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Acting local, thinking global

Howard Manly
Acting local, thinking global

Roxbury Technology CEO Beth Williams is providing living proof that keeping manufacturing jobs in the inner city helps the community in profound ways

It was in 2002 on a Sunday morning, at the Morning Star Baptist Church, when Beth Williams had what a preacher would call an epiphany. Her father, Archie Williams, had just passed away, leaving behind a fledgling business that recycled printer cartridges.

A graduate of Brown University, Williams already had a job as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts’ director of diversity. But there was something about the sermon that triggered a profound feeling, something that hit the heart and moved the feet.

“Courage when the call comes” was the title of the sermon and as Williams later explained, “… it changed my mind and challenged my will.”

What changed in her life was the decision to leave Blue Cross and assume the daunting position of president and CEO of Roxbury Technology. And as Williams quickly discovered, it’s one thing to have faith; it was another to run a business.

For starters, she had three employees and about the same number of customers. Revenues were barely covering expenses and securing capital was difficult — and she needed more space to expand the operation.

All of that changed when Staples became a Roxbury Technology customer. That business relationship developed in the late 1990s when Staples Founder and Chairman Tom Stemberg met Williams’ father during a golf outing at Franklin Park. One thing led to another, and Staples became Roxbury Technology’s largest client, generating an increase in sales by nearly 800 percent.

  By 2004, Roxbury Tech was on a roll. The company moved to a 28,000 square foot space in Jamaica Plain with 12 employees and roughly $5 million in revenues. By 2005, the company had 20 employees and about $11 million in revenue. Their growth has not slowed during the recession. As it is now, Roxbury Technology employs 65 people and generates nearly $16 million in annual revenue.

That’s not bad, but there is room for substantial growth. Recycling printer cartridges is a $10 billion global industry and Roxbury Technology is just earning a tiny slice. And given the push toward a greener economy, Roxbury Technology stands ready to take advantage of the need among all businesses to not only cut costs but also try to protect the environment.

The business starts with a simple idea. Discarded printer cartridges are completely broken down and taken apart; then reconstructed and refilled with ink. The refurbished cartridges are thoroughly tested to meet — and sometimes exceed — industry standards. The last stage is packaging and shipping.

One of the challenges is overcoming some perceptions. Williams has heard it all before. “A lot of people are reluctant to use recycled products,” Williams explained. “But so many people have come back to me after trying one of our products and said, ‘Lo and behold, it’s the same quality’ ”

No kidding. And their cartridges are on average about 30 percent cheaper.

The market — at least here in Boston — is clearly responding. With Staples as its main client, Roxbury technology has seen the number of its sold cartridges skyrocket from slightly more than 200,000 in 2005 to more than 400,000 in 2009. In all, they sold more than 1.3 million cartridges between 2005 and 2009.   

But Roxbury Technology is not just about making money. It’s about the community. And that’s where the foresight of Archie Williams comes in. More than most, he knew that developing black-owned businesses and creating jobs were critical elements in developing neighborhoods all too often perceived as only places of high crime and social dysfunction.

Beth Williams shares her father’s vision and that is reflected in Roxbury Technology’s mission to “remain socially and economically responsible by providing jobs and opportunities in an underserved community while supporting the environment.”

“The majority of people who live here are hardworking and trying to better their lives, become employed and make a difference for their families and community,” Williams told the Banner. “Here at Roxbury Technology, we are committed to making the difference — not just empty rhetoric.”

Just ask Kemo Ceesay, Roxbury Technology’s senior business and customer services analyst. Originally from Gambia, he graduated with a business management degree from Boston University and earned his MBA from Babson College. He left a job with Accenture, a multi-billion dollar global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, to work at Roxbury Technology.

He is glad that he did. “Most corporations are mostly concerned with the bottom-line,” Ceesay said. “Roxbury Tech is a for-profit business that acts like a nonprofit. We positively impact the community by serving as an economic engine obviously for our employees but also for the neighboring communities and local businesses.”

Williams couldn’t be more satisfied. But she wants more. She knows first-hand what out-sourcing manufacturing jobs overseas means to the local economy — and, more importantly, the impact it has on local employment.

“For the most part, we have low-skilled, low-barrier jobs,” she explained. “Where else can someone earn a living and have life insurance and full benefits without having all sorts of higher degrees?”

The answer, of course, is not many places. But then again, Archie Williams knew that a long time ago.

“My father had the foresight, dedication and drive to believe that his vision would one day be an economically viable business, creating jobs and opportunities for people within the inner city of Boston,” she said.