Women at the helm

Complete Facilities Management is a women-owned business. And it's got the papers to prove it.

Anybody who walks into the cleaning company's West Hamilton Park Drive headquarters and asks for any of its three owners — Lisa Rabon, Cherryl Underwood and Susan Mims — can see women run the company.

But seven years ago, the three decided to take it a step further and go through a national certification program offered by the National Women Business Owners Corporation, a private certification organization. The certification — designed for women-owned and -controlled businesses — is recognized by more than 100 major corporations, agencies and organizations.

Underwood said having the certification for their business — which offers floor care, carpet cleaning and housekeeping services — has helped open doors of opportunity for them, especially with larger local businesses that purposefully seek out women- and minority-owned businesses to supply them.

"You would be amazed how that helps," Underwood said.

Aflac, for example, devotes $34 million — a $31 million increase in the past four years — to its supplier diversity program. The program supports the development of small, minority- and women-owned businesses through education and training on securing procurement opportunities, small business event sponsorships and more.

The federal government's contracting office also has the ability to restrict competition for women-owned businesses up to 5 percent for all contracts.

Needed proof

The three women first learned the value of certification in the early years of their business, which was founded in 1996.

Rabon said when pitching their business as women-owned to larger companies, many told her they needed proof.

"We kept running into walls with major corporations," Rabon said. "We saw very quickly it was going to help our business."

Rabon said she spent "several months" completing the certification's application process, which included filling out paperwork and collecting needed documentation, such as tax documents and financial statements.

Women-owned businesses can receive certification as such through a few avenues. Like Complete Facilities Management, businesses can go to the National Women's Business Owners Corporation. Its certification is for those more interested in work in the private sector rather than with government contracts.

The Women's Business Enterprise National Council also offers certification, which is accepted by more than 700 national corporations, as well as state and local government agencies.

For federal procurement, businesses also can self-certify in the Central Contractor Registration.

Pros and cons

For Complete Facilities Management, Underwood said she thinks the certification has played a part in the company's year-over-year increase in sales. She did not disclose specific figures.

The NWBOC also sends procurement lists to its members as well — a list of local businesses that want to do business with women-owned businesses like theirs.

Rabon said many of those businesses are located outside of the Columbus area — specifically Atlanta. Fortunately, Rabon said, the business is growing in that direction.

Ritch Electric Company Inc. is another business certified as women-owned. Owner Betsy Ritch-Reed took the helm in 1995, when father and former company owner Wayne Ritch retired.

The company installs electrical circuits for new and renovated buildings, mostly on Fort Benning.

For Ritch-Reed, the certification — which she received from the Women's Business Enterprise National Council — has not been as fruitful.

"I keep getting it every year, but I don't think there was ever one job that I was chosen for because I was a WBE," Ritch-Reed said.

Still, Ritch-Reed applies annually just in case. She said her regular clients may ask for it or she may take on new business that require the certification."You never know when you're going to run into somebody," Ritch-Reed said. Although Ritch-Reed said she has not gotten any jobs from it, the fact that she is certified as a women-owned business has piqued interest, she said.

Not equal?

A certification program — a concept of the Small Business Association — provided hard evidence that federal procurement dollars were not going towards women-owned businesses.

Affirmative action programs were subsequently put in place. That included legislation and signed executive orders for more women participation in the 1960s to seven policy actions that affected small business — some with a focus on women — in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ritch-Reed said compared to other women-owned businesses, she may not have had as many obstacles to overcome since so many people knew her through her father.

"But it's still hard," she said. "I'll be on a walk-through on a job, and I'll ask a question. And the man will answer the man I'm with."

Rickey Barton, Ritch-Reed's project manager, will then point to Ritch-Reed and say, "You need to ask her."

"I think that women just have to solidly prove themselves," she said. "And then after they've done that, they should toot their own horn, because nobody else is going to do it."

The women at Complete Facilities Management said they have felt intimidated as female business owners as well.

Many times the three are the only females in the room during business meetings for bid proposals.

"It's still a man's world, in that sense," Underwood said. "But I think with this certification, we would never get there without it."

So does the certification perpetuate the idea that women need a leg up to be on equal footing with men?

"I think if I can do the job, it should all be on the table equal," Underwood said. "But it's not like that."

Using certifications like that can simply be a way in.

"Once we get in the door, I feel we can sell our business," Underwood said.

"You just tighten up your stomach," Rabon said, "and go with it."