When Marjorie Perry, president of Newark-based MZM Construction Co., was in desperate need of capital to fulfill a contract and secure future projects in 1998, she turned to the federal Small Business Administration, which backed a $250,000 loan through Columbia Bank.
"That was a make-or-break moment, and that project ended up launching me into prime-contractor status," Perry said. "I live and die by the SBA."
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Twelve years later, the SBA helped Perry through another turning point in her business — obtaining 8(a) certification, which provides small disadvantaged businesses with easier access to federal contracting opportunities.
"I would hit $5 million in revenues, and then come back down to $3 million, but my 8(a) status broke that model completely," Perry said. "Even with that original SBA loan, we were hitting a brick wall, not breaking the $4 million mark, because the public-sector side didn't pay or was paying very late. But through the 8(a) program, they pay us every 15 days, and it gives me more opportunities outside of my backyard."
For her company's 15 percent annual growth rate — with current annual sales of more than $7 million — and use of SBA programs, Perry was named the 2012 New Jersey Small Business Person of the Year at a ceremony this afternoon in Edison.
Though Perry said she will use the award exposure as a platform to help her grow MZM, she's still "a little concerned on how to innovate in a climate that has so many twists and turns."
That's especially true because, like her competitors, Perry has been struggling to find work in the crumbling construction industry. Transportation projects have "been the bread and butter of MZM," she said.
"Whether we're building a building or not, transportation is still going. Money has been coming in steady in the last five years from that kind of work," Perry said. "I saw the slowdown coming, so I diversified and picked up a hazardous and nonhazardous (waste transporter) license to kick up business through the transportation side."
Another honoree at today's event — the Small Business Week conference, held at the New Jersey Convention & Exposition Center — was Daniel Fernandez, president of Millstone Township-based DJ's Mechanical Inc. Fernandez was recognized as the Region II Regional Prime Contractor of the Year by the agency, which he said "opened our eyes for how we can market ourselves" and provided crucial help with procurement through its 8(a) and mentor-protégé programs.
"In the 8(a) program, we didn't get procurement until we were five-and-a-half years into it. We had to go out and meet and greet everyone, and we couldn't expect a handout," Fernandez said. "But the SBA helped us flesh out teaming opportunities with companies that were 8(a) graduates. Without the SBA, I don't think DJ's could have flourished. It's been a huge part of our success."
Since it received 8(a) certification in 2005, DJ's has procured 15 contracts worth $10.8 million, and today the company has 11 employees and $10 million in annual sales. When Fernandez's 8(a) certification expires on November 23, he's looking to give back to companies that are now in his shoes by serving as a mentor to new 8(a) firms.
Other award winners in the state honored at today's event include New Jersey Financial Services Champion of the Year Daniel Delehanty, vice president and community development officer of Capital One Bank; New Jersey Minority Small Business Champion of the Year Nancy C. Myers, president of Qualified Women/Minorities in Construction Inc.; and Regional and New Jersey Women in Business Champion of the Year Judy Chapman Killion, president of Garden State Woman.