In late 2009, Colleen Kramer decided to seek federal government contracts to grow Evergreen Supply Company, her 25-year-old business that supplies lighting and lighting supplies to Chicago’s larger construction projects and buildings.
Her initial excitement waned as she began to fill out the plethora of paperwork required to get on the federal vendor schedule of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), a federal requirement that paves the way for government agencies to do business with you.
“I figured it would require a lot of time to pull all the necessary paperwork together, and I was right,” she says, noting that her staff has put in an estimated $10,000 worth of time – so far.
In spring 2010, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) announced it was expanding the opportunities for certified women entrepreneurs like Ms. Kramer, who have essentially been shut out of lucrative government contracts that typically were awarded to large contractors. Set-asides now exist for certified women business enterprises with contracting goals of 5 percent.
“The Small Business Administration is excited about the women’s new contracting rule, which was supported by President Obama under the Small Business Jobs Act,” says SBA Regional Administrator Marianne Markowitz. “This ruling will offer many more opportunities for women in contracting. Our resource partners like the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) are available to help small businesses navigate through the government contracting process.”
While opportunities exist, requirements to get on the GSA schedule are stiff. A business owner needs to demonstrate that the product will be sold at a price equal to or better than that of your best client. For Colleen Kramer, that meant locating thousands of old invoices to document the fact she’s offering the best price possible.
The government also conducts a survey and past performance reviews with a prospective contractor’s clients with strict response requirements. For Ms. Kramer