U.S. Manufacturing

A Conversation with SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet

As the 24th Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Maria Contreras-Sweet leads the agency’s efforts to aid, counsel and protect the interests of small businesses. Recently, she spoke at Walmart’s second U.S. Manufacturing Summit, and afterward, she talked with us about Walmart’s commitment as well as her own work to help business owners thrive and strengthen the national economy.

WMT: Before the SBA, you had several roles focused on helping people gain access to opportunity, such as serving on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. It seems that you have a passion for this type of work - why?

C-S: As a young person watching television, what I saw shaped my views about many things, including what I wanted to do in the future. At the time I didn’t see a young Hispanic woman on television, so I didn’t know what I could truly be. We have people from all over the world who’ve come to America, so we need to embrace that diversity. [At the SBA] I want to make sure that I’m helping to build an America that’s strong and not leaving anyone behind. That’s how to create social mobility: expanding the middle class.

WMT: Tell us about your role at Walmart’s summit. Why was it important for you to attend and speak?

C-S: I wanted to be here for three reasons. One is getting the word out about our programs that I think are so rich and changing people’s lives across the country. The second is that Walmart is such an incredible player in the small business community. It was a great opportunity to be able to talk to folks here, one to thank them for the support that they’ve provided us in our V-WISE program for veteran women business owners, and also to explore ways we can work more closely together in the future. The third reason is that I wanted to hear firsthand from small businesses about what they think their challenges are, so I can ensure that the SBA continues to evolve and respond through smart, bold and accessible initiatives.


WMT: On that note, you’re leading a focus group today with a few businesses attending the summit. What’s your goal for that conversation?

C-S: I’ll give you a story. During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, many corporate and political leaders came together with the goal of building grocery stores and other businesses to help get the economy going again. I thought that made a lot of sense. But because I also think it’s important to call on the customer to see what they need, I went out into the community to ask them. They said, all of those things are fine, but what we need before any of that is a laundromat. We need to be able to wash our clothes so we can feel good about ourselves, go in and interview for jobs, and just exist every day. It’s very important to stay closely connected to our customers to gain these sincere insights and experiences. That way we can be a more responsive and effective SBA.

WMT: That makes a lot of sense. A lot of the work behind Walmart’s U.S. manufacturing initiative is about connecting with suppliers and manufacturers – coming together one-on-one to explore areas of cooperation.  As our company continues along this path, we’re interested in your perspective on Walmart’s commitment and its potential impact on the American economy.

C-S: Clearly, as the largest corporation in the world, this commitment plays a critical role in spurring economic activity. Manufacturing jobs are quality jobs. They have a great multiplier effect, and the fact that you’re having this conference here to spur more growth and connection with that sector – I think will take us a long way.

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Sustainability

One Company is Helping Keep Walmart and Our Communities in the ‘Green’

Glenn H. Garrett set a standard for protecting community waterways long before “going green” became a common refrain.

In 1996, after witnessing the damage left behind by hurricanes earlier that year, the disabled Marine Corps veteran launched his own business, Retention Pond Services, in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C.

The storms had destroyed the basins that hold stormwater and they were overflowing. Glenn decided to do something about it. Luckily, four years in the Marine Corps – from 1980 to 1984 – prepared him for the hard work ahead.

“It’s not glamorous, not high tech. It’s done with good, old-fashioned manpower,” he said of his business.

Glenn developed a relationship with Walmart in 2002 when a store in Wilmington had a runoff issue in the parking lot. Walmart’s construction division called the state’s stormwater regulators and asked for a recommendation on whom to hire for help. Retention Pond Services was their answer.

When the same issue happened again, this time at another store, Walmart decided to expand the maintenance procedures developed with Glenn’s company. From there, it went nationwide.

Retention Pond Services now repairs, maintains and services stormwater systems for 1,200 Walmart stores and Sam’s Clubs across the U.S. The goal is to help Walmart meet rules and regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency and reduce the risk of water pollution.

“I remember my first meeting with Walmart [representatives], and they started talking about being ‘green’. I had never heard anyone talk about green – being environmentally conscious,” he said, adding that the retailer encourages suppliers to be responsible by leading by example.

He didn’t realize it at the time, but Glenn and his company would play a major role in bringing that to fruition. He said Walmart has become a standard bearer of stormwater maintenance for big-box retailers throughout the U.S.

Retention Pond Services began with 16 employees. Fast-forward 20 years and it now employs as many as 250 workers each year, including Glenn and three other senior leaders, with clients ranging from retailers to municipalities. The number fluctuates with the seasons, but one thing remains constant – there are always military veterans like Glenn on staff. Several veterans started in junior positions and moved up through the ranks.

The business was hiring veterans before Walmart introduced its Veterans Welcome Home Commitment in 2013, but Glenn said the initiative is a great encouragement for suppliers and veterans alike. “It goes back to [Walmart] recognizing our service and appreciating what we’ve done,” he said. As a veteran himself, Glenn knows that the skills and can-do attitude learned in the military easily transfer over to civilian jobs. Glenn takes pride in his team – “I’m only as good as my worst employee” – and in protecting the environment. Much of that pride stems from his childhood in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.

“My grandfather used to tell me how great fishing was – about catching massive fish. When I was growing up, there were no fish. The bay was essentially dead, killed by pollution and runoff.”

