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The case for federal contracting: Opportunity knocks, relationships stay

WASHINGTON - When attention turned to the government sector recently at the National Indian Business Association annual conference, they were talking $250 billion worth of sector - a sector that buys anything and everything, that must forecast all purchases of over $25,000 and that must identify all current functions that could be outsourced.

That amounts to huge opportunity for Native contracting entrepreneurs, many of whom are eligible for "8(a)" status, a minority preference program that shields historically disadvantaged business owners from full competition in their start-up years against established companies in the field. But the keys to taking advantage of opportunities in federal contracting are to plan ahead (those purchasing forecasts are a big help here), learn the ropes, develop relationships, and offer quality services where they are needed.

Learning the ropes is essential because by general consensus, federal contracting is simply too complex to master without specialized knowledge. In addition, as the government hires fewer and fewer procurement personnel, it becomes mission-critical to make the jobs of those few easier for them by having one's own ducks in order, so to speak. This requires research into what different federal agencies need in the way of services, how the contractor can fit into the agency's mission, and who may be the agency's key people.

Relationships are vital because procurement officers and project managers make the final decisions on contractors, and more and more this means that contractors must get "face time" with them. This will mean communications and business trips to the agency's location. As Scott Denniston noted in urging Native veterans to get active in contracting, the key at this initial stage is for the aspiring contractor to find out who are the government's end users of goods and services, and convince them the goods and services he can offer will help that agency fulfill its mission. Once a contractor has figured out how he can help, presentation could be everything: a 30-second talk could make all the difference. "You need to have your elevator speech ready, you really do," Denniston said.

At an intermediate stage of a bidding process, oral presentations give the would-be vendor a half hour to convince the brass that he can solve their problem. It is difficult for any newcomer in contracting to dislodge an incumbent vendor who is doing a decent job, so getting rejected initially can be a good thing - rejected vendors can ask for a debriefing. In the process they get a critique of their bid and above all - face time with project managers, who may have other ideas for how a new contractor on the block can fit in.

Quality in contractor services cannot be overemphasized. Following President Bush's Management Agenda, with its emphasis on quality of service to the taxpayer, procurement officers and project managers at all levels are looking for "best value to the government" - value the successful contractor must provide.

The NIBA conference showcased any number of successful Native contractors. Col. James Wilson, Deputy Associate Director for Range and Airspace with the United States Air Force, described a contracting arrangement at Rattlesnake Range, near the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana. A tribal contractor builds modular targets for the USAF to practice on, but before the jobs came a cultural awareness booklet put together by the tribal college, tribal assistance in a site characteristics study, and a full exchange of information on the Air Force's design, use and closure cycle for such ranges. Since then has come an expanded Air Force commitment to working with Native Americans, Wilson said.

Rhonda Whiting, vice president of S&K Technologies Inc., a tribal corporation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation in western Montana, presented a narrative profile of one of Indian country's premier contracting firms - "S&K in a great way has reached out and embraced Native businesses" in its role as a contractor, said master of ceremonies John V. Meyer, of Native American Industrial Distributors Inc. in Maryland.

Whiting said 80 percent of S&K's business is with the government and military, but recently it has implemented a third party billing system in health care that it hopes to market (improved third party billing is an important factor in the fiscal health of Native-operated and IHS hospitals). Previous accomplishments have been to identify vendors of airplane repair parts for the federal government. Currently, "We're involved in a real critical part of this military effort," Whiting said. "We're actually sending people over there and they are in harm's way."

She added that construction is probably "the next wave" of U.S. contracting needs in Iraq.

Given the impossibility of getting started in government contracting on one's own, S&K provides a great example of a good start through relationships - specifically, those relationships forged in the Mentor-Prot?g? Program of the federal government. The program came up for repeated mention at the NIBA conference, always in terms of its potential for Native contracting entrepreneurs.

"The Department of Defense operates the Mentor-Prot?g? program to spread its considerable budget to a larger portion of the economy," according to the Superior, Wis., editor and reporter Konnie LeMay, writing in a newsletter of First Nations Development Institute. "The program allows mentoring companies to get reimbursement for some costs of prot?g? development and establishes credit for them in their subcontracting requirements on large Department of Defense contracts. Under the program, the mentor provides technical assistance to a prot?g?, developing the smaller business as a resource for subcontracting."

It was actually a sister corporation of S&K Technologies, S&K Electronics, that earned a NASA contract through the Mentor-Prot?g? program.

But in contrast to some of the advice and program knowledge conveyed at the NIBA conference, the Mentor-Prot?g? program is not for beginners. A contracting operation should have something under way before searching the field for larger companies that may strike an agreement. On the other hand, a Native contracting entrepreneur with projects to his or her credit, and a critical need for developmental assistance in taking the next step, may be well-positioned for the Mentor-Prot?g? program.