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February 27, 2023
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Wensy Melendez, Lisa Reynolds, Andy Weins, Laci Robbins, and moderator Michael Ward offered insights in a panel discussion at MARKETPLACE Wisconsin.

2022 MARKETPLACE puts the focus on diverse business owners

How to take a small business to the next level, post-pandemic—that was the 2022 theme of MARKETPLACE Wisconsin, the Governor’s Conference on Diverse Business Development.

More than 600 people attended the event, which was held Dec. 6-7 at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee and presented by WEDC along with 26 sponsoring companies and organizations.

In a panel discussion that led the conference, four small business owners from around the state shared tips on how they keep their companies on track, even with economic ups and downs: Laci Robbins, CEO, A&A Services and Transportation, Wauwatosa; Andy Weins, president, Green Up Solutions, Butler; Lisa Reynolds, CEO, Reynolds Packaging, Green Bay; and Wensy Melendez, president and CEO, Amigo Construction, Cambridge.

Their advice centered around four points:

  • Don’t aim for growth at all costs; unfettered growth is not always good.
  • Set up multiple revenue streams for your business.
  • Take advantage of existing programs designed to help entrepreneurs.
  • Surround yourself with managers whose strengths complement yours.

A lot of entrepreneurs try to expand their new businesses as quickly as they can, but that’s not always the best strategy, Michael Ward, WEDC vice president of business and community development and the panel’s moderator, said in a post-conference interview.

“I saw a lot of businesses fail because they grew faster than they could fund the growth. Grow at a pace that’s right for your business, at a pace that runs in conjunction with profits and cash flow,” said Ward, a former banker.

Robbins told the conference that her company grew so quickly, “it almost overtook us. We had to learn how to quickly scale back.”

Tracking costs is essential, added Melendez. “It does you no good to have a $1 million contract and you barely came out (with a profit) on it. Understand your costs; then you can scale your business,” he said.

Having a variety of revenue streams provides protection and flexibility for a small business. When COVID-19 hit, Reynolds converted some equipment and added a line, and began producing masks, filters, and flexible packaging for sanitizing and protective products. “We learned to transition,” she said. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Gov. Evers takes a selfie with MARKETPLACE participants.

MARKETPLACE Wisconsin, the Governor’s Conference on Diverse Business Development, connects diversely owned businesses with potential buyers and with one another.

New entrepreneurs should not shy away from programs aimed at helping their businesses to move ahead. Don’t consider participation in these programs a sign of weakness, Ward said.

It’s a lesson Weins, of Green Up Solutions, had to learn. He didn’t want to lean on his company’s status as veteran-owned to win contracts; he wanted to be hired solely for being the best applicant. “Definitely, pride got in my way,” Weins said. Then he attended his first MARKETPLACE conference in 2016. “I realized (being certified as a veteran-owned business) was an opportunity, not a crutch.”

Panel members also said it’s important to let others share the responsibility for the success of the company. Reynolds, of Reynolds Packaging, was working night and day and still struggling. “I had to let go of certain things” and lean on other members of her team, she said.

Focus on the tasks you’re good at and surround yourself with people who are good at everything else, Weins added. “You don’t have to have all the answers; you have to know how to find them.”

Networking for future contracts

One of the primary goals of MARKETPLACE is to help diverse business owners from around Wisconsin—primarily, minority-, women-, veteran-, and LGBTQ-owned small businesses and HUBZone businesses—connect with organizations and other resources that can advise and assist them in winning contracts with local, state, and federal governments as well as big corporations.

Participants at the 2022 MARKETPLACE event in Milwaukee.

The 2022 MARKETPLACE Wisconsin conference drew more than 600 attendees, and more than 500 buyer meetings took place as part of the conference.

A total of 626 people attended the event, and 546 one-on-one meetings were held with purchasing agents from government agencies and corporations. “WEDC and its key partners, like the Wisconsin Procurement Institute and groups from the Ethnic and Diverse Business Coalition, do a lot of work during the year to prep diverse business owners for those meetings,” Ward said. It gives them access to people they may not ordinarily be able to reach and allows them to make the connections without having to travel to Washington, D.C., or even Madison.

On the second day of the conference, the Contracting Academy featured sessions led by federal contractors about opportunities to do business with the federal government and what agencies expect from their contractors. The program, hosted by the Wisconsin Procurement Institute, drew 156 participants.

One unique session at this year’s conference was a presentation about the Republican National Convention that will be held in Milwaukee in late summer 2024. More than 45,000 people are expected to attend, including delegates from all 50 states and six U.S. territories. “Staging a successful event for a convention of this size demands an incredible range of services, and there will be opportunities for diverse businesses to fulfill those needs,” said Alison Prange, senior advisor to the CEO of the MKE 2024 Host Committee. She said services ranging from hospitality and entertainment to printing and construction will be needed, and she urged business owners to make sure they have government certification as a minority-owned business to get a foot in the door.

Governor Tony Evers and Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson attended MARKETPLACE and spoke to conference attendees. In addition to hosting the Republican National Convention, Milwaukee is planning to build a soccer stadium and entertainment center as well as a new museum, and diverse suppliers will be needed for those projects, too, Mayor Johnson said.

Award winners

Governor Evers and WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes presented awards for excellence to nine companies and business leaders at the 2022 MARKETPLACE Wisconsin conference.

The winners in the Outstanding Business category are:

  • Singh & Associates Inc., Pratap Singh – Wauwatosa
  • Floor23 Digital LLC, Candace Spears – Germantown
  • Green Up Solutions LLC, Andy Weins – Butler

The winners in the Best Workplace category are:

  • Mars Solutions Group – Waukesha
  • Your Personal Gardener & Arborist – Mukwonago

The winners in the Diverse Business Champion of the Year category are:

  • North Avenue Market LLC, Chris Harris-Morse – Milwaukee
  • Small Business Development Center at UW-Stevens Point, Mark Speirs – Stevens Point

The CEO of the Year is: Maysee Y. Herr, Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, Milwaukee

The Thought Leadership Excellence Award winner is: Envision the Ladder, Sherri Jordan – Wauwatosa

The 2022 MARKETPLACE conference was the 41st annual event, which aims to support and encourage the development of diversely owned businesses throughout Wisconsin. In 2023, MARETPLACE will return to the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee on Dec. 6 and 7.

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