Get In The Game

How to take advantage of public procurement opportunities

Doing business with the federal government for 12 years has been a prosperous roller coaster ride for entrepreneur Eleanor Andrews. As president and CEO of the Andrews Group Inc. in Anchorage, Alaska, Andrews has built a solid reputation as a contractor with the Department of Defense (DOD) under the Army and Air Force and several others providing facilities operations and maintenance, logistics support and information technology services.

Yet her work with the federal government hasn’t been without its adventures. Indeed, Andrews recalls she was once called on to fulfill a multimillion-dollar project with just three days notice.

The contract, awarded through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, was a $3.4 million, nine- month endeavor that involved overseeing housing maintenance of 1,600 units at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. But because Andrews had experience with logistics and had recently won a much larger Army housing maintenance contract, she was able to successfully manage the massive assignment despite such short notice.

“Being successful at landing contracts depends on opportunities, your track record, your ability to respond quickly and having capital resources,” she says. “The challenge is that it’s very competitive.”

Andrews is just one of many African American entrepreneurs who looked on with cautious optimism when the Clinton administration vowed to “mend, not end” affirmative action’s role in the billion-dollar landscape of procurement. Since that vow there have been numerous procedural changes. Firms must now be certified to obtain minority status, and preferential treatment is considered only in industries where minorities are underrepresented-a modification that some minority business advocates predict will mean minority firms receiving fewer contracts. But despite contract bundling and legislation that curbs procurement for African Americans, opportunities are out there-if you know how to play the game.

In a two-part series, black enterprise will examine where these opportunities are in both the public and private sectors and instruct entrepreneurs on how to successfully go after them. In Part 1, we examine federal procurement: how to get started, where to go for help, what you need to do to be prepared and how the process works.

GETTING STARTED
Audwin Helton, president of Spatial Data Integrations (SDI) in Louisville, Kentucky, provides digital computer cartographic and geographic information systems to the Bureau of Land Management and military maps to the DOD. About 85%-95% of his company’s $1 million revenues come from two prime DOD contracts. Helton was director of the DOD office in Louisville. He started SDI in 1994 when the department was downsized and brought his most experienced map makers with him.

“Mapping is a niche a lot of companies aren’t focusing on,” Helton says. “It takes special knowledge, skills and, often, security clearance. In thinking about my business philosophy, I tried to focus on my experience and contacts.”

Four years ago, when Helton won his first contract, he went through a structured process. “My firm had to be certified and I was required to submit my technical and professional capabilities in a proposal that was well over 100 pages,” he recalls. “We had to be painstaking in

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