By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – “If Memphis is going to survive, black businesses must survive,” said Carolyn Hardy, founder and CEO of Henderson Trans-loading Services, a company that stores and transports grain products – wheat, soybeans, corn and milo – by rail and boat.

Hardy drew this conclusion based on the virtually nil percentage of gross receipts from black businesses in Memphis and Shelby County after she served on Mayor Jim Strickland’s transition team.

“We’re over 52 percent of the population and enjoying only 1 percent of receipts,” Hardy pointed out. “It’s less than 1 percent, to be quite honest. What it tells me is whatever system is in place, it means the status quo is working pretty well.”

In June of 2015, the city contracted with Griffin & Strong P.C. to conduct a Disparity Study to ascertain the problem or lack of diversity when it comes to minority and women-owned businesses obtaining contracts.

The Disparity Study was released in 2016. GSPC found “sufficient statistically significant underutilization of minority and women-owned firms as prime contractors and some areas of subcontracting in all five work categories that GSPC analyzed.”

The five categories were “Construction,” Architecture and Engineering,” “Professional Services,” “Other Services,” and “Goods.” The purpose of the study was to determine if the Equal Business Opportunity ordinance, which was set to expire on June 30, 2015, was fulfilled or not.

“What I learned is when you look at the Disparity Study that the city paid for and looked at, the feedback they got from the business community…they got the answer to solve this problem,” she said.

“If the business community is going to survive – I’m not just talking about government – the city government should be doing what it’s doing to try to increase minority gross receipts.”

The county mayor (Mark H. Luttrell Jr.), she added, should be doing the same thing. “We got to dig a little deeper to make sure that all of government in the Memphis community is participating in the same way.”

The business community is where the money is made, said Hardy, whose business pedigree dates back to 2006 when she purchased Coors Belle brewery in Hickory Hill for $9 million. She worked at the company prior to becoming the owner.

Hardy turned that investment into a $30 million windfall five years later after selling Hardy Bottling Co. – which manufactured carbonated and non-carbonated beverages – to Blues City Brewing LLC, an affiliate of La Crosse, Wis.-based City Brewing Co.

Chism Hardy Enterprises LLC, the parent company to Hardy Bottling, which cast Hardy as the first African-American female to own a major brewery, brokered the million-dollar deal.

Hardy upped her game in the business community after paying $403,980 via the Hardy Family Trust for 33.6 acres of land in the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park for her trans-loading and docking business.

In some respects, Hardy has managed to defy the grim statistics for women and minority-owned businesses the city’s Diversity Plan reported when it was rolled out last year.

The lack of healthy minority businesses in Memphis is contributing to the status quo, she said. “The people who are controlling the purse string have to be willing to approach businesses differently. [They] have to be more inclusive of black businesses.”

Start-up capital is often a sticking point for most up-and-coming minority business owners. “You have businesses out there that are not starving for capital,” said Hardy. “They’re starving for sales.”

When it comes to divvying up contracts, the rules of engagement for awarding contracts are pretty much set in stone, said Hardy, who was tipped with this information by some top-level business owners.

“If you’re the lighting subcontractor, the lighting sub decides where they buy their supplies from,” said Hardy, noting that many minorities aren’t big enough to handle big projects.

“On the supply side, those subs make the decision,” she said. “If you look at the Disparity Study, you’ll find that we have a good concentration of supplies.”

Hardy points to the $9 billion in capital expansion underway in the city as a yardstick of where relatively little money is being spent among the varied minority and women-owned contractors.

A different set of rules, however, was applicable for the Crosstown Concourse project and the International Paper-Tower 4 project, Hardy said. “They used new rules that were very inclusive.”

When Hardy started Henderson Trans-loading, she had more of an advantage than other African-American entrepreneurs and minority firms: She didn’t have to hunt for start-up capital.

After a decade in business, Hardy was able to self-capitalize the trans-loading business. However, “If it’s something they (investors) understand, they’ll fund it,” she said. “New startups take a lot of years, a lot of capital.”

Because Hardy is adroit in business, she’s been successful in moving Henderson Trans-loading forward in terms of gross receipts. “We have a few customers in Memphis, but the majority of our customers are always outside of Memphis.”

Henderson Trans-loading has credibility too, said Hardy, who also owns an industrial supply company.

“We’ve been at it for a while and we’re the best at what we do,” said Hardy. “The customers that we work for don’t mind telling other people that. We don’t play.”