'Right thing to do' is paying off

Supplier diversity, unlike some affirmative action programs, is growing.

Published March 18, 2007

TAMPA -- Joseph Jackson met Bruce Feathers about six years ago at a conference.

Feathers is the owner of FeatherLite Enterprises, a company that sells disposable gloves, safety shoes and other items used by businesses. Jackson is a vice president for inclusion at Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners Inc., parent company of Outback Steakhouse and other restaurants that buy disposable gloves for kitchen employees.

Feathers is black. His company offered competitive pricing and emphasizes its work giving back to its northeast Portland, Ore., community through first-time homebuyer and substance abuse programs and work with at-risk children.

"We were impressed by that," Jackson said.

So OSI switched to FeatherLite for its glove supply in the northwest. Today, FeatherLite has the national contract and is now selling gloves to Microsoft office cafeterias, has a regional contract with McDonald's restaurants and is supplying disposable shoe covers to the Boeing Co.

"That's all because of Outback," Feathers said. "From Outback, that established our legitimacy in the glove business."

Feathers and his company are beneficiaries of supplier diversity, formal programs created by larger companies to identify and enter contracts with firms owned by minorities and women that make or sell things they need in order to do business. Unlike other affirmative action programs under assault, supplier diversity appears to be growing.

The reason may have more to do with money than altruism.

"When I think of a term like 'the right thing to do,' I think it's a social imperative," said Malik Ali, president of the Florida Minority Supplier Development Council. "It might be the right thing to do, but if it doesn't make money it ain't gonna fly."

Ali's nonprofit group certifies minority businesses and provides lists of eligible contractors to companies looking for vendors who pay a $1,700 membership fee. His group also provides guidance on how to make those relationships successful.

Since 2000, membership in the council, which covers most of Central and North Florida, has climbed from 103 to 230. Then again, Ali notes, the council has only about 30 to 35 members in the Tampa Bay area, meaning Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

"It's still a long way to grow," Ali said.

TECO Energy is one member. Frederick Bell, manager of supplier diversity for the main power and gas supplier for Hillsborough County, has a staff of three and a mandate that came down from the utility's chief executive officer, Sherrill Hudson. He seeks to ensure that at least 5 percent of what TECO spends for goods and services comes from firms owned by women and minorities.

Verizon director of supplier diversity Delores Johnson-Cooper attends conferences, works with groups that keep tabs on minority vendors and encourages small businesses to apply for contracts through their Web site. She and a staff of 15 seek to mentor those who win them.

When customers see minorities installing Verizon's fiber-optic cable TV lines in their neighborhoods, Verizon hopes that translates to potential customers who will also want the company's high-speed Internet service.

"This is one of the few things we do where not only does it make good business sense, but it's also very good for the communities as well," Johnson-Cooper said.