Accelerators: This monthly series spotlights local people of color chasing their business dreams and paving the way for others. These are the stories of the entrepreneurs, trailblazers and risk-takers who are leading the way to the new Montgomery.
It’s 10 p.m. but Carmen Moore-Zeigler is wide awake, on the phone with a stressed-out business owner. If her cell rings, she answers. No matter the time of day.
“My father used to say, ‘nothing comes to a sleeper, but a dream.’ And he hadn’t seen anyone eat off that yet.”
The quick witted, 47-year-old entrepreneur is the owner of the Moore-Zeigler Group, a consulting firm that specializes in growing small minority-owned businesses. She helps entrepreneurs navigate unfamiliar territory, assisting owners with everything from licensing and paperwork to bidding for government contracts.
The phrase, “my father used to say,” is one she repeats often.
Douglas Moore taught her everything she knows about business.
At three years old, Moore-Zeigler and her father launched their first enterprise: Carmen’s haircare and lotion products, manufactured in Birmingham. Like many early entrepreneurs, Moore tried his hand at few different businesses — used cars, restaurant equipment — before he found what stuck. His daughter watched him closely.
“I love my mother. What she did and how she gave to the community. … But as a child, I never had the dream to be a school teacher. I emulated my father. I always wanted to own my own business. Watching him, made me want to do what I’m doing today,” she said.
When her father founded the firm in the early 2000s there was no doubt she’d take over. After her marriage, Moore changed the business’ moniker to include her husband’s surname as incentive to them both. She joined full-time in 2009. Six years later, they were discussing his retirement. It never came.
Moore passed unexpectedly from a heart attack in June 2016. Devastated, but determined, his daughter took the reins.
Assuming leadership of an established family business has its benefits — no need to raise startup funds, existing business infrastructure, client relationships developed over time. But it comes with a unique set of challenges.
Maintaining longstanding partnerships that have sustained a business over time is among the gravest. Moore-Zeigler had to figure out how to make the enterprise her own, without running it into the ground.
Her first year of sole ownership was grueling. When her husband’s work took them south to Mobile in 2004, she handled accounts there and traveled when necessary. Now, she was often commuting more than five hours a day between their Fairhope home and Montgomery, where a bulk of the company’s clients are located.
“I would see my child off to school then get on the road,” she said. “I had no choice. I was determined to keep my father’s business alive.”
Her gender also proved to be an obstacle. Her father had been scrupulous and so was she. But, among men of a certain mind that quality only seemed to make her task more difficult.
“This business is predominantly male driven. I’ve had some men say things to me they would not dare say to another man in their life. I couldn’t knock on doors. I had to open them,” said Moore-Ziegler.
In 2017, she and her husband Henry Zeigler Jr., returned to the capital and joined forces. He offers IT consulting to colleges, businesses and municipalities. They’ve expanded their services to include social media marketing.
Right now, much of the Group’s work is focused on increasing minority participation in the government contract bidding process. The city and county have set a goal of 30%. But there are some big hurdles.
Existing relationships have been forged over decades between white business owners and predominantly white administrative bodies that have in the past disenfranchised Black entrepreneurs. These firms have had ample time and opportunity to demystify what can be a murky process. And financial requirements for contractors who want in are prohibitive for small minority businesses.
Moore-Zeigler said a major snag for these entrepreneurs is bonding. A form of liability insurance that provides protection should a contractor fail to complete a job as required. Figures vary, but businesses must often be bonded for 10% of a contract’s total. That could mean hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, depending on the contract.
“Capital is the number one issue. In order to get money from banks you have to have a history of being in business for years. You also have to have secured capital to give them for the business,” said Moore-Zeigler. This refers to financial collateral used to secure a borrower’s debt.
“But how can we have secured capital if we’ve never been given the opportunity to borrow money to purchase the printing machine that we need, or to purchase the building that we need for the business?” she asked.
To counter this, Moore-Zeigler often connects small minority businesses interested in bidding for government contracts with larger enterprises, where they can work as sub-contractors bonded with a lower financial threshold.
She’s also honest with clients. Not every business can get a city or county contract. Their work is limited, and a lot of it takes place in-house. It’s why Moore-Zeigler works to connect Black entrepreneurs with each other and the community at large. She hosts networking events, where small business owners mix with community stakeholders, bank representatives and city officials.
Since 2017, Moore-Zeigler has collaborated with Big KD 94.1 radio station on a program that spotlights local minority businesses every Thursday, sponsored by Montgomery businessman Alfred Seawright. In July, she’ll be on air Wednesdays, promoting more businesses with the aid of Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean.
The long commutes have ended, the long hours have not. Moore-Zeigler doesn’t have complaints about that.
“Like I said, nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream. I watched my father work until 3-4 in the morning when everyone was asleep. And my mother was right there with him. I watched my parents give their best. Who am I not to?” she said.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Safiya Charles at (334) 240-0121 or [email protected]