Forum will address methods of success

Speakers, vendors to show owners what is available

Minority business

February 29, 2000|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Kenneth N. Oliver has a message for those who run small businesses: There's money and expertise out there to help you build your company -- you only have to know where to look.

Matching up business owners --including Asians, African-Americans and other minority members -- with financing and advice is what Oliver does as senior vice president of the Development Credit Fund, a nonprofit corporation based in Baltimore that has been making loans to small businesses locally and in other mid-Atlantic states for 17 years.

"Overall, we've been very successful," said Oliver, who was involved in banking before joining the financing company.

Today, Oliver will share his fund's formula for success with minority business operators attending the Baltimore African-American Business Forum, scheduled for 7: 30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel. More than 150 people are registered to attend. American Express Financial Advisors is the chief sponsor.

The reason minority firms often don't have access to financing or expertise is that these companies too frequently operate outside a community's mainstream business "network" -- which not only can cost them needed capital, but also the shot at the contracts needed for growth.

That's why two local organizations -- the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- teamed to organize the forum: They want minority entrepreneurs to see just what's available in the marketplace. The event includes guest speakers and exhibits by service vendors who could benefit minority members of the business community.

"A lot of minority businesses are not in the mainstream business network," said Michele L. Whelley, interim president of the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit corporation whose mandate is to bolster the business base in downtown Baltimore. "The question is: How do you get them into the mainstream?"

One way is by giving businesses information. That's a key goal of the Development Credit Fund's Oliver, a mid-morning speaker at the forum. The Development Credit Fund, formed in 1983, makes loans to small businesses. It doesn't just oversee its own loan portfolio, it also administrates the federal Community Development Block Grant program locally as well as loan programs for the Small Business Administration.

Doing business with minority companies -- which is one of the credit fund's chief activities -- is good business, Oliver said. Minority companies tend to hire minorities as staffers, which brings members of different ethnic groups into the workplace.

That generates income and makes minority members part of the consumer class, which benefits ethnic communities financially by boosting income levels and socially by helping to achieve such important goals as cutting crime, experts say.

The fund also dispenses advice, because it reviews a business plan before it makes loans, and meets with the company quarterly, giving guidance and helping the company stay on course, Oliver said.

That's a key reason the default rate on its loan portfolio is less than 7 percent, he said.

The Development Credit Fund has a diverse customer base. Among the borrowers are retailers, construction companies, restaurants, travel agencies, doctors and dentists. Many of the companies have become big businesses, with loans having been long-since paid off.

In addition to Oliver, a representative of the Governor's Office on Minority Affairs will tell attendees of the business forum what minority companies need to do to land state business, said Whelley, of the Downtown Partnership. That also is a way to bring emerging enterprises into the mainstream business network, she said. While a key goal of the forum is to dispense advice, that's not the only objective, Whelley said.

By having many representatives of Baltimore's minority businesses together in one place, the Downtown Partnership will be able to discover the true needs of this group, which will help in devising future programs to benefit the owners of minority companies and other small businesses based in and around the city, she said.

That's key, because a healthy business base -- especially small business -- helps determine whether tourists will visit and businesses will open locations downtown.

"To a large extent, in dealing with small businesses, you're dealing with the first-floor retail and specialty shops that small business owners have kept alive," Whelley said. "Street-level business activity -- gives the city an air of activity" that influences impressions that visitors form of an inner city's vitality.

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