SBA plays matchmaker

New program helps integrators, agencies hook up with small businesses

Government buyers and large federal contractors will look for small-business partners at events nationwide this year through a new Small Business Administration program, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington and Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif.

In 15 cities this year, the Business Matchmaking Program will facilitate one-on-one meetings between small-business owners and representatives of government agencies and private companies that have specific business opportunities.

As a result, small businesses could have a chance to win potentially billions of dollars in contracts, according to program officials.

"This program is going to bring procurement officers with contract opportunities to small-business communities around the country," said Jane Sanders, vice president of business information and development for the Chamber of Commerce.

Ninety-seven percent of chamber members are small businesses. The SBA defines a small business as 500 employees or less for most manufacturers. Most service industry firms must have $6 million or less in annual revenue to be considered a small business.

The first matchmaking event will be held March 4 and 5 in Orlando, Fla. In each city, small-business owners will have scheduled, individual appointments with potential government buyers.

Before the events, small-business owners and buyers will complete online profiles to provide information on what each has to offer. Based on the profiles, a matchmaking system will create the best possible matches and set appointments.

"We use these conferences to help us understand who is out there and what they do, and distinguish potential suppliers for future opportunities. When we are going after these billion-dollar or hundred million-dollar procurements, we use that information to help us select the team," said Benita Fortner, director of supplier diversity for Lexington, Mass., systems integrator Raytheon Co.

The SBA announced the program launch Jan. 23 in Washington. The agency conducted two matchmaking pilots last year, in Washington and Cleveland. SBA Administrator Hector Barreto said the Washington pilot resulted in almost 1,000 meetings between small-business owners and potential customers, and identified almost $1 billion in procurement opportunities. The Cleveland pilot resulted in about 1,800 meetings and identified about $2 billion in procurement opportunities, he said.

Federal agencies spend $200 billion a year for products and services, and 23 percent of that total, or $46 billion, must go to small businesses, Barreto said.

"With that kind of economic potential, these matchmaking events give small businesses an opportunity to generate significant sources of new revenue from government agencies and private companies," he said.

Nextrend Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., is about 3,000 miles from Washington, so gaining visibility in government agencies and with big contractors is difficult, said Alex Sebens, director of government sales for the IT reseller. The firm will use matchmaking events in California to explore new contracting opportunities, he said. Its customers include Los Alamos National Laboratory, Naval Surface Warfare Center, the Army and the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We're looking to increase the number of small-business set-aside contracts the company can compete for," Sebens said.

Executives of large IT firms said they're also anxious to forge new relationships at the events. Their government customers increasingly are writing small-business contracting goals into their large contracts, and they are tracking prime contractors' efforts to meet those goals more closely.

As a result, it's more important than ever for large contractors to identify potential team members in the small-business community, they said.

"We're hearing increasing requests from our end-user customers to [partner with small businesses]," said Peter Romness, director of public-sector channels for HP's Commercial Products North America business.

HP, which is providing the technology for onsite registration and helping business owners with presentations at the matchmaking events, is also using the program to find small-business partners of its own.

Agencies have always paid attention to subcontracting, but "the level of attention is increasing, particularly as discussions around [contract] bundling escalate. They're looking at our performance and how successful we are at building inclusive teams," Raytheon's Fortner said.

Contract bundling is the practice of consolidating procurements for goods or services into a single contract. In recent years, government agencies have bundled contracts to simplify the buying process and facilitate large-scale information technology projects, where the government wants a single contractor to be accountable for the results.

Because smaller companies typically do not have the resources or size to bid on large integration projects, bundling tends to limit their prime contracting opportunities.

The Bush administration's contract bundling strategy, published last fall, calls for unbundling large federal contracts where possible and, when bundling is justified, for agencies to strengthen subcontracting goals for small businesses. The strategy report said the number of small businesses receiving federal contracts has declined dramatically, from a high of 26,506 in fiscal 1991 to a low of 11,651 in fiscal 2000.

Michael Bush, director of supplier diversity for Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., said the systems integrator's government customers are requiring more information about how the company plans to meet small-business subcontracting goals, which has led Lockheed Martin to look closely at the management of its small-business program and make special efforts to ensure small businesses are considered early on for subcontracting opportunities.

The company's efforts have paid off, as $4 billion in Lockheed Martin's contract dollars went to small businesses in fiscal 2002, up $1 billion from 2001, Bush said.

Both Bush and Fortner said they made new contacts with small-business owners through the Washington pilot program, and they plan to participate in this year's events.

"The thing that drives us to use these outreach activities is to reach the best suppliers. We know we will reach some of these among small and minority- and women-owned businesses," Fortner said.

Bush said the pilot "provided small-business participants opportunities to have one-on-one discussions with representatives from our small-business organizations throughout the corporation. Ordinarily at a trade show or conference, participants only get a minute or two because there are other people behind them waiting."

In addition to Orlando, matchmaking programs will be held in Houston, Anaheim, Calif., and Los Angeles, St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Birmingham, Ala., Seattle, Boston, Cleveland and Dallas.

Barreto said the SBA does not have specific goals for the program, such as an amount of procurement that will go to small businesses, but he said the agency will track program results.

"Sometimes [business opportunities] come months later -- that's really where the rubber hits the road," he said. "We'll measure that."

Additional information can be found at http://www.sba.gov/gc or http://www. uschamber.com/events/matchmaking/
default.html .
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Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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