Thursday, September 25, 2003

Minority enterprise spawned for OTR



By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Howard Elliott, president of OTR Controls, and Jennifer Knox, operations manager
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
OVER-THE-RHINE - After almost 32 years at Procter & Gamble Co., Howard D. Elliott could spend his retirement just about anywhere.

He's decided that he wants to spend it in Over-the-Rhine.

Elliott, 59, is president of OTR Controls LLC, a new minority business enterprise that hopes to make a difference by setting up operations in the heart of one of Cincinnati's poorest neighborhoods.

"It's been in the back of my mind for some time that I wanted to do something for the community,'' said Elliott, who retired last year after serving as leader of P&G's supplier diversity program.

That desire fit perfectly with Oakley's Precision Industrial Automation Inc., which needed more minority suppliers.

Bob Burroughs, one of Precision's owners, said the company - which makes custom automated assembly, welding and metal-cutting equipment for companies such as DaimlerChrysler and P&G - has been actively seeking minority suppliers to meet its minority sourcing targets since the mid-1980s.

"Despite that, we've never been able to meet our requirements,'' he said. "Chrysler says we're among their best (minority-sourcing) suppliers, but we're only halfway to our goal.''

Faced with that problem, Burroughs said PIA, which also includes Weldun International Ltd in Bridgman, Mich., decided to use what it calls the "Grinch strategy.''

In the Dr. Seuss classic, when the Grinch couldn't find a reindeer to raid Whoville, he created one.

"If we couldn't find minority suppliers, we figured we needed to create some,'' Burroughs said.

About a year ago, PIA approached Elliott, who knew little about industrial-control panels but wanted to do something for his adopted hometown after the riots of 2001.

Elliott, who grew up in the housing projects of San Francisco after World War II, said, "There's a need in the black community for development and more entrepreneurs.''

Though a tiny start-up operation, the company represents a segment of business that Main Street guru-in-waiting John Elkington says Over-the-Rhine needs more of: minority-owned enterprises.

OTR Controls moved into leased space at 40 E. McMicken St. two weeks ago. It wants to employ inner-city residents assembling industrial-control panels for other manufacturers.

The control panels are the link between the computers controlling modern machinery and the external sensors and other devices on the machines.

The company is starting small, just a couple of employees. But Elliott says the company is on target for sales of $500,000 this year.

Right now, all the company's panels are being supplied to Precision, but Elliott is working on contracts with other major companies. If all goes as planned, OTR could employ eight or 10 in a year.

Operations manager Jennifer Knox is a story by herself.

A journeyman electrician, Knox was the first black woman to work in the maintenance departments for Cincinnati Public Schools and Christ Hospital.

She said she joined OTR Controls because she shared Elliott's desire to help the community and wanted to develop her management skills.

Elliott owns 51 percent of the business, which operated for a six-month incubation period at Precision's Oakley plant. Burroughs and others are minority investors.

There's plenty of potential. The U.S. market for industrial-control panels is estimated at $1 billion, much of it done by small companies similar to OTR Controls.

The business is ideal for a startup, Elliott said, because it doesn't require a lot of costly capital equipment.

The job skills can be taught, and OTR is working with agencies such as Jobs Plus, Cincinnati Works and the Work Resource Center to recruit potential employees.

If OTR Controls works, Elliott hopes to replicate the business model in other cities.

E-mail mboyer@enquirer.com



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