In the 1970s, Maryland got involved in a save-the-bay campaign, and the federal government’s Water Quality Act followed in 1987. Those actions helped return fishing in the bay to its former glory.

Caring for the environment comes at a cost, whether it be time or money, but the results are well worth it. As U.S. businesses continue to grow, Glenn and his team are ready to step in and protect our communities.

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U.S. Manufacturing

Meet the Team Making Eyewear for aMerica in Brooklyn

Along the shore of New York’s Upper Bay, the buildings of Industry City stand in a huddle that overlooks the Brooklyn Waterfront.

On the fifth floor, M Factory buzzes with the busy energy of an eyewear manufacturer.

This type of space is rare to see in the U.S., for a very specific reason: Most eyewear manufacturing is done in Italy or China, and always has been. This is also one of the reasons why what M Factory is doing in Brooklyn is so exciting: Crafting quality, affordable eyewear is not something typically done in the United States.

When Walmart first began working with our suppliers to reshore eyewear manufacturing, we were excited to find a revitalization project already under way in Brooklyn. There, a group of 25 Brooklyn natives is building a community of makers and craftsmen. We knew this was the right place to start our project, and today, this is where our aMerica eyeglass frames are made by hand.

In today’s age of technology-driven factory assembly, there are very few industries investing in hand-crafted products. Yet eyewear is one category in which this is a must. Even the most inexpensive pair of readers is assembled in a process upwards of 50 steps. And no machine exists to screw the temple pieces on a pair of glasses to the frame – that’s done by hand, at each step and for every pair.

Watch the video below for a look at how the team at M Factory is bringing this craft to life in Brooklyn, and keep a look out for our aMerica frames, in stores the last week of June.

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Opportunity

Retired Store Manager Fashions Second Career Out of Dreams and Opportunity

Sometimes it’s not enough to follow your dreams. You also need someone else to see your potential.

My career at Walmart was a dream – so unanticipated! And that set me up to follow yet another dream. After nearly 20 years, I retired Feb. 17 as manager of supercenter #2914 in Massillon, Ohio, to start my own business as a fashion stylist – something I’ve been passionate about for years – and to spend more time with my precious family.

I have long had an interest in fashion, starting back when my mother was a seamstress and would create her own designs as I was growing up. Most of my wardrobe was handmade by her! I always loved how wearing something special made me feel. Working at Walmart, particularly with women, rekindled a passion in me to witness the impact of dressing well. Increased confidence, better communication, direct eye contact – we all know how that feels. Feeling positive about ourselves can be transformational.

My retail career had simple beginnings in 1997, when I was a stay-at-home mom with five small children in a single-income family. That August I was looking to get a little extra money for Christmas and applied for the first clock-in-and-out job of my life. Walmart hired me as a temporary associate despite my having dropped out of college to start a family and having zero experience in retail. I never would have dreamed I’d take a job stocking store shelves overnight and end up managing 500 people.

This company backed me every step of the way, seeing and believing in a potential I didn't recognize. One of my first store managers took a significant interest in challenging and pushing me to see opportunities that existed. It taught me how important the human touch can be.

I remember one young man who was doing a really good job as an hourly supervisor at my store. Not long after we talked about his potential, he put his job in jeopardy by clocking in late on multiple days. Instead of giving up on him, his direct supervisor asked him what was going on. He shared that his car had broken down, and with no other transportation he’d had to walk the four miles to and from the store. After hearing this, I bought him a bicycle to help put him back on the right track. He ended up going into a management program and is doing really well today.

As for me, my story has come full circle. Walmart not only gave me the acumen and process to run my own business, it also gave my husband and me the financial security to start this second phase of our lives. My baby was in kindergarten when I started my career, and now all my children are grown and college-educated. Freedom in my schedule allows me to be a stay-at-home grandma to five grandchildren.

Having been at the Massillon supercenter for the last four years, it was bittersweet to turn over my keys and the responsibility. But, I’m excited to continue being a cheerleader from the outside. The people I hired are going to go even further than I did with the belief they can have limitless careers.

Photos courtesy of Massillon Independent.

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Business

‘Outside the Box’ Breaks Down Blockchain

“Blockchain” is one of the latest business buzzwords making its way around the internet. But this is one word you won’t want to ignore.

Technology is improving the retail experience in ways you may have never imagined. And when it comes to food safety, we can see the way of the future. In Episode 2 of our podcast, Outside the Box, our guests will help break down how blockchain is improving supply chain – and in some cases, saving lives.

“Breaking Down Blockchain” features Brigid McDermott, Vice President of Business Development for Blockchain at IBM. She’s responsible for driving the growth of blockchain, an emerging platform that can radically improve banking, supply chain and other transaction networks. You’ll also hear from Frank Yiannas, Vice President of Food Safety at Walmart.

Outside the Box is our chance to bring together some of today’s most brilliant thought leaders, innovators and visionaries to talk about the retail industry and the roles it plays in society and the global economy.

Future episodes will explore topics such as “The Workforce of the Future,” where industry experts dissect the issues that will face employees in the coming years, and “U.S. Manufacturing, where we’ll talk to a business analyst, a merchandise supplier and a government official about the challenges and benefits of making products in the United States.

If you’re a business owner, an entrepreneur, a maker, a doer, a consumer – anyone! — this podcast is for you.

Learn more about the series and subscribe, and tell us what you think in the comments below.

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