Dr. Bennett Achigbu had a degree in veterinary medicine in his native Nigeria, and a national honor for his academic work. He also had a unique experience with the World Bank’s agricultural outreach program trying to improve cattle ranching among his country’s nomadic tribes.
What he didn’t have was a roadmap to success in this country.
“This place, America, where you have all these opportunities, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Achigbu said, “so you create your own path as you go.”
Creating that own path led to starting his own company, and with the help of the SBA’s 8(a) program, to become the model company for solid waste management on military bases across the nation. Since 2004, BMaKK Corporation has added a wood products division, over-the-road trucking services, recycling, hazardous waste investigation and remediation, and real estate development, and has grown from $1 million a year in revenues to 50 employees and $10 million in work a year. As a lender that has provided financial support for BMaKK’s expansion efforts, Mutual of Omaha Bank featured BMaKK in their annual report a few years back.
Taking the long way to entrepreneurial success
Achigbu, a genial, soft-spoken man with an infectious enthusiasm for his family (the company name is an acronym of his first name, and the names of his wife and two children) and his business. But he took the long way in life to find his destination as an entrepreneur.
After his time with the World Bank, he moved to this country and a two-decade long career in pharmaceutical sales and technical support with a handful of Fortune 500 companies, one of the first veterinarians to work in the industry.
“I had a good life in corporate America. I did clinical trials to support drug and vaccine development,” Achigbu said. “Working for the drug companies I learned about marketing and business development, and my time in sales and technical services stimulated my interest in business.”
A corporate transfer brought him to Omaha, where he subsequently pursued an MBA at Creighton. As part of his business school curriculum, Achigbu worked on case studies in the solid waste industry and soon saw a tremendous opportunity to create his own company providing logistical support to larger firms and municipalities.
But there was a catch.
Achigbu ambitiously wanted to buy out a struggling solid waste company and take over all of its federal contracts at military bases across the country all at once.
“I couldn’t get funding, all the banks turned me down,” Achigbu said. He remembered a bank asking: this company has been losing money for 15 years – “what makes you think you’ll make money?”
SBA financing was the easy part
Achigbu sat down with American National Bank, which supported his project, but the lender balked at the idea of his nascent firm taking over a large portion of the assets and contracts of that company. But they did agree to help him buy out two of the existing contracts, at Redstone Arsenal, an Army facility in Alabama, and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, along with the trucks and equipment to do the work, with an approval January 2005 for nearly $1 million in SBA-guaranteed financing under the 7(a) program.
Getting that financing was the easy part.
Those contracts, which were fast running out, had to be re-assigned only to a company active in the SBA’s 8(a) program.
The 8(a) Business Development Program is a business assistance program for small disadvantaged businesses, offering a broad scope of assistance to firms that are owned and controlled at least 51 percent by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The program guides firms during a nine-year period to gain a foothold in government contracting often through sole source work, or contracts that are granted to small businesses through the federal system without having to compete with other companies. The idea is that growing firms will graduate as a competitive company in the marketplace.
The contracts at Minot and Redstone were under the sole source provision. Achigbu had to act fast if he wanted to keep them – even though both bases wanted him to stay on as the solid waste contractor on their installations, he had to certify as an 8(a)-eligible firm so his company could keep those jobs.
Achigbu turned to the SBA Nebraska District Office and the Omaha Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) for help with submitting all the supporting documents to make his case. Quickly approved, BMaKK went back to work.
In less than a year, Achigbu was back at his lender, this time for an SBA-guaranteed loan for nearly $2 million to buy up that failed company’s assets and contracts for solid waste disposal at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska; Fort Benning, an Army post in Georgia; Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Cherry Point Marine Corps air station in North Carolina.
SBA 8(a) program offered help to get big federal business
As part of the 8(a) program, BMaKK has sent its employees through sales and accounting training, offered by the SBA and PTAC, and several are certified in transfer station and hazardous material management; moves which make the company more competitive when bidding for federal work.
“Bennett has been wonderful to work with and is an exemplary example of success when provided with resources, like the 8(a) program,” said Lisa Tedesco, the 8(a) servicing Nebraska District Office business opportunity specialist. “You still have to market your company, provide quality service and hit the ground running, and the SBA can help you on that path to helping yourself. I’ve really enjoyed working with BMaKK Corporation and watching the company learn and grow.”
Recently, the company picked up its largest federal solid waste contract in firm history, a multi-million dollar job at Fort Bragg, an Army installation in North Carolina. BMaKK already owns a wood products division in the Tarheel State, and the company just acquired a transfer station to handle contract work at three military bases in the state, creating 20 more jobs and the potential to save millions of pounds of recycled waste from area landfills.
The company’s reviews from its military base customers range from very good to exceptional, ratings that are very hard to achieve. “We understand the installation’s goals and we fit our program to them,” said Achigbu, who pointed out that Offutt has returned to BMaKK four times. “We are not just a trash pickup service.”
BMaKK snagged a third SBA loan in mid-2008, this time through the 504 program, which offers fixed, long-term financing for real estate, to purchase 4,000 square feet of office space in a building just north of bustling Westroads Mall in Omaha. The firm has continued to expand its real estate holdings with property in the suburban town of Valley, northwest of the city.
Future growth promises long-term health, job creation
And as the company’s nine-year term in the 8(a) program comes to an end in early 2015, BMaKK has positioned itself for long-term success.
Achigbu said the firm has made a commitment to a 22-acre tract in northeast Omaha on the Missouri River waterfront which will create 35 new jobs, hosting a recycling operation that could save tons of construction and demolition materials from area landfills. He’d traveled on an export mission a number of years ago with then-Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle to Japan, where BMaKK was negotiating on securing the exclusive rights in this country to use a revolutionary technology to convert solid waste glass into a lightweight, porous material with a wide potential of engineering and agricultural applications.
The company also will use the riverfront location for a municipal solid waste transfer station where waste from neighborhood collection trucks is loaded into large, long-distance ones to ship to landfills. By combining the loads of several individual waste collection trucks into a single shipment, communities can save money on the labor and operating costs of transporting the waste to a distant disposal site.
In November 2014, BMaKK picked up the assets of an Omaha company in an economically underserved part of Omaha where it plans to manufacture recycled glass products. With the purchase, BMaKK will move its over-the-road hauling business to that site, potentially creating even more jobs.
So what is the 8(a) program all about? Achigbu credits the SBA in his answer: “You pick up a small company, hold our hands when nobody would touch us, work with us, make us successful where we’re able to go to the bank and get loans, and diversify on our own. If the SBA did not pick up BMaKK as an 8(a) company, what would be our prospects? None.”