Navigating Government Contracts
Maintaining America is an expensive, extensive undertaking and a boon for small businesses hoping to acquire state and federal government contracts.
KRISTI DUNN, who joined the Greater Topeka Partnership in June 2017, directs the Topeka Subcenter of the Kansas Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which is funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the Defense Logistics Agency. Additional funding is provided by Wichita State University and Johnson County Community College, the other two subcenter locations, as well as GO Topeka and Pittsburg State University.
She guides creditworthy small business owners in 26 counties through the myriad requirements necessary to navigate the competitive bidding process for state and federal contracts, so they can boost their participation and profitability while also striving to provide the government with better quality and lower costs.
“Getting started can be complicated because of the electronic paperwork process, security issues and other considerations, so it’s good to have a guide,” said Dunn. “The first request for proposal often feels like crawling, and the second one feels like walking. By the time people respond to their third bid they either don’t need my help or they come back and ask me great questions that make me think hard.”
If she gets stumped, the Kansas PTAC has a nationwide network to assist in addressing questions and concerns.
GOVERNMENT PURCHASING Dunn said government purchasing resembles a pyramid structure with multi-billion-dollar contracts at the top followed by special programs, government service acquisitions and open market opportunities, the latter of which most often provide the best chances for securing an initial contract.
Open market contracts that are under $3,500, or under $5,000 in the case of the U.S. Department of Defense, can be direct purchases with a government credit card. If a bid exceeds these limits but is under $25,000, three bids are required but not necessarily a full RFP process. Contracts that exceed this limit are required to be posted on fbo.gov.
“Smaller contracts offer the ability to conduct transactions with limited paperwork and an expedited process,” said Dunn, who provides interested small business owners with training regarding the bidding process, specifications and standards, regulations and certifications and other considerations.
From Feb. 1 through June 30, 2018, Kansas PTAC helped small businesses receive $2.8 million in government contracts, $1.3 million of which was }obtained by Shawnee County small businesses.
FINANCIAL BENEFIT And the financial benefits that accrue build exponentially. “For every dollar the Shawnee County Joint Economic Development Organization has invested this year in the Kansas PTAC program, we are seeing a return on investment of $40. This number will only increase as more small businesses obtain awards throughout the year,” said Dunn, who currently works with 179 clients.
Any contract that could be performed by a small business that is $150,000 or less can be set aside for them to bid on. Additionally, small businesses may qualify for various socioeconomic designators, further reducing the vendor pool. The categories are Women-Owned Small Business; Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business; 8(a), which is a business development program; and HUBZone, which assists businesses operating in disadvantaged areas undergoing revitalization.
“It levels the playing field for small businesses,” said Dunn. “The federal government purchases everything from toothbrushes to tanks. It’s a phenomenal market to get into. Chances are the government needs your product or service so why not learn the process and land your first contract?”
Dunn said she’s worked with clients who secured contracts for clothing, construction, court reporting, data security, janitorial services and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiatives to maintain parks and lakes. She’s also helped Kansas retirees who want to be entrance gate attendants at federal parks like Lake Pomona, Mount Rushmore or other destinations secure seasonal gigs.
“It’s exciting to be able to dabble in all of these businesses,” said Dunn. “One of my clients presented at a 1 Million Cups event and just got his first contract with the U.S. Army for a standing desk he developed. Another one has created a game that can be played on aircraft carriers with a ball that won’t ricochet and cause sparks that could lead to a fire.”
CREDENTIALS Dunn’s career has been steeped in government service, making her particularly well-suited for her role. In her first job with the Civil Engineering Research Foundation in Washington, D.C., she worked with new technology and panels of potential government purchasers to evaluate and expedite the process for implementing entrepreneurial discoveries for enhancing highways and exploring the viability of bullet trains and construction design improvement products.
“I was the junior person on staff, willing to do anything to participate because it was fascinating to see the ideas brought forward, from simple to complicated, by entrepreneurs working to solve problems and improve processes,” said Dunn, an Ottawa native. “But 9-11, my birthday, happened, and I wanted to move back to Kansas.”
Working as a civil service employee, she built the Kansas Adjutant General’s Energy Conservation Program and served on a task force to develop standardized national energy savings initiatives for the National Guard Bureau.
That opportunity and other experiences working within the federal market led to a 14-month position as a civilian contractor in Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, helping the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and British Commands reduce the energy footprint and water usage of the remote island’s facilities.
Returning to Kansas, she served as a NASA subcontractor, where she managed a Kennedy Space Center based team tasked with establishing a 10-year energy and water usage master plan.
GETTING IT DONE With her extensive government services background, Dunn provides “lots of free intelligence” to her PTAC clients through one-on-one sessions, as well as workshops offered in conjunction with colleagues covering a variety of topics, including legal issues and tips to help bidders differentiate themselves from competitors.
“Small business owners have amazing tenacity and really impress me,” said Dunn. “The aptitude of the small business community in Shawnee County in particular and their willingness to not only learn but to act are leading to success not only for their companies but for the region as a whole.”
ANNEAL INITIATIVE INC. Amy Billinger and Jeremy Jackson, two of three co-founders of Anneal Initiative Inc., were conducting “groundbreaking intelligence work and fighting a lot of bureaucracy” in their efforts to provide threat warning and assessment for Kansas Homeland Security, when their entrepreneurial epiphany occurred. They started their company in 2017 to first and foremost apply their skills toward protecting the nation and secondarily to cultivate cyber-intelligence opportunities in Kansas.
