When Charles Perry and a partner started their insurance agency 25 years ago, no organizations were around with the specific aim of helping small, struggling, minority companies trying to do business with corporate America.
"We were sort of fighting the battle alone," he said, recalling that it took six months for his agency to line up its first insurance company.
Perry is now an active member of the National Minority Supplier Development Council, a New York-based coalition of regional groups that is celebrating its 14th year of existence this week at a conference at the Century Plaza Hotel. About 700 corporate representatives and minority business people are attending.
The group's corporate members did more than $8 billion in business last year with companies owned by members of minority groups. "But I don't want anybody to think this is utopia," Perry said.
"The fact that there is such an organization indicates that there is a problem," said Perry, president of Pinkney-Perry Insurance Agency of Cleveland and a council director. "Something like this maybe makes it a little easier because it gives us the opportunity to meet people we might not otherwise meet.
"But it's still hard," he continued. "With the cutbacks that are occuring on the national scene and at the local level, the national council remains perhaps the only ballgame left."
The council, a nonprofit organization that until last year was federally funded, was formed in 1972 to expand business opportunities for minority-owned businesses and to "encourage mutually beneficial economic links" between minority companies and the public and private sectors, according to its literature.
The council brings together minority firms and major corporations through trade fairs and seminars and provides management assistance. It also has set up a computerized network of minority-owned companies and is launching a Business Consortium Fund to provide minority firms with loans, at the prime rate, of up to $250,000.
"We introduce them and give them all the help we can, but it's up to them to perform," said Richard P. Baribault, vice president of procurement for Alcoa and the council's vice chairman.
The council is valuable because small, minority-owned companies sometimes have trouble learning how to bid competitively in seeking to do business with major corporations, said Robert E. Wycoff, president of Arco, which along with the Southern California Regional Purchasing Council sponsored the conference.
"What we get out of it . . . is to tap into a new source of talent, a new source of skills, that would otherwise not be available," Wycoff said. "We do find it's just good business to do business with the minority firms. We find it very rewarding and a source of new competition and skills."
Last year, 3% of Arco's total expenditures were placed with minority-owned firms, the company said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who was on hand to present a proclamation, said he doesn't consider such support to be "affirmative action."
"All they are doing is acknowledging that there is another pool of business, another pool of talent, that they didn't even know existed," Alatorre said.
Los Angeles bought $47 million in goods and services in fiscal 1986 from minority firms, about 9% of all city spending, he said.
"Still," he added, "that isn't good enough. I think the city has a long way to go."