U aims to develop

by Kane Loukas

Sometimes no amount of elbow grease tames the waves in the sea sailed by growing businesses.
For new and growing businesses owned by women, minorities or disabled persons, everyday snags can sink the ship before it ever sets sail.
In rough capitalist waters, Craig Taylor flies the flag of the Coast Guard, making sure good businesses within sight of the University stay afloat until they reach smoother waters.
As the new director of the 20-year old Community Economic Development Program, Taylor makes sure the University does business with women, minority and disabled-owned businesses — known by insiders as “targeted businesses.” With $450 million spent on goods and services in 1998, the University’s economic influence can make or break businesses. The University contracted out $27,888,907 or 6.1 percent of the $450 million to targeted businesses.
Taylor and his Morrill Hall staff promote the growth of dozens of targeted businesses in the 11-county metro area, with the expectation that as those businesses grow and mature, they employ their community members. As unemployment retreats, the depressed area slowly recovers, always with the assistance of several development programs in conjunction with substantial private investment.
“We kind of prepare (the businesses) for success by giving them an opportunity, then giving them the tools and guidance to make sure they don’t fail,” said Taylor. “We’re talking about spreading the wealth around.”
Taylor, a self-professed talkative guy, took extra long pauses and carefully picked words to describe how his work contributes to community development: “Trouble goes with the territory as far as this job is concerned,” he says deliberately. “You have to be out on the firing line.”
Critics of the University program and similar municipal, state and federal programs, commonly see efforts to “spread the wealth” as reverse discrimination, stripping opportunities away from businesses who earn their keep and don’t have programs to help them. Taylor flatly responds that his critics lack even the most rudimentary economic principles.
“The economic pie grows and shrinks based on the level and volume of participation,” Taylor said. More players equal a stronger, more diverse economy which leads to prosperous businesses and richer employees and communities.
The end product of his program is to improve the quality of life and the conditions of neighborhoods by improving the businesses within them.
In a typical small business partnership, Taylor might sit down with the owners of a minority owned electrical sub-contractor and ask them what they need to reach the next level.
“Now you’re capable of handling a $100,000 contact,” said Taylor, imitating his approach. “What can we do so you can handle a $150,000 contract?”
From there Taylor often helps businesses arrange loans and avoid the snags of adding staff and bigger, more complicated, contracts. He connects the companies with consulting services or more established businesses in a mentorship relationship.
Fridley-based Thor Construction, the largest African-American-owned construction company, qualifies as a success case for the University. In 1998, the 35-person company, up from five a decade ago, earned $17 million.
Richard Copeland, Thor’s president, said the University was “instrumental” in his company’s growth since its founding 20 years ago.
It’s tough to break into the business because large prime contractors like MA Mortenson Co., Kraus-Anderson Construction and Adolfson-Peterson, don’t usually take on the new sub-contractors.
“Prime contractors traditionally work with companies they have a historical background with,” Copeland explained. “Some of these relationships cross generations. You do business with people you socialize with, people who you know. And, unless that is forcibly changed, the old thought pattern will never be broken.”