The Milwaukee Collaborative


A Fortune 500 company in Milwaukee needs 10,000 monogrammed polo shirts. In the past, the company simply put the project out to bid or placed the order with a familiar vendor.
A local, small, minority-owned business that specializes in monogrammed stitching normally would not have any chance of landing that lucrative contract. After all, the minority-owned business generally would not have access to the capital needed to expand its capacity to fill such a large order.
However, what would happen if the minority-owned business was able to partner with an established medium-sized company in a joint venture? What if that joint venture moved into an economically distressed neighborhood?
Together, the minority-owned business and the medium-sized company could land that contract with the large corporation.
With the large order for 10,000 shirts in hand from the large corporation, the new joint venture could grow its capacity. With the additional capacity and work, new jobs would be created, and a neighborhood would be revitalized.
In this equation, everyone wins:
* The large corporation adds a new partner to its minority vendor program and gets the shirts it needs, in addition to helping to revitalize a neighborhood in the corporation’s hometown.
* The medium-sized company gains more work with the large corporation and grows its revenues.
* The minority-owned business, now partnering with an established medium-sized company that already may have a supplier relationship with the large corporation, suddenly has access to capital to expand its capacity and take on additional large projects.
Such is the essence of The Milwaukee Collaborative, a new way of doing business. Alton Bathrick, a retired former vice president of Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., has been quietly, but diligently, pulling together the pieces of The Milwaukee Collaborative project behind the scenes for the past two years.
Bathrick says minority entrepreneurs often do not have access to capital to start or grow their businesses. He believes The Milwaukee Collaborative can change that equation and produce the added benefit of revitalizing distressed neighborhoods.
He is an investor with his son, Gib Bathrick, who is chief executive of Alton Enterprises LLC. In 2001, their company bought the vacant Greenebaum tannery at 2625 S. Greeley St. in Bay View for $950,000. The Bathricks have transformed the former eyesore into The Hide House, which is now home to several small businesses and art studios.
If the Bathricks have their way, The Hide House will one day be filled with joint-venture businesses formed through The Milwaukee Collaborative.
The senior Bathrick is using his connections in the corporate finance world to pull the project together. He convinced the Federal Reserve Banks of Chicago and Boston to bring their Small Business Investment and Development Conference to Milwaukee in March. Bathrick also convinced Don Graves Jr., director of strategic partnerships of the Business Roundtable, to attend the conference.
The Business Roundtable is a Washington, D.C.-based association of chief executive officers of America’s largest corporations, with a combined workforce of more than 10 million employees in the United States and $3.7 trillion in annual revenues.
Graves says The Milwaukee Collaborative is the Business Roundtable BusinessLink project’s 21st local coalition member and could become a national model as a new way to conduct business.
"I think that Al’s coalition really is a unique model that I hope will be successful and replicated around the country," Graves said. "Our role generally is to help local coalitions, as well as make contacts with large corporations. Our members are very interested in making sure the coalitions are successful."
Graves has had some preliminary discussions with representatives of some of Wisconsin’s largest corporations, including Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc., about The Milwaukee Collaborative.
"I think they’re generally excited about it. It’s my expectation that in the very near future, we’ll have Al meet with the companies," Graves said.
Graves said it is "perfectly clear" to the large corporations that they benefit when their hometown communities are thriving.
"It all just seems to make such great sense to everyone," Graves said. "It fits in with the business model of large corporations. They recognize it helps them improve their bottom line."
Bathrick also has enlisted the help of Reinhart, Boerner, Van Deuren S.C., which operates its own Minority Business Initiative.
"From a Reinhart standpoint, to get more involved is of interest to our firm," said Anne Hlavacka, an attorney at the Milwaukee law firm. "There is an opportunity here, with the New Market Tax Credits and changes that have occurred from a (community) leadership perspective. The Milwaukee Collaborative is a little bit of an experiment to connect businesses. One of the things Milwaukee could benefit from is to have new ideas come in and work with established people. That will benefit the community."
Think Innovative Media is the first minority-owned business to join The Milwaukee Collaborative (see accompanying story). Bathrick is working to secure established medium-sized "mentor" partners to join with Think Innovative Media.
Minority entrepreneurs, medium-sized companies interested in being mentors or partners and larger corporations interested in joining The Milwaukee Collaborative can obtain further information by contacting Bathrick at (262) 569-1234.
June 25, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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