Tool shop owner defies the stereotypes
By Kelemarie Lyons, for SBT
Mariam Rogers moved back to her hometown of Milwaukee after 34 years with a focused agenda: to start a manufacturing company. Her vision was to fill a need for machined and tooled products, as well as packaged products.
Little did she know that her business, Bridgeman Machine, Tooling & Packaging, also would fulfill a vital need in both the industry and the community by providing training for people in the inner city.
That training provides livelihoods for otherwise unemployed people. And that training provides workers for an under-served industry.
Rogers is very clear about her abilities. "I don’t know how to make things. I know how to run a business," she says.
She spent eight years helping an entrepreneur in Pennsylvania build a profitable machine tooling business. As part of the deal, Rogers was promised one-third of the company.
While Rogers fulfilled her obligations, the entrepreneur did not. It was at that point, Rogers asked herself, "Should I spend the energy on fighting for the one-third of the business or should I start my own?"
With some encouragement from her sons, she decided to "go for it."
Milwaukee, with its vast manufacturing industry, seemed like a logical place to locate such a business. So, Rogers opened her company in 3,400 square feet of space at 2850 N. Teutonia Ave. on April 1, 2002. Last August, she moved to a 43,600-square foot site at 7026 N. Teutonia Ave. on the city’s far north side.
Surprisingly, the company’s first contract was not to produce a thousand, nor even hundreds of machined or packaged goods for a large manufacturer.
The company’s first contract was with the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Greater Milwaukee, to provide training to W-2 workers and create the skilled labor the industry needs.
"I met with individuals at OIC who expressed the need for training services. I knew we had the right equipment and skills to fulfill their goals," Rogers says.
Forming an alliance with Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), Bridgeman is providing 12 weeks of training, in which students learn a variety of skills, including: math conversion, blueprint reading, scale reading, layout tools, identification of a lathe mill and safety.
Six weeks of classroom work are followed by six weeks of hands-on training at Bridgeman.
"We encourage the students to go on for more education with an additional eight-week program at MATC. We’ll even pay for it," Rogers says.
Pointing to her forehead, Rogers recalls her father’s words, "What you have up here, can’t nobody take away."
This spring marks the third graduating class from the Bridgeman program. So far, 30 people have completed the training, and another 23 will graduate May 22.
"Opportunities are there," says Rogers.
Rogers’ full-time placement manager, Gary Ingram, is securing jobs for graduates, with starting wages of $10 to $12.50 per hour.
Rogers foresees great opportunities ahead for Bridgeman, reaching far beyond training the workforce.
She is in the process of securing her minority business certification (MBE), as well as other certifications that will help her secure government contracts and large corporate accounts.
"You don’t find women in this business; it’s a man’s field," adds Rogers.
Rogers says the accountability of "set-aside" contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses has improved.
At one time, large corporations could simply "declare" a percentage of their vendors as disadvantaged businesses.
"You get a certification number, and the corporations or government entity logs it along with your company data and actual dollar value of the business transaction," states Rogers.
Mentored by one company on the machine side of the business and another company on the packaging side, Rogers has gained the support of industry veterans.
When asked whether the mentors saw her as a competitor, she quickly adds, "Of course not. We can get contracts (as a minority, woman or disadvantaged business supplier) they can’t. By helping us succeed, they, as our suppliers, succeed."
Bridgeman cleared $250,000 in revenue in its first year, employing approximately 10 people. For fiscal 2003, Rogers projects $1.3 million in revenue.
That’s an aggressive goal in an industry that’s trying to cope with offshore competition and a shortage of trained laborers.
"The business is there," Rogers says, adding that her key challenge is funding the growth. "It’s hard for any African-American to secure financing."
After securing a $20,000 line of credit from a local bank, she quickly learned it wouldn’t be enough to support her growth projections.
"We’re going after more and looking at different banks to supply it," Rogers says.
Her advice to the African-American community in Milwaukee’s inner city is to "all bank at one place." She believes that will give the community greater financial power as a whole.
Rogers has been named to be an honorary chairman at the 2003 President’s Dinner and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Business Advisory Council board meeting in Washington, D.C., May 21. She will meet President George W. Bush at the gala.
Rogers also recently received the Republican Party’s National Leadership Award.
In sum, Rogers defies a plethora of stereotypes. She’s an African-American woman in an industrial world traditionally dominated by white males. And she’s a Republican, to boot.
However, Rogers’ focus is on growing people. She believes financial success will come through "a good working relationship with employees." She plans on giving back some of the financial success in training, benefits and profit sharing.
Reuben Harpole, program officer at the Helen Bader Foundation in Milwaukee, says, "Mariam moved back to Milwaukee after 34 years of being away. Within a year, she’s started a manufacturing company in a city where there is a lot of negativity, not to mention a high unemployment rate for African-Americans. She’s been able to pick up experienced talent and through cooperation with OIC and the YWCA, she’s securing jobs for graduates of her training programs. Mariam is making history in Milwaukee."
When told about such praise, Rogers simply smiles and says, "Sometimes you just go about doing your thing and don’t realize the impact you’re having."
KeleMarie Lyons is the founder of Pinnacle XL, a management consulting company with offices in Milwaukee and Chicago. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
May 16, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee