Thousands of women business owners to meet here

Julie Copeland (left), CEO of Arbill, with sister Robin Zlotkin, the executive vice president, in the company's North Philadelphia warehouse. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Julie Copeland (left), CEO of Arbill, with sister Robin Zlotkin, the executive vice president, in the company's North Philadelphia warehouse. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 21, 2014

When the largest U.S. conference of women business owners convenes Monday in Philadelphia, Julie Copeland, president and CEO of locally based Arbill, will not enjoy a luxury she's become accustomed to at most trade shows:

Nonexistent bathroom lines.

As the head of a safety products and services company that sells hard hats, steel-toe boots, and protective gloves, Copeland is usually the rare woman at such events.

Not next week, when the 15th annual Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) National Conference and Business Fair makes its first Philadelphia appearance. More than 3,000 women business owners are expected to attend the three-day opportunity-building event at the Convention Center Monday through Wednesday.

As cochair, Copeland is hoping - bathroom lines aside - that attendees leave town having experienced the kind of magic she did at a WBENC trade fair two years ago in Orlando.

"Coke stood in front of my booth and told DuPont all about us," Copeland recalled last week in her office at Arbill. "That was a magical moment."

DuPont joined the Coca-Cola Co. as an Arbill customer after that.

Gaining access to contacts, and ultimately contracts, is one of the toughest challenges for women-owned businesses. Conquering it is the primary aim of this conference, called "Join Forces. Succeed Together."

Corporations and government agencies that are sending buyers already have been provided profiles of each of the certified Women's Business Enterprises (at least 51 percent women-owned) that will be there. It is advance work for matchmaking sessions that will take place during the conference.

Hosted by the Philadelphia-based Women's Business Enterprise Council PA-DE-sNJ (WBEC), the conference also will include networking sessions, panel discussions, and presentations, such as a scheduled address Tuesday by Gov. Corbett and his wife, Susan. The business fair portion will feature more than 300 exhibitors.

"It's an opportunity to make connections that will work for them," Geri Swift, president of WBEC and cocreator of the national council, said of the conference's value to participants. "You need to get out of your business in order to work on it. You need to spend the time to continue to market and grow your business."

Swift founded WBEC in 1995 to help foster growth of women-owned businesses. Part of that provides national certification, a stamp of approval that a company meets women-owned qualifications, important for securing government and private contract work. The council also assists corporations with building supplier-diversity programs.

Pamela Prince-Eason has been on both sides of this dance.

For the last three years, she has been president of Washington-based WBENC, an organization with 14 regional U.S. affiliates, including Swift's council.

Prior to her post at the national council, Prince-Eason, a Harleysville resident, was vice president of procurement at Pfizer Inc., where she used WBENC to find women-owned companies for the drug firm to do business with.

With an estimated 8.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States as of 2013, the Philadelphia metropolitan area, including parts of South Jersey and Delaware, ranked ninth out of 25 regions, with 155,200, said Prince-Eason, citing a study by AMEX Open, the small-business arm of American Express. San Antonio, with 61,100 women-owned companies, was No. 1 in business growth with an increase of 80.5 percent and tops in employment growth with a 50.4 percent jump.

Copeland reports annual "double-digit" sales growth the last few years at the Northeast Philadelphia business started in 1945 by her grandfather, Robert Bickman, later run by her father, Barry Bickman, and now owned by Copeland and her sister, Robin Zlotkin.

A company with Mid-Atlantic reach when Copeland took over in 2005, Arbill is now a national firm with nearly 100 U.S. employees, manufacturing relationships throughout the world, and a business line expanded to include designing employee-protection programs.

"Our opportunities are the same, as long as we put the work in," Copeland said of women owners.

Though she admitted one shortfall: Women-owned small businesses accounted for less than 5 percent of all small-business federal government contracts. WBENC and its affiliates are pushing for at least 5 percent.

"We need to create a mechanism that says, find them . . . get them in your mix," Copeland said.


Ownership Breakdown

As of 2013, the Philadelphia metropolitan area, including parts of South Jersey and Delaware, ranked ninth out of 25 regions for the number of women-owned businesses. Here are national and state numbers:

             U.S.           Pa.            N.J.

Businesses    8.6 million    295,200         223,400

Employees    7.8 million    303,100         258,000

Revenues    $1.3 trillion   $51.9 billion    $43 billion

SOURCE: 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report by Amex OPEN.


If You Go

To register to attend the Women's Business Enterprise National Council National Conference and Business Fair from June 23 to 25 at the Convention Center, go to www.wbenc.org/wbencconf. Participants can also register at the door.

Prices range from $200 to $950 for the full conference, and $100 to $375 for day passes.


>Inquirer.com

Arbill CEO and president Julie Copeland knows well the challenges facing women business owners. Hear her discuss how the Women's Business Enterprise National Council's National Conference and Business Fair will provide access and opportunities for women-owned companies to do business with major corporations and government agencies. www.inquirer.com/business


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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