In 1998, the outcome of a legal case changed the course of Barry Bennett’s life. Bennett, who was working for a geotechnical and environmental engineering firm in Atlanta at the time, had provided expert testimony for a family-owned company that was suing a large manufacturer for non-payment.
“After several months, the small company finally prevailed and we celebrated that evening in Buckhead. The owner of the company said I did a great job and asked why I didn’t do this for myself,” recalled Bennett, now president of Metals & Materials Engineers, LLC (MME). “I told him I had a one-income family with four small children, and I couldn’t afford to start a business and put all of these people at risk. He looked at me and said, ‘Barry, all of the reasons you just gave me for not starting a business are the reasons you should.’ I went home that night and couldn’t sleep.”
It was at that pivotal moment that the idea started for MME, an Atlanta-based, minority-owned engineering firm that has been providing technical experience in metallurgy, civil engineering, engineering sciences and utility services since 2001. Today the company has two major divisions – materials engineering/metallurgy studies and civil engineering/infrastructure analysis – and employs 70 people across three locations. MME’s customers run the gamut from law firms to municipalities to large manufacturers.
“Over the past five years, the emphasis has been on the infrastructure side because that’s where the growth was. Approximately 75 percent of our company is focused on the civil and infrastructure arena,” Bennett noted. “Part of my business plan and long-term goal is to create a 50-50 split between the two operations. Currently, the growth is on the metallurgy side because municipalities are struggling with lost revenues and a decreased tax base.”
Because of the company’s relatively young age and shift in focus, Bennett was intent on taking advantage of any and all opportunities available to his SBA 8(a) certified company, a designation that means the company meets the requirements of being a small business, is unconditionally owned and controlled by one or more socially and economically disadvantaged people who are U.S. citizens, and demonstrates potential for success. Most importantly, having 8(a) certification means a business can bid on government projects not available to uncertified companies.
“About two years ago, we had an opportunity to enter into a mentor-protégé relationship with Atlanta Gas Light, and through that relationship, the Georgia Minority Business Enterprise Center was brought in to provide some guidance and counseling to the minority businesses that participated in that program,” said Bennett. “I had some one-on-one conversations with Donna Ennis, the project director, and Maria Mar Hill, a business advisor, and I realized they provided additional services.”
The Georgia Minority Business Enterprise Center (GMBEC) is operated by the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute, providing business and technical assistance that helps emerging and existing minority business enterprises (MBEs) experience significant growth and sustainability, and have long-term economic impact through the creation of jobs and revenue. Part of a national network of centers established to increase the number of MBEs and strengthen existing ones, GMBEC provides services in business assessment, access to capital and finance management, access to markets, strategic business consulting and business process improvement. Bennett says that his interactions with GMBEC have proven to be invaluable to his business.
“I’m an engineer by training. Prior to that I had limited management training, so I knew that was one of the areas I could use some help in, certainly on the accounting side. They started talking to me, showing me how I could improve on this shortcoming,” he said. “We entered into a contractual agreement for them to just give me guidance on some of my procurement or banking issues, how to improve on our certification packages – just a full array of executive business counseling that I never had before.”
Working with Hill, Bennett began to examine MME’s banking issues and re-structured some of the company’s loans for a monthly savings of $30,000. She also encouraged him to purchase the company’s 10,500-square-foot headquarters building in Suwanee – which he had been renting since 2001 – resulting in a more lucrative credit line and a savings of $4,000 a month.
“There’s not a single major transaction that I undertake without Maria’s counseling, guidance and support,” Bennett said. “I really believe that if I hadn’t had this service from Georgia Tech, it would have been very difficult to survive under these terrible economic circumstances.”
Hill also assisted Bennett with his application to the Governor’s Mentor Protégé Connection program, a unique opportunity for a select group of Georgia’s emerging businesses to improve business practices, develop relationships and promote business growth. The program partners a small business with a leading Georgia-based corporation to focus on areas such as new markets and global expansion; professional development, business training and networking; business operations improvements; and cutting-edge business practices and mentoring. In February, MME was partnered with Southern Company for the year-long program.
“Barry and his staff are extremely talented professionals,” said Melissa Evans, Georgia Power’s staff supplier diversity consultant. “It is always exciting and rewarding for us at Georgia Power to identify a top performing minority-owned business.”
Currently, Bennett is in the process of putting together a master service agreement with Southern Company to provide non-destructive testing and metallurgical services throughout all Southern Company plants. MME will begin with the Georgia and Alabama plants, and then take advantage of other opportunities in Florida and Mississippi as the project progresses, giving them tremendous opportunities to grow. Hill, described by Bennett as someone he “trusts exclusively,” agrees that MME is well-poised for growth and long-term success.
“MME is the type of company that allows the GMBEC to fulfill its mission of successfully growing businesses and creating employment in the state of Georgia. The company has been very successful leveraging internal and external resources and relationships resulting in significant growth,” she said. “MME has the capacity, capability and dedicated staff to continue to achieve great business success.”
GMBEC celebrated its sixth year at Georgia Tech in 2009, and over that time it helped clients secure more than $232 million in procurement contracts, financing, and sales; assisted minority companies with creating more than 3,000 jobs; and provided one-on-one technical assistance to some 450 firms and advice, guidance, and resources to thousands of others. The program received the 2010 Special Recognition Award from the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 2006 Institution Award from the Greater Atlanta Economic Alliance and has been recognized by its federal sponsor as an outstanding performance center since 2005.
GMBEC works with existing high-impact firms in manufacturing, construction, warehousing, transportation, technology and professional services. Assistance ranges from identification of funding sources to process and infrastructure improvement to securing new business. To qualify for GMBEC assistance, companies must have 51 percent minority ownership and minimum annual revenues of $500,000.
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The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright