Want to catch eye of big firms? Work it

Ellen Minderman, a vice president of operations for FGM Inc., said the software and systems engineering firm would prefer to be the prime contractor on its government work. But she knows that FGM, with only 200 employees, is too small to be the prime on many jobs. And so the company spends considerable time trying to nail down subcontracting roles with the bigger government players.

"We would rather be on a team than be left out in the cold," Minderman said.

FGM executives also know that "if you sit around waiting for business, it generally doesn't show up," said Mike Morehouse, senior vice president of business development for the Dulles, Va., company.

So they have forged long-term relationships with big systems integrators such as Northrop Grumman Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Science Applications International Corp.

FGM officials look years ahead at procurements, strategizing so they'll get on the winning team. Executives discuss FGM's relationship with the likely prime bidders, how the primes view FGM and how FGM's capabilities fit with the primes. Recently they discussed possible teammates on a large Air Force command and control job that will be put out for bid two years from now.

"You look at what the relationships have been in the past, think about what we bring to the table and who does that work best with. We want to go someplace where we are very complimentary [to the team]. It's a win-win on both sides," Minderman said.

Small IT firms also try to make sure their government customers know they are seeking subcontractor roles on upcoming procurements.

"You have to make sure the customer is aware of your capabilities, even if you know you are not going to bid the job," said Jay McCargo, vice president of business development for Wam!net Government Services Inc. "Ideally, the government customer says to the prime contractor, 'It would be a good idea if you had so-and-so on your team.' That's an optimal situation."

Wam!net, a Herndon, Va., firm that develops and manages secure enterprise networks, is a subcontractor on some of the federal government's largest IT outsourcing contracts, including the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet and the Groundbreaker IT contract for the National Security Agency.

FGM executives have also been raising their visibility in small-business offices within federal agencies. Prime contractors on large jobs typically must meet small-business subcontracting goals, and sometimes they look to agency small-business officers to identify potential subcontractors.

"It's an area we've been very successful in," Minderman said, especially at the Defense Information Systems Agency.

But even if small businesses do all the right things to capture the attention of government customers, they still might have trouble breaking into the stable of subcontractors with some systems integrators.

"Some large businesses have companies they use all the time -- that's a good management decision to make -- but they exclude many other new small businesses from participating," said Michele Dyson, president of CISglobal, a systems integrator in Silver Spring, Md.

To help alleviate this problem, AeA, a Washington-based technology industry association representing many small businesses, has developed an online member directory that can help both primes and agency customers find new small businesses with advanced technologies.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, AeA executives decided they needed to do more to help government agencies conduct market research on homeland security and electronic government-related technologies. They asked senior acquisition officers across the federal government what information they'd like to have about AeA's 3,200 member companies, 80 percent of which have annual revenue under $20 million.

The result is a searchable database of company product and service information that is available to procurement officers for free.

At least 300 officials are using the database so far, said Lorraine Lavet, executive vice president and chief operating officer of AeA.

"A lot of [procurement officials] have been using the same companies over and over. We have opened their eyes," Lavet said.

The group's next task is to introduce the database to systems integrators that need subcontractors, she said.

"Some systems integrators are extremely sophisticated in their sourcing of technology. They have their own databases, they have people across the company looking for high-tech [subcontractors]. Others are struggling," Lavet said. "They know they need sophisticated software or biometrics technology, but they don't know where it is or if it's the right fit. ... I want [them] to be able to go into our system and find companies they never heard of before that can create a solution the incumbent couldn't dream of because they are not in that space." *

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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