Raising the bar

In her role as the Port of Portland’s Small Business Program Development Manager, Kimberly Sutton oversees the agency’s Mentor-Protégé Program.

The Port of Portland’s Mentor-Protégé Program continues toinnovate to stay current with industry trends, business needs

When a program supporting small businesses has been around for decades, it can be easy to dismiss it as nothing new under the sun.

That would be a big mistake when it comes to the Port of Portland’s Mentor-Protégé Program.

Started in 1995, the program has a long record of being a leader in helping small companies in the construction industry learn the finer points of what it takes to grow. The program has served as an example that other programs across the country have sought to learn from and even repeat.

But rather than sit on the laurels of past success, the port program continues to find new ways to better serve the protégé companies that come through every three years, according to Kimberly Sutton.

As the port’s Small Business Program Development Manager, Sutton oversees five programs for the port. While she doesn’t play favorites, she admits she has a bit of a soft spot for the Mentor-Protégé Program.

“That’s probably, of all of the programs that I manage, my favorite because it allows me to get to know the small business owner on a personal level,” she said.

The program also is where Sutton invests time to ensure it keeps up with industry shifts and emerging trends – all of which can add up to new challenges for small companies like the protégé firms in the program.

For example, when Sutton and her staff realized many of the protégé firms were pointing to bonding as a challenge, they acted. The class of proteges that will begin the program next year will have access to a new component that will allow the firms to work on their biggest bonding hurdles, from figuring out how to gain initial access to growing capacity.

“This isn’t a one-size fits all program,” Sutton said.

Viking Engineering & Construction graduated as a protégé from the Port of Portland program three years ago and continues to be active in program events.  


Helping hands

Customizing program content to fit each protégé’s needs isn’t the only way the port program differs from other mentor-protégé programs across the country. Like most programs, the port provides an industry mentor for each protégé. But each participating firm also is connected with a financial mentor.

“That financial mentor is really key because they’re meeting with them monthly, going over the books and really getting that one-on-one support on where to make strategic investments, when … to buy equipment (or) hire someone,” Sutton said.

The port program also provides access to back office support, from help with accounting and software purchasing to marketing and proposal writing.

That financial and back office support have been game-changing for Debbie Rockway, the owner of All Source Construction and Safety Supply and a current program protégé. When Rockway started in the program, she was getting ready to buy out the two women she started the company with and was able to turn to her financial mentor for advice on how to move forward with the process.

For the second half of her time with the program, Rockway has chosen to focus on marketing. She’ll be  working with Twirl Advertising + Design, a Beaverton based firm, to update her company’s logo and create a new online presence, including adding e-commerce capabilities to her website.

The firms that get the most out of the port program tend to be those that have been in business for at least three years, which shows the business is viable and the owner is focused on growing the enterprise. Sutton also looks for firms that show a track record of quantifiable growth. Firms also must be certified with the state of Oregon COBID program as having met criteria of ownership by a woman, minority or service disabled veteran, or as an emerging small business.

The port program originally was created as a construction-focused program. A few years ago, however, the scope was expanded and now includes firms that provide professional services to the industry, such as engineering firms and suppliers and even a pest-control company.

Derrick Beneville, a project manager with Hoffman Construction and a longtime mentor in the Port of Portland’s Mentor-Protégé Program, says he’s always happy to share the spotlight with protégé firms like those owned by former protégé Vicqui Guevara and her firm, Valley Growers, and current protégé Reyna Badillo and her firm, Summit Wood Creations.


Gearing up

The port program runs in three-year cycles, with a new group of proteges slated to come on board next year. Right now, Sutton and her staff are preparing to open the application window, which will run from July 1-31. On average, Sutton receives 50 applications for about 20 spots in the program. This year, given the flurry of construction activity in Oregon, she thinks the demand may be even higher.

Protégé firms aren’t charged for participating. Instead, the port and the Oregon Department of Transportation share the cost, which Sutton estimates runs about $15,000 per year for each protégé.

The payback for the two agencies comes from helping build a stronger pool of future contractors, subcontractors and suppliers. That’s a benefit that mentors like Derrick Beneville, a project manager with Hoffman Construction, say their companies also reap.

Beneville has benefited from his involvement in the program in the form of friendships and partnerships that have lasted long after his proteges have graduated. He still serves as a mentor for one of his former proteges, for example, who has since gone on to serve as a mentor for other small firms.

Being able to develop a relationship with a larger mentor firm has been instrumental for Viking Engineering & Construction and its co-founders, CEO Cecil DelaCruz and COO Jack Kiperman. Since graduating as a protégé in the port program three years ago, the firm has gone on to work on other projects with its mentor, Mortenson Construction.

DelaCruz offers a bit of advice to small fi rm owners who think they’re already too busy to participate in a mentor-protégé program like the port offers.

“In the very beginning of a small business, your so overextended. But if you look at (your involvement in the program) as a burden, it will always be a burden,” he said. “If you look at it as an opportunity, if you’re willing to invest your time, you’re going to get a very large rate of return.”