Marilyn M. Rawlings says building her $7-million-a-year company, Cameo Electronics, was a simple matter of having goals and pursuing them in a logical and determined manner.
"I was introduced to an opportunity and I went for it," says Ms. Rawlings in her matter-of-fact style that borders on impatience. "I knew all the professionals I needed, lawyers and accountants. I had always worked around a lot of professionalism. So doing business was just a matter of applying what I knew."
Ms. Rawlings might make it sound easy, but it took sheer hard work and untold energy to build her nine-year-old electronics distribution business into what Black Enterprise magazine calls one of the 100 most lucrative black-controlled businesses in the nation.
Ms. Rawlings became president of her company when she was 25 at the suggestion of a colleague who worked with her at a Towson accounting firm. The colleague said -- apparently with some foresight -- that Ms. Rawlings had what it took to make it on her own in the business world.
"He took notice of my ability to develop a rapport with people and kind of coaxed me into it," says Ms. Rawlings, a Sparrows Point native and graduate of Frostburg State College.
It helped that Ms. Rawlings' friend had a friend in the electronics business. The friend, Howard Copelan, left his job with an electronics manufacturer to join Ms. Rawlings as a 49 percent partner in Cameo.
"We met about six months before we went into business," Ms. Rawlings says.
The two launched Cameo in 1981 in a single office with a phone, electronics manuals, a prospective client list of big businesses and a small amount of seed money (Ms. Rawlings wants the exact figure to remain a secret).
"What we had to do was get on the phone and get to know the people at the other end," Ms. Rawlings says.
Within three months, she says, Cameo landed its first big contract: to sell $100,000 worth of integrated circuits to IBM Corp. in Kingston, N.Y. That deal was followed in 90 days by
another $300,000 contract with the firm.
Those agreements put Cameo on the firm footing that it continues to enjoy. The company operates out of a 3,000-square-foot office/warehouse in Owings Mills as well as a Riverside, Calif., office that mainly serves the still burgeoning Silicon Valley.
Ms. Rawlings says the secret of Cameo's success is the ability to provide her customers with quality products at competitive prices in a timely fashion. While it may sound cut and dried, Ms. Rawlings admits that she had to overcome some stereotypes.
"People look at you and see that you are black, young and a woman and they assume that you don't know what you're doing," she says, sounding as if she pities people who harbor such views. "But once they take the chance, they learn that we offer what any good business does -- quality products and good service."
Cameo sells a range of semiconductors, relays, switches, wire, cable and other products that it buys from manufacturers and resells to other businesses that use them to make their products.
"The personal service is why people use a distributor. We do all the dirty work," she says. "If IBM wants 10 connectors, we will have those 10 connectors on their desk by the specified date, period."
The company's clients are spread across the United States and Canada. Among the big ones are Lockheed and General Dynamics. She says that 65 percent of her work comes through defense-related contracts.
Cameo has 17 employees, most of whom are young and share Ms. Rawlings' kinetic style. "I like things fast, fast, fast, going, going, going," she says. "I don't like having to come behind people to finish a job."
Cameo's Owings Mills location is a constant buzz of people making calls to clients to make sales and manufacturers to order products. The shipping department in Cameo's warehouse is where the components are packed and sent -- usually via United Parcel Service -- to customers.
"This really isn't hard. It is just a matter of developing a rapport, selling the product and following up," Ms. Rawlings says. "One thing is that I always wanted was to make money, to be rich. I knew the business world held that promise. And, I was lucky enough to pick a good, profitable commodity."