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Black-owned businesses booming

Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County has proven to be fertile ground for black-owned businesses, counting more such firms than any county in the nation, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau report that tracked growth between 1997 and 2002.

The report also found that, nationally, black-owned firms are among the fastest growing in the nation.

There were 54,758 black-owned businesses located in Cook County in 2002 that generated $3.9 billion in sales and receipts. The number of businesses was 69 percent higher than the 32,377 cited in the 1997 report, and revenues were 31 percent higher, although the Census Bureau cautioned that not all data is directly comparable because of changes in its surveying method.

Rejected, 'So they started their own'
The thousands of blacks who poured into Chicago during the "Great Migration" faced enormous discrimination and segregation -- yet those same hurdles contributed to a booming black business climate that continues to this day.


The Chicago area's 14 largest black-owned businesses bring in nearly $1.5 billion in revenues and employ more than 4,000 people full time, according to Crain's Chicago Business.

(in millions) EMPLOYEES†
Media 773 1,983†
Auto Dealerships 216 281†
Manufacturing 155 835†
Investments 137 170†
Technology 112 75†
Consulting 35 300†
Banking 25 240†
Marketing 22 131†
Totals 1,475 4,015

Source: Crain's List of Largest Minority Firms, 2006

Nationally there were 1.2 million black-owned businesses, up 45 percent between 1997 and 2002, and they generated $88.8 billion in revenue, a 25 percent increase, the Census Bureau said.

Chicago a good environment

Chicago is a very good business town with a diverse set of industries, said Robert Blackwell Sr., chairman and chief executive officer of Blackwell Consulting Services, sharing his view of why Cook County has attracted so many black-owned firms.

"We used to be heavy in manufacturing, steel," he said. "Now there's finance, the stock market, services industries. The city has kept up.

"The economy seems to be pretty good most of the time, and for a very long time we have had some important black businesses, such as Ebony magazine, Johnson Products and Luster Products, the Chicago Defender. Chicago has been a very important town for African Americans historically."

Blackwell's 14-year-old information technology consulting company has grown from five employees to 275 and generated $44 million in revenue last year.

Omar Shareef, president and founder of the African American Contractors Association, and Carnice Carey, executive director of the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce, a black business group, credit affirmative action programs with contributing to black business development and expansion here.

The size of the black population in Chicago, elected officials' sensitivity to the need for black business development and strong black business groups have also been important factors, said Larry Huggins, president and chief executive officer of black-owned Riteway/Huggins Construction Services Inc.

Statewide, there were 68,704 black-owned businesses, up 67 percent from the 41,200 reported in 1992, according to the bureau report. Illinois ranked seventh among states with the most black-owned businesses.

Most of the firms in the state are based in the Chicago, Naperville and Joliet metropolitan area.

Most businesses still small

The report found that most of the black-owned businesses here and across the country are small. In Cook County, only 3,189 of the businesses, or 6 percent of such firms, had staffs of paid employees. Those businesses generated roughly 78 percent of the revenue. Nationally, 8 percent had paid employees.

Lack of access to sufficient financing plays a role in keeping black-owned businesses small, contends Deborah Sawyer, chief executive and founder of Environmental Design International Inc., a black-owned environmental and engineering services company that employs roughly 70 people.

"I wonder how many of those businesses are small by choice," she said. "It's hard to have a business if you can't borrow the money you need"

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