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Michigan conference to support veteran-owned businesses comes to Grand Rapids

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GRAND RAPIDS, MI — A statewide conference to help veteran-owned small businesses connect with Michigan companies is making its first appearance in Grand Rapids.

The ninth annual Veterans Business Conference, on Wednesday, Oct. 29, will connect military veterans who own businesses with government and corporate procurement decision-makers.

“Many veteran-owned companies focus on government contracting, but there is another world available in the corporate sector,” said Matt Sherwood, executive director of VetBizCentral Inc., which organizes the annual Michigan conference.

The day-long conference, at Crowne Plaza Hotel, 5700 28th St. SE, features educational break-out sessions in the morning and a meet-and-greet sessions in the afternoon.

Battle Creek food giant Kellogg’s is the platinum sponsor of the event that has drawn major companies from around the state including General Motors, Herman Miller, DTE Energy and AT&T along with the purchasing departments of the city of Grand Rapids, Kent County and Michigan State University.

“It’s growing movement that Corporate America is seeking to engage more veterans into their supply chains,” Sherwood said.

VetBiz Central helps vets start and run businesses. The Flint-based nonprofit provides services in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Nationally, 16 percent of small businesses are owned and operated by military veterans. There are more than 1,100 disabled veteran-owned businesses across Michigan.

Typically if a veteran business hits the two-year mark, it’s chances of success double, Sherwood said.

Many of the veteran-owned businesses are franchises because the model reliant on a business plan and procedures is a good fit for those with military training that instills leadership, discipline, attention to detail and following the mission through until the end.

“We like our checklists, our structure,” Sherwood said. “We like essentially having the structure within the business model of a franchise. It’s really providing you with the recipe and you get to make the cake.”

Herman Miller recently expanded its diversity supplier program to include veteran-owned businesses. An employee-led committee goes beyond that goal to provide mentoring to small businesses even if they aren’t ready to supply the Zeeland-based office furniture maker, which does about $3 billion in sales annually.

Kavy Lenon, senior supplier diversity manager at Herman Miller, is part of the committee.

“A lot of times, they might not be a good fit for Herman Miller, but they might be a good fit for each other and other companies,” said Lenon, who just named by Diversity Plus Magazine one of the country’s Top 30 Champions of Diversity.

Herman Miller’s 24-year-old supplier diversity program is a perennial winner of awards given out by the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council. In fiscal 2013, thecompany spent $109 million, or 16 percent of its total purchasing, with businesses that were owned by minorities, women, LGBT and military veterans.

Pete Ziegler, co-leads Herman Miller’s employee team focused on veteran issues, says many companies are interested in working with veterans but these owners still need to compete for contracts by presenting their businesses as a problem solver for a company’s particular procurement need.

Supplier diversity is important to Herman Miller because it is important to its customers, he added.

“A lot of it is that people want to understand that I’m buying from a company that has the same values I do,” Ziegler said.

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