As one of the city’s most prominent minority business owners, Bill Mays built his chemical distributorship largely on the
backs of domestic automakers.
In1980,when he founded Mays Chemical Co. Inc., the Big Three accounted for nearly 75 percent of all new-car sales. But that
number has dwindled to less than half of all new vehicles.
Mays concluded it was time to switch gears, so to speak.
"I don’t know if we were smart or just lucky," he said of his decision roughly three
years ago to all but abandon automotive.
So instead of furnishing General Motors Corp. with coolants, oils and fluids, he’s turned much
of his attention to supplying Eli Lilly and Co. and other pharmaceutical firms with solvents and ingredients
used to make medicines.
In fact, Mays Chemical does so much business with the Indianapolis-based drugmaker that he keeps a handful of employees on
site to coordinate daily shipments.
His company is reaping the benefits of his decision. Revenue last year topped $200 million for the first time in its 30-year
never going to see manufacturing return to where it was five years ago, or earlier," Mays said.
The impact on Indiana of downsized Chrysler
and General Motors operations remains to be seen. Still, shrinking market share of Detroit automakers,
along with rising technology and mechanization in factories, and outsourcing to other countries, has
resulted in the state’s shedding roughly 175,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of
was motivated to diversify his customer base by the dark cloud hanging over domestic automakers, but now a local organization
that assists minority-owned companies is reaching out to help others follow in his footsteps.
Efforts under way
Indiana Minority Supplier Development Council has made life sciences companies its latest target.
The council’s annual Supplier Diversity Conference
in April at the Indiana Convention Center gives minorities a chance to schmooze with some of the largest
companies in the state in the hope of landing business.
But at this year’s event, organizers added a panel discussion to provide minority suppliers guidance
on how they might tap into the growing life sciences sector.
Representatives were on hand from BioCrossroads, Lilly and Community Hospitals in Indianapolis,
as well as Depuy Orthopaedics Inc. in Warsaw and Texas-based VHA Inc., a group-purchasing organization
for health care providers.
The panel is just the council’s first undertaking to help members diversify from auto manufacturers, said Michele Howell,
the organization’s president and CEO.
"Right now, with everything going on, that’s a very shaky industry to be in," she said. "Even to sustain the
business, you’ve definitely got to look at other markets."
An even larger effort to attract minorities to the burgeoning life sciences industry is under
way on a national scale.
Leah Brown, president and CEO of a North Carolina-based clinical trial consultancy, helped found Diversity Alliance for Science
two years ago after feeling overwhelmed at a minority supplier conference. So many companies attended that she had trouble
zeroing in on those who could help her most.
"It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack," Brown said. "So we wanted to pluck out this subset of
[minority] suppliers, and take these decision-makers from large pharma, and put them in the same room."
The alliance held its first Life Sciences Diversity
Conference in May in Newark, N.J., and plans to make it an annual event. About 300 suppliers and companies
suggests that simply attending a conference will result in attracting the fawning attention of mega life-sciences and
pharmaceutical firms. To the contrary, getting a foot in the door has proven problematic for several minority business owners
Sam Kwon, who founded Vesta Pharmaceuticals Inc., near East 30th Street and Post Road, in 1996, and has grown it to nearly
$10 million in annual revenue by manufacturing and distributing ingredients for dietary supplements.
But the Korean native is convinced the 20-employee
company could become much larger if only it could land a contract with a multibillion-dollar corporation.
"We’ve been singing and dancing with Lilly
almost going on 10 years," he lamented. "There were a lot of meetings and discussions, but
there was no business."
Repeated calls to Lilly for comment on minority-supplier issues in general were not returned.
Kwon now hopes to manufacture ingredients for generic drugmakers, but needs a $2 million infusion
to help make it happen, he said. Applying for a grant from the state’s 21st Century Research and Technology
Fund is a possibility.
Francis Jones spent 34 years at Lilly conducting and managing clinical trials before founding Innovative Clinical Concepts
LLC on East 86th Street in 2003.
Jones aims to recruit minority patients for human trials, which would provide a more diverse test population and, quite possibly,
more accurate results. However, convincing large pharmaceutical makers of that need has been difficult. Moreover, most drug
companies contract with much larger competitors to conduct trials.
"Being a minority in health care, where there is some perception of our capability as to
actually doing that type of work, that is a problem," Jones said.
Asked whether she’s had nibbles from Lilly, Jones would only say, "It’s been very difficult
across the board."
‘Tremendous opportunity’ exists
Compounding the problem is the fact that there just aren’t many minority businesses equipped to supply large corporations.
Brown at the Diversity Alliance for Science said it’s much easier to start a janitorial service, for example, because the
capital investment is smaller.
Teresa Keller, purchasing program manager and supplier diversity coordinator at Roche Diagnostics Corp. in Indianapolis, acknowledged
most of its minority suppliers provide indirect services such as printing and safety products.
Roche is a member of the council and supports efforts under way to help minorities generate business
from the life sciences and health care sectors.
So does Debra Simmons Wilson, a principal of Indianapolis-based Engaging Solutions LLC.
Wilson’s firm was hired by the Indiana Stadium
and Convention Building Authority to facilitate minority and women hiring on construction of Lucas Oil
Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center expansion.
"Any time there is a chance for small businesses to diversify into areas where there is a
gap, where there are no minorities or women-owned businesses," she said, "I think that is a
tremendous opportunity for everybody."
Meanwhile, Mays at Mays Chemical said he is keeping a watchful eye on the city’s fledgling life sciences firms. If they should
grow large enough to seek his services, he said, "we’ll be ready."