the Inglewood Chamber of Commerce. He is also an administrator for Southern California Edison in charge of providing opportunities for female- and minority-run businesses. Corporate resistance to such efforts has diminished but not disappeared, Greenwood said.

“Corporations are used to doing business with the same company for years and years,” he said. “They want fast and reliable service. They may not want to take a chance, and that’s understandable. But it’s got to change.”

Fending Off Resentment

While Edison does not have a formal set-aside policy, company analysts work to “bring along” new businesses seeking corporate contracts so they can bid and perform effectively, Greenwood said. This process seeks to prevent resentment by firms that are not awarded contracts and also to avoid negative experiences for corporations that take on a small business for the first time.

“The only way to learn the bidding process is to participate,” Greenwood said, adding that a minority-owned business chosen over larger and more established suppliers holds the contract for supplying Edison’s paper, and with positive results.

One of the best things about events like the coming conference, Greenwood said, is that “it gives everybody a chance to come together in one place. All people want is a chance to compete.”