Gary Arlen | Making the team: What you need

Large primes want partners who do their homework and have skills, flexibility and relationships with critical customers

2006 Small Business Report

Small-business programs offer hope, but companies still struggle to find the best contracts, navigate procurement rules and break down barriers.

In this Special Report

  • In small-business IT contracting, the challenge is distinguishing which agencies have the dollars and a willingness to assist

  • Fast 50 execs share how they've risen to the top.

  • Making the team: What you need

  • Buy Lines: Narrow policy matters trip up small-business program
  • 2006 Top 25 8(a) Contractors

  • 2006 Fast 50 Government Contractors

  • Online forum featuring small business expert Guy Timberlake
  • Clockwise, from left: Lynn Livengood, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.; Mac DeShazer, Lockheed Martin Corp.; Diane Dempsey, BAE Systems Inc.; Susan Zeleniak, Verizon Business Federal; William Mitchell, BAE Systems Inc.; Kim Bowley ManTech International Corp.

    Rick Steele

    For small companies seeking to partner with major federal IT contractors, preparations may include studying the Boy Scout oath, especially "Be prepared," reviewing notes from a Business 101 class and cultivating flexibility that a contortionist would envy.

    Based on nearly two dozen interviews with major contractors, a checklist emerges of what these companies want as they recruit small-business partners for government IT projects.

    Contractors want to team with companies that are well informed about technology and business practices. They prefer partners that have successful track records on comparable projects and flexibility to take on new tasks. Depending on the situation, they look for special capabilities that may range from geographic
    presence to advanced technical expertise.

    Most of all, prime contractors repeatedly urge prospective partners to do their homework. Small companies should fully understand the kinds of projects on which the prime contractors are bidding and the skills that they need. Homework can take many forms, from meticulous review of a company's Web site to personal contacts with procurement officers.

    As Mac DeShazer, senior manager and small-business liaison for Lockheed Martin Corp.'s IT business, said, "Don't call us to ask, 'What do you have that I can work on?' Look at what we're doing, then call about a specific project."

    Online advantage

    Most prime contractors rely on Web site registration systems and databases to track prospective small-business partners. Some companies have more than 3,000 companies listed.

    When registering, small businesses should list specific capabilities and customer relationships, said Ludmilla Parnell, Anteon International Corp.'s marketing director of small-business partnerships. Anteon is now part of General Dynamics Corp.

    "Be very specific," said Lynn Livengood, small-business liaison manager for Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. "Drill down to the most specific key words" to explain skills and previous experience.

    "We [want] people who can perform, rather than someone who can just plug a hole," she said.

    Kim Bowley, ManTech International Corp.'s small-business liaison officer, said that being precise also is important.

    "Our fastest responses go to companies that are well prepared to focus on a specific ManTech relationship," she said.

    However, there is more to this game than filling in the blanks on a Web site.
    "Just registering with the database is not going to gain you a lot of new business," said Susan Zeleniak, Verizon Business Federal vice president for civilian networks. "We're always looking for companies with new and innovative ideas."

    The combination of research and attention to specific skills manifests itself in numerous ways. Several contractors said connections with customers are an
    important part of how small companies should approach prime contractors.

    "Knowing the customer is important," said George Otchere, Science Applications International Corp.'s director of small-business development. If small companies know the customer, "then they know the problems the customer is facing," he said.

    If the agency knows and has confidence in a subcontractor or team member, it generates greater customer satisfaction, said David Capizzi, director of IT sector procurement for Northrop Grumman Corp. Diane Dempsey, formerly a
    supplier diversity manager at Computer Sciences Corp., now director of small-business relationships at BAE Systems Inc., is a strong advocate of preparation. What she found frustrating, she said, was the number of hopeful partners that did not prepare sufficiently to understand the kinds of projects a prime contractor is pursuing.

    "It's up to the small business to conduct research," Dempsey said. "They should be up to the task [when] they conduct the first interview."

    Go with the flow

    Many contractors cite examples of companies that approached them for one project, but were directed to another that better matched their skills. In other cases, small companies with strong connections to a client were steered into unanticipated roles as prime contractors with the larger IT contractor acting as the sub.

    Recognizing that parameters change midstream, especially on some governmentwide and open-ended contracts, IT giants look to small companies to be ready to jump aboard to handle unexpected procedures.

    "If we're working on a contract, and the government expands some of the work, you try to hire people, but sometimes you cannot," ManTech's Bowley said. "It may be quicker or better to bring in a small business that has those skills."

    For that reason, many prime contractors encourage small companies to update their skill listings in the databases, and to keep in touch with appropriate contacts to take advantage of opportunities.

    In the same vein, contractors remind small business to keep their own Web sites updated.

    "I'm always very surprised when I go into the site and find that it is incomplete," said Bill Polizos of AT&T Government Solutions. "Sometimes, I see companies that I know have past performance, but it's not complete."

    Checking credentials is an integral part of any job hunt. In the close-knit, albeit competitive, world of IT contracting, it is relatively easy to find out if companies lived up to their promises on previous assignments.

    Lockheed Martin's DeShazer said that developing a level of trust is a top criterion in his decision-making.

    BAE Systems runs a trusted-partners forum with its clients at the Homeland Security Department, part of what BAE's Procurement Director William Mitchell called his effort to "establish lasting relationships".

    "A reputation for doing a great job [is] very important," Mitchell said.

    Despite relying on established alliances, contractors insist they are always seeking new partners.

    Dempsey said that when she was at CSC, her company tried to balance efforts at maintaining long-term alliances with cultivating new relationships. Keeping partners is "in the best interest of us and our customer," she said.

    Some contractors recommend that small businesses come to bidders' conferences and other early stage events to demonstrate their intent to work with prime contractors. Participation also helps companies identify the competition.

    Primes want to bring partners onto their teams as early in the process as possible. For example, for large procurements, contractors are working years before the request for proposals is issued.

    "We make sure we have a strong team in place before the bid is made," AT&T's Polizos said.

    Contractors also frequently cited mentor-protégé programs as a key element in their efforts to establish relationships and build a roster of well-qualified small-business partners.

    Add to that becoming a good protégé, learning the Boy Scout oath, being flexible and knowing fundamental business principles, and you have the qualifications list for small-business partnering.

    Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is Gary

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