Diversity in distribution

By Bridget McCrea

As Ramon Mesa looks around at the electrical distribution industry he doesn’t see many different ethnicities in the ownership ranks, nor does he see very many women entrepreneurs making headway in the industry. As the owner of Miami Electric Supply Associates, Mesa isn’t too shocked by the homogenous makeup of the industry’s leaders. After all, he says, the barriers to entry for industrial distributors are fairly high and have been raised even higher by the persistent economic downturn.

“It’s getting tougher for different ethnicities to break into this business, without a doubt,” says Mesa. “Overall, it’s been getting progressively harder for any independent distributor to start up and grow in this industry.”

High barriers to entry

Mesa isn’t alone in his observations. For the most part—and for better or worse—Caucasian males head up many of the nation’s industrial distribution firms.

Mesa blames the economy, the competitive business environment, and a lack of startup and growth capital, with making the situation particularly challenging for startups. Big chains have a growing stranglehold in the industry, he adds, and make it especially difficult for grassroots startups to gain footing.

“It’s so hard to round up money and deal with banks right now,” says Mesa. “That’s put a lot of pressure on all startups, regardless of industry and ethnicity.” Mesa doesn’t see the situation changing anytime soon and believes that the economic pressures and financial hurdles will keep minorities and women business owners from breaking into industrial distribution.

“I really don’t see things getting any more diverse in the near future,” says Mesa, who tells other minority business owners to “stick it out” in the electrical distribution field, where he presides over four branches in the Miami-Dade area.

“Succeeding in this field is all about working hard, working smart, and sticking with it,” Mesa advises. “There are a lot of pressures that can hold you back, but you really just have to plow through those issues and keep moving ahead. That forward momentum will eventually lead you to success.”

Slow progress

Cora Williams, president and CEO at Ideal Electrical Supply Corp., in Washington, D.C., concurs with Mesa and says she’s like to see more women heading up companies in her field. “It hasn’t changed much since I got into this business 25 years ago,” says Williams. “There are still just a handful of minority- and women-owned businesses in our field.”

On a positive note, Williams says that the diverse firms that have paved their way in the electrical distribution industry tend to do well and stick around while. Once they’ve overcome the high barriers to entry and establish themselves, she says, they reap the same rewards that other distributors do. But getting there isn’t easy, says Williams.

“Unless they are fortunate enough to inherit a business it can be difficult for anyone, let alone a woman or a minority business owner, to start in this industry from scratch,” says Williams. “Most of us have been around for while, have paid our dues, and achieved a level of success based on our hard work and perseverance.”

Along with the financial and typical startup challenges associated with establishing a new distributorship, Williams says getting set up with suppliers is a major obstacle for a new business owner in the electrical distribution field. “Without a long list of trade references and years in the industry, it’s difficult to get manufacturers to sell to you,” says Williams. “It’s a relationship-based industry that you can’t just jump into it.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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