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 user 2009-03-10 at 11:35:30 am Views: 84
  • #21498
    Chamber’s Tera Vazquez turned ink into gold
    Tera Vazquez is president of Nashville-based Guy Brown Products, a nationwide office products supplier with revenues near $200 million a year, and the incoming president of the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

    She joined with partners Ashoke “Bappa” Mukherji and Jay Chawan
    10 years ago to sell recycled toner cartridges to businesses and city governments. That may seem like a mundane business, but Vazquez and company have relationships with corporate giants such as HCA, Comcast, John Deere, Walt Disney Co. and the city of Los Angeles, among many others.Vazquez, a native of Lima, Peru, moved to the U.S. as a college student and went on to earn a master’s of business administration degree from American University. Now, she hopes to take a more visible role helping the area’s Hispanic businesses flourish.
    She spoke with Tennessean Business Editor Randy McClain last week.

    What were sales in Guy Brown’s first year?
    Our first year of sales was $179,000. It was a scary time, but we had a path and a plan. Once you make a decision, you do not look back. The best way we found to get our name out there … we joined an entity called the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council, which is run by Cheri Henderson as executive director.Through them we started participating in national trade shows, having a booth and getting our name out there. The first year in business we did 27 trade shows nationwide. It was a massive effort.

    Were you doing deliveries in those early days?
    No. We went through other distributors — an Office Depot, an Office Max, somebody who could deliver the products for us. We manufactured ink and toner cartridges. That was our role. We had a plant in Chatsworth, California, near Los Angeles.At that time, Chatsworth was a center for this kind of manufacturing. The knowledge and information technology was there, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and operate out of a “garage operation” in Nashville we decided to go where there already were resources in place.It was 100 percent a remanufacturing operation. We recycled everything, and the key to success was to collect used cartridges and replenish them. We really had to work at (that).

    Were there any middlemen who’d collect the cartridges on a broad scale and sell them to remanufacturers like Guy Brown?

    Yes. But we found that wasn’t the most cost-effective way to do it. We set up programs with Office Depot and others at store sites to collect the cartridges for us. Whenever they delivered a load of paper to a company they’d pick up empty cartridges and put them on a pallet for us. We’d come by, sort them and ship them to our recycling plant.

    How did you win clients? Who was your first big catch?
    The first year in business we landed the city of Los Angeles as our customer. To be able to tell the world that we had the city of L.A., the police department, water and power, the whole thing … as our customer was wonderful for us. We met the mayor’s economic development representative at one of the trade shows that we did. We made a presentation and after some testing, they accepted our products, and they saved $400,000 the first year in costs. We’ve also sold products to the Walt Disney Company for nine years.

    How have your sales increased and how many more products do you sell today versus day one?
    Our sales last year were $197 million. Our focus since day one has been on customer service. We still only manufacture (toner) cartridges, but all other office supplies we buy from other providers and sell them to our customers. In Nashville, we have our own Guy Brown distribution fleet of trucks.Nationally, we work with other distributors such as Staples or Office Max to carry our products and distribute them for us. And in some locations we partner with other minority-owned companies to do deliveries.

    How did you branch out into medical supplies?

    We acquired a small company called Specialty Medical in Ohio last September, and we are just starting to ramp up our business-to-business sales in that niche.They were a small company doing most of their sales online. We saw it as an effective way to get into that sector without having to buy a $200 million medical supply company. The challenge now is to expand sales.Specialty already had relationships with suppliers, although they didn’t sell in a big way to hospitals, doctors’ clinics and places like that. We will try to expand sales to new customers and serve our existing ones with new products.A client like Bridgestone Firestone, for instance, uses rubber gloves in their (tire) plants. We have other customers — large ones such as AT&T, Boeing and Comcast — that aren’t medically oriented but they might require masks, protective gloves and other items, too. We want to be a partner that brings solutions to the customer.Vanderbilt University, for instance, buys office products from our company already. We will try to sell them medical supplies, too.

    What’s the business environment like for a minority-owned company? Is corporate America more willing to do business with firms such as yours today?
    There are still companies out there who want to talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. It’s part of doing business. But I think that’s in any world. If you really want to make a sale, you have to stick with it and be persistent. It’s not just a diversity issue.

    You recently became president of the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. How do you see that group aiding with business development?
    We have more than doubled our membership over the last eight months. And we have formed strategic alliances with groups that represent the Tennessee contractors and others. Our Chamber is embracing all these other organizations.We are also working with Conexion Americas, which works with Latino families on social development, housing and other needs. We are more focused on economic development, but to achieve (that) you have to advance socially as well.

    As the economy slows, are your customers buying fewer office supplies, cutting back on purchases overall?
    Most definitely, we have felt the contraction. We know that our products are still needed, but they’re needed in less quantity.How do we go forward? I am a firm believer in strategic alliances and networking. I learned a great lesson recently. We just landed a piece of business from HCA (the hospital company). That came about through our involvement with the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council. We still had to compete on pricing, quality and service, but we were one of the two finalists and we got some of the business just a couple of months ago.

    What do you project for 2009?
    We have been very fortunate that our company does not carry a lot of debt. We are functioning very well. We have a line of credit, but we try not to use it. We are not cash-strapped. So, that helps.Nowadays, it’s impossible to forecast sales accurately and pretend you know what you’re saying. We probably will end up close to what we made in 2008, maybe a couple of million dollars more.Adding medical supplies will help, but realistically in anything you launch there is a cycle. And it will take us a good six months to start seeing results. Everything takes time, especially when you are dealing with large corporations.

    Phone: 615-221-0330
    President: Tera Vazquez

    Coming soon
    Luncheon: Help becoming a minority supplier, contractor
    Speaker: Cheri Henderson, president, Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council
    Time: Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.
    Place: The Boundry, 911 20th Ave. S.
    More info: 615-578-2477 or