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A Q&A with CEO Beth Williams

Banner Staff
A Q&A with CEO Beth Williams
Beth Williams, CEO of Roxbury Technologies (Photo: Ian Justice)

Your career path quickly took an interesting turn from employee to owner and CEO of a manufacturing company. Was it your past work experience, or the lessons at home from your father, that most prepared you for your role at Roxbury Technology?

Yes, my career path took a drastic and sudden change unexpectedly after the sudden death of my father on Thanksgiving in 2002. At that time, Roxbury Technology was not a manufacturing company, but solely a three-person distribution business poised to open a manufacturing plant in January 2003. At the time, knowing nothing about toner cartridge manufacturing, let alone running a business it was a scary and challenging time. I was coined, “The Accidental CEO” by Inc. Magazine.

That said, to answer the second part of your question, I believe it was a combination of both my home background, growing up with a civil rights attorney/entrepreneur who believed that the way to empowerment was economic development, job creation and opportunity, that became a core part me and of my value system. As far as the actual day-to-day operation and due diligence, I am certain my corporate experience at both Raytheon and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts were critical to my success, along with my ability to seek help from strong advisers along the way.

Your father was a visionary and saw business as a means to improve community conditions by providing real jobs and economic opportunities. He started with a grocery store, Freedom Foods, and moved into technology. Do you have plans to expand the business in other areas?

Yes, as I too see business as a means to improve a community. If people have jobs or access and training for them, the desperation and need to perpetuate many of the social problems in our community, I believe, would slowly begin to diminish.

As for our plans for expansion, in a perfect world, I’d like to go back to a similar model that my father had and that was contract manufacturing — where we would partner with several companies on their sustainability and recycling efforts of making old products new.

A pivotal point for your business was your relationship with Staples and Tom Stemberg, founder. His specific commitment to inner city businesses is credited with helping Roxbury Technology form an important partnership with Staples. Can you tell us how this partnership has helped?

The relationship and C-level commitment to Roxbury Technology’s success was critical. Tom made a capacity building commitment to my father to assist in taking the business from solely a distribution company to a manufacturing company, allowing for inner city job creation and economic development. Upon my father’s sudden passing, Tom made the unique decision to continue on with me. Yet just as important, upon Tom’s departure from Staples, the current CEO Ron Sargent made that same commitment to me and has continued his support to this date. Though the relationship at Staples is changing, as all things do, we still have a solid relationship with them as we have proven over the past 15 years that we are a quality diversity business partner to them. Lastly, I truly believe that if you talk to any minority or woman entrepreneur or small business you will find that they have one key partner that has supported and led to their growth.

Do you see the same level of commitment from large businesses to partner with minority-owned businesses since the recession hit?

I believe that commitment has diminished as the recession hit. During economic downturns, diversity programs are the first to typically go. That said, in the changing demographic and landscape of America, I believe this attitude and action precludes them from a significant and sizable market.

When you spoke at the “The New Political and Economic Landscape of Boston” business forum in February, you mentioned that Roxbury Technologies has never received a state or city contract. That was shocking to hear since it is a minority- and woman-owned business. What do you attribute this to? What are your strategies for getting contracts in the future?

Yes, I did say that, however, I need to modify that statement. In 2010, we became a subcontractor, under the state’s Small Business Diversity Program requirements with two New England-based stationers — we got minimal to no business through them. I would say collectively, less than 10k. That said, in July 2013 we became a subcontractor to CAM Office Services, a woman-owned imaging company, and our sales to the state increased to about $50k. Yet in the scheme of things, I would have to imagine collectively the state and city alone, not to mention all of the quasi-public agencies spend in excess of $20 million on imaging supplies and services. Just a portion of that, 20 percent could create more that 20-plus jobs.

You have successfully implemented a hiring strategy that includes people with CORIs. Do you also have a training program to allow employees to grow in the business and, if so, can you describe the program.

I, as well as my father did, strongly believe in giving people a second chance. So we have always been a supporter of hiring ex-offenders.

As for the workforce training, it is somewhat innate with the development of the job skill sets necessary to work in a manufacturing environment. For example, employees learn warehouse logistics, shipping and receiving practices, inventory control, forklift certificates, equipment technician training, and so on.

Businesses are bottom-line driven — and often one forgets about the social impact of their business. You are an example of how you can grow your business and be a good corporate citizen. Do you think that ever impacts your ability to grow the business model? For example, are you limited in where you would consider opening a new plant?

The biggest impediment or competition to Roxbury Technology is the globalization of manufacturing. Outsourcing to other countries for cheaper labor to drive profits, that are not entirely passed on to the consumer is our biggest threat. Not only has this been our biggest threat, but it is one of the biggest threats to the overall economy. A significant majority of blue-collar jobs have been outsourced to other countries, as such we no longer have a middle class of people who have the money or security to buy products, shop and, as such, grow the economy. The infamous 2 percent make their money in the financial sector. As such, a significant majority of Americans are left out

Has the emergence of e-commerce impacted your business and has it forced you to rethink your business model? Staples is closing over 200 stores because of the online marketplace. Will this impact your business?

E-commerce is changing all of our businesses and Roxbury Technologies has also launched an online retail presence. As for the impact on our business with Staples, we never sold our products in their stores. RTC product (or as Staples has now branded them, Diversity Product Solutions) are sold through their contract business to customers (business-to-business), so the store closings will have minimal impact on us. That said we don’t have a huge presence on their dot-com business so overall we could see some changes. However, more concerning is changing technology where people are printing less. However there are still several large verticals that I believe will continue to print and those we are laser-focused on. A great win would be a contract with the government, federal, state or local. That is one vertical I am certain will be printing well into the future.

The manufacturing industry has taken a hit in the U.S. in the last 20 years and we’re awakening to the economic importance of producing goods in this country. There have been many incentive programs to encourage companies to expand or start manufacturing businesses. Have you received any support in growing your business from this new emphasis on manufacturing?

Not yet, much of it is still in the formative stages in government. However, I was recently appointed to the U.S. Manufacturing Council by U.S. Commerce Secretary Pritzker. As such, I am learning quite a lot about many of the new initiatives and the direction U.S. manufacturers would like to see our industry grow. So I am hopeful it is a stay tuned episode to more business in the future.

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