Strategy 5: Learn from the best

NCI Information Systems's Linda Allen: "If you don't plan for the future, you'll never get there."

Executives at NCI Information Systems started planning for the firm's 1999 graduation from the 9-year-long 8(a) program five years in advance, said Linda Allan, executive vice president of strategic programs for the McLean, Va., firm. Small firms compete for set-aside contracts through the 8(a) program, which is run by the Small Business Administration.

One of NCI's specialties is IT security, including computer forensics. Company revenue grew 16 percent last year to approximately $140 million. NCI employs about 1,400 people.

Positioning a company to grow is difficult, especially if clients keep you busy with task order after task order, Allan said. But "unless you plan for the future," she said, "you will never get to be a medium-size business or a large business."

Two years before 8(a) graduation, NCI got a place on GSA Schedule 70, so its customers under 8(a) contracts could keep the work with NCI after graduation. Staff learned proposal techniques, cost accounting structures and competitive pricing models.

"When we teamed with larger companies, we picked their brains," Allan said. "Any small business can learn from teaming relationships and avail themselves of personnel assets who come out of large corporations."

One of those "personnel assets" was Tom Reinhardt, NCI's vice president of business development until the Department of Homeland Security lured him away. Executives coming from large systems integrators improve small companies' credibility, Allan said. Reinhardt came to NCI from PwC Consulting.

"There are real barriers [for small businesses], not the least of which is the perception of having a very visible program being awarded to a small business vs. a name company, like a BearingPoint or SAIC," she said. "To counteract that, we've hired very good people who are known and have good reputations."

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