The ABC’s of Certification

Owners walk through the how and why of pursuing specialized designations.

Custom Engineering Inc. is a small company, but the Independence firm is going to play a big role in the new single-terminal project at Kansas City International Airport.

On the air-side civil engineering portion of the project, Custom Engineering will be involved with runways and taxiways, and on the civil land side, it will work on roads and utilities. It also will be responsible for a central utility plan assessment.

CEO Joe Davis said the mechanical and electrical engineering firm’s certifications related to being a minority-owned company helped land it such a major role in one of the city’s largest public infrastructure initiatives.

“It’s highly unlikely we would be involved without certification,” Davis said. “Without it, large firms would most likely get all the work.”

Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, the Maryland developer leading the $1 billion project, has pledged to meet 35 percent participation rate for minority-and women-owned firms.

Kansas City, Mo., Councilman Jermaine Reed said the city’s Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program has been in place since the city authorized its first MWDBE disparity study in 1996. The program is designed to ensure minority and women business owners in the area have an equal opportunity to compete for city contracts and services.

“This project will have a lasting effect on the city and its residents,” Reed said of the airport. “Therefore, it is imperative that the wealth of the project is spread among all levels of business. MWBE goals are important to leveling the playing field and equalizing opportunities. Minority- and women-owned small business should be included in civic and public projects to allow them to build their capacity, enhance their skills and invest in their workforce.”

Davis added that a project of this magnitude also allows small businesses to build new relationships and enhance their resumes.

“And you can take that to other cities and states nationwide,” he said.

Why certify?

Davis said Custom Engineering has been certified as minority-owned through the city since the 1990s, and the majority of the company’s work comes through its MWDBE program. The city has a directory that companies can search when they are trying to fill MWDBE requirements.

“It assures them that you’re certified,” Davis said. “It also provides descriptions of the work you perform and general information about your company.”

The process, he said, has led to repeat business for Custom Engineering, which has more than a dozen certifications.

“Certifications have been essential to our success in getting access to clients and contracts,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee, but it helps get your foot in the door.”

Whether a minority- or woman-owned business should pursue certification depends a lot on who its target clients are, said Angela Hurt, founder and CEO of Veracity Consulting Inc. in Prairie Village.

Veracity is not part of the KCI terminal project, but it does work with government entities.

“A company should first know its customer,” Hurt said. “The No. 1 question I always ask myself is this, ‘Does this organization have a
supplier diversity initiative, and would a certification even matter?’ If I only work with small businesses, they usually wouldn’t have that requirement. Some states—such as Kansas—don’t have a supplier diversity initiative/spend goal.”

Hurt noticed the rising demand for certifications more than a decade ago before she started her own business.

“The company I worked for started losing opportunities that we were well-qualified for because they were now being earmarked for a diverse supplier,” she said. “While there were many woman- or minority-owned and certified companies in Kansas City that did IT staffing work, there were no true IT solutions providers and I saw that as an opportunity so that my clients didn’t have to select woman- or minority-owned firms from New York to partner with. My initial goal was to be their local diverse consulting partner.”

Once you figure out whether certification matters, Hurt said, you then have to understand which certification a prospective client recognizes because different sectors require different certifications.

“If you work with corporations, and you are woman-owned, you would want to get a WBE from Women’s Business Enterprise National Council,” she said.

“If you are a minority, you could get an MBE certification from National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), but there is
usually a regional certifying agency. In the Kansas City area, Mountain Plains Minority Supplier Development Council is the certifying agency for NMSDC.”

Working with state, federal and local governments can also require certifications, but not necessarily the same ones.

“State government agencies recognize the certification offered by that state,” Hurt said. “For example, Kansas doesn’t have a WBE, they have a DBE (disadvantaged business enterprise). In my experience, each state and local government that has a diversity supplier initiative requires you to be certified by that state or local government. The federal government has certifications that they also recognize, but some of those are reciprocal to national certifications you may hold. Again, they can all be significant or not significant at all. It’s all about knowing your customer.”

How to get started

Hurt said a company’s first certification likely will be its most time-consuming.

“It is often a daunting task to people, but the process is actually quite simple,” she said. “Every certification is a checklist of the things required for that certification. I recommend collecting the information once, creating a hard copy folder or an electronic folder of everything required.”

That list could include a business’s articles of incorporation, signature cards for banking, an owner’s birth certificate and driver’s license, personal and corporate tax information, etc.

“The good news is that once you have it in one place, it drastically speeds up the application process for other certifications you may want to go after,” Hurt said.

Hurt said fees for certifications range anywhere from $300 to $1,200 and many require an annual renewal fee.

“If you hold multiple certifications,” she said, “this can get to be expensive and a time suck.”

Davis said some public certifications don’t require a fee. Regardless of which certification pursued, Davis emphasized filling out the paperwork accurately.

“It’s important to get all the information right the first time because if you don’t answer correctly, or if your answers are incomplete, your application is going to the bottom of the pile,” he said. “And they move on to the next one.”

That’s important, he said, because the process can take 60 to 90 days.

LGBTBE certification

LGBT Business Enterprise certification is offered by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. It verifies that eligible businesses
are majority-owned by LGBT individuals and in some cases counts toward diversity supplier initiatives.

Veracity Consulting CEO Angela Hurt initially was hesitant to pursue the certification.

“I didn’t feel it was necessary due to the fact that we already had a long list of certifications. And quite frankly, I didn’t know if it would help or hurt business,” she said.

It was around 2011, when the federal government repealed the U.S. military’s policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, that Hurt decided “it was time that we stand up and be proud of this aspect that makes up our ownership.”

After consideration, Hurt concluded that it wouldn’t hinder Veracity—but she didn’t expect it to help, either.

“In the past 18 months, I have seen other corporations start talking about LGBTBE as part of their inclusion, and while many in town still have not started adding it to their actual Diversity Supplier Initiative, there are many that have,” she said.


Helping them grow

The large companies leading the airport project are working to help smaller partners make the most of the opportunity. Edgemoor is partnering with Lead Bank, a local institution that will provide low-interest loans to minority- and woman-owned businesses involved in the project. Lead Bank also will serve as a partner helping Edgemoor facilitate its Pay Without Delay program, which helps ensure that MBE, WBE, SLBE and veteran-owned subcontractors are paid within 14 business days of submitting a properly documented request for payment.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Strategic Partnership Program is providing small business owners and leaders with the business fundamentals and core project management skills to advance their operational goals and prepare them for sustainable growth.

Geoff Stricker, managing director for Edgemoor, said completing the course does not guarantee participants a contract on the new terminal, but it does position them to take on larger, more complex opportunities.

The MBA-style course includes a curriculum of weekly classes taught by representatives from the Edgemoor Team design-builder Clark | Weitz | Clarkson and local industry experts. The six-month project covers project management fundamentals, estimating, purchasing, basic accounting and financial reporting, bonding and insurance requirements,
and how to read and understand contracts, as well as other business skills, such as how to develop an effective presentation. The course is supplemented by seminars from outside experts.

The class, which launched in April, has 35 participants, including minority, women and disadvantaged business owners and leaders from the metro area, Stricker said. Classes continue through early September. The Edgemoor Team is committed to offering the program throughout the design and construction of the new terminal, and another session is expected to be offered starting in the fall, he said.