The summer of 2007 was great for new entrepreneur Jean Petrus. The young co-owner of Brooklyn-based Document Integration Technologies was leasing between eight and 10 copiers a month. His customers had good credit. Banks had no problem underwriting loans of up to $200,000, the top-of-the-range cost for one of Petrus’ machines. Then came the summer of 2008 and the financial meltdown.
Banks just stopped lending—even to Petrus’ AAA-credit customers who always paid their bills on time. Monthly orders dropped by half and then hit the wall at one by the end of the year.
“It was a scary situation because we really didn’t prepare for it,” said Petrus of then two-year-old DIT’s growing pains.
Now, he says though, the downturn came at the best time possible.
“It forced us to think outside of the box.”
While waiting for banks and suppliers to loosen up recession-era demands for his customers’credit histories, Petrus went far afield and began thinking about expanding into Haiti.
Then a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck and the rest of the world fixed its gaze, too, to Petrus’ native homeland.
“Lots of organizations are there right now, collecting data and sending it back to home offices abroad,” Petrus said. “If you can automate that, which is what we do, we can save a company a lot of money.”
Petrus belongs to a small coterie of New York-area businesses, most owned by Haitian-Americans, pushed by a slow recovery at home and pulled by both patriotism and profit to help reconstruct Haiti.
More than 105,000 homes need to be rebuilt, along with 1,300 schools, 50 hospitals, the presidential palace, parliament and courts, not to mention debris removal and technology and infrastructure development.
These Haitian-American owners are new to the world of federal procurement, however. Since January 12th, other American firms with extensive international experience in disaster clean-up and construction—many with lessons learned from post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction—have been setting up offices, camps and mess halls for an anticipated workforce in Port-au-Prince.
It remains to be seen whether and how effectively Haitian-American firms can compete for the more than $1 billion in aid pledged by the United States over the next decade.
Jackson Rockingster is president of the Haitian-American Business Network, a chamber of commerce located in a third-floor walk-up on Flatbush Avenue. Since the quake, HABNET’s focus and that of its 84 members has swung for the first time to Haiti.
As a result, Rockingster spends much of his time now, preparing owners to take advantage of contracts, primarily with the United States Agency for International Development.
“The contract takes care of financing, it basically pays for everything,” said Rockingster.
In order to burnish HABNET members’ qualifications, he has been encouraging them to become Minority and Women Business Enterprise-certified. But Rockingster achieves another goal by having members fill out the 17-page application and go through the months-long audit, too.
“A lot of Haitian-American businesses don’t maintain their books as well as they should,” he said, hoping that if HABNET member Petrus wins a USAID contract he will model the benefits of MWBE-certification.
As part of his business strategy, Petrus had obtained certification last year during the downturn.
Meeting federal regulations is one challenge for Haitian-American firms but then going on the ground is another. Petrus, for example, immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was two-years-old. His broken Creole may suffice for family conversations but it’s certainly not enough to broker partnerships with the Haitian private sector.
HABNET plans an upcoming scouting mission but Ruth Morrison, executive director of the Brooklyn International Trade Development Center at Medgar Evers, is already there.
This week Morrison, who advises small businesses on entering high growth markets like Brazil and Ghana, heads up a fact-finding mission of 15 New York firms who are attending the “Building a New Haiti” conference sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic.
“Whether you want to do business in Haiti, Panama or Germany,” said Morrison a week before her trip, “you need to be on the ground. Go visit and walk around. See what people are doing. What do they need? See how you could fulfill their needs, wants or desires. It’s that basic.”
Most in Morrison’s team are Haitian-American owners in construction, architecture and engineering—all fields in which employment fell by as much as 30 percent during the city’s downturn. They had attended an earlier seminar co-sponsored by Morrison on doing business with USAID and other federal agencies. Now, they’re in Haiti seeking sub-contracts from larger, well-capitalized firms who, since January, have established a presence in Haiti.
“We think it’ll help their proposals to use Haitian-American subcontractors,” said Gary Juste, deputy director for accountability, compliance, transparency and support in USAID’s Office of Acquisition and Assistance.
“As we design our reconstruction program and look for qualified businesses,” said Juste, “we recognize that Haitian-Americans bring special capabilities with language and geographical knowledge.”
“It would be in the interest of large firms to seek out those capabilities.”