“It became clear that as federal contractors, we could make the best use of U.S. intelligence analysis resources and dollars. Building a company that produces innovative methods for earlier detection and assessment of threats is the best way to match the agility of America’s adversaries,” said Billinger, an Air Force intelligence specialist and Russian history scholar.
“A number of agencies need the intelligence expertise we can provide,” said Jackson, an Air Force intelligence officer and mechanical engineer. “Protecting government and private infrastructure, especially power, financial, food and agriculture, from threats that could harm U.S. citizens is something I’ve been passionate about since 9-11.”
Anneal’s founders have benefited from Kansas PTAC services, including capability assessments, contract reviews and sounding board sessions. Jennie Jackson, Jeremy’s wife and third co-founder, who handles finance and operations responsibilities for the team, found the accounting and auditing classes pertaining to government contracts advantageous as well.
“Competing in this complex environment can be daunting,” said Jackson, “so it’s important to reach out to experts like the PTAC.”
Since many larger companies have strengthened their cybersecurity, Billinger said a growing number of adversaries have begun infiltrating smaller companies.
“The Target attack on customer accounts was routed through a small business, and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management was breached due to stolen contractor credentials, compromising the personal information of millions of federal employees,” she said.
So, in addition to pursuing government contracts, Anneal currently works with clients working in manufacturing and service capacities for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). They provide commercial services to small businesses striving to implement new DoD cybersecurity requirements from the National Institute for Standards and Technology.
“Being back in the private sector and seeing what small businesses are accomplishing and partnering with them to keep them safe and contributing to the Kansas economy is extremely rewarding,” said Jackson.
Billinger agreed. “Much of the nation’s intelligence work is taking place on the East Coast. It’s unexpected to find high-quality intelligence jobs in Kansas, but building intelligence analysis operations where well-qualified Kansans can go to work to protect our country drives what we do here every day.”
L&J BUILDING MAINTENANCE LLC Daina Williams, general manager for L&J Building Maintenance LLC, oversees a multi-state Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business started by his late father Lonnie in 1986.
Operating in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee, the company provides a variety of building maintenance and refuse and recycling services.
Williams estimates that about 90 percent of the company’s business comes from state and federal contracts, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army and the Kansas City International Airport.
L&J Building Maintenance employs about 75 individuals, many of whom are minorities and veterans like Williams’s father, who served in the Air Force.
“As a small business, it’s rewarding to know that the government has set aside a percentage of contracts to benefit veterans who have put their lives on the line by helping them earn a living,” said Williams.
Starting around age 12, Williams began honing his work ethic helping his dad empty trash, chop wood and cut grass for government landscaping jobs. After graduating from Washburn University, Williams joined the company full-time in 2000.
“When I was younger, I didn’t fully understand my dad’s philosophy that the customer always comes first, but as I continued to develop experience, I got it,” he said. “I never, ever turn my phone off because our customers need to know that they can text or call anytime, whether it’s to report an unemptied trash can or a security issue. They know we’ll handle their concern no matter what because we want to keep them happy.”
About 10 years ago, L&J Building Maintenance secured a contract with the federal government that enabled Williams to purchase additional equipment to provide trash hauling services on military bases.
“As a result of that contract, our business model expanded,” he said. “We were able to add staff and become much more involved beyond the janitorial and landscaping work we’d been doing.”
Williams had originally planned to leave Topeka after earning his bachelor’s degree and is grateful his father intervened to change the course of his career.
“I love what I do and it’s gratifying to know that my dad asked me to stay and join him in the business,” said Williams. “I’m proud to continue a legacy that began with a single law firm client that took a chance on him}, and I’m eager to see what we accomplish next.”
TECHNICAL APPLICATIONS & CONSULTING LLC After conducting reconnaissance for the U.S. Army in various locations around the world, Tracy Blocker accepted a position with a major U.S. defense contractor and soon began identifying opportunities he could explore as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB).
In 2011, Blocker and his wife, Megan, launched Technical Applications & Consulting LLC in Topeka to provide a variety of aerial data acquisition services to the defense, private and commercial sectors. The team has worked as a contractor and subcontractor for entities like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Marine Special Operations Command providing airborne geospatial collection, processing and analysis; special mission aviation; research and development; engineering and field operations support.
“Government contracts are a good niche,” said Blocker. “For example, a regional contractor working on a federal engineering project in Kansas City may be required to allocate 3 percent of the business to a veteran-owned or woman-owned business. Getting started as a subcontractor can build past performance and lead to bigger jobs as a prime contractor.”
The Blockers sought entrepreneurial advice and assistance from the Washburn University Small Business Development Center and SCORE Mentors, a group of volunteer business executives, in navigating “a complex acquisition process” to secure their first government subcontracts.
“Washburn and SCORE were great to work with and introduced us to a wealth of resources, including helping us find the people we needed to talk to,” said Blocker. “Once you have a good understanding about how the system works, it’s easy to discover opportunities that fit your area of expertise to grow your business.”
Of the six people currently on the TAC team, four are veterans, one was a military spouse and one worked with the military in a civilian capacity.
One of the most gratifying things about owning a SDVOSB for Blocker is the opportunity to create a work environment that allows highly skilled veterans to apply their expertise to commercial services for a variety of clients.
“Best of all, our team gets to build personal relationships with clients who are genuinely interested in the details about our technology, including what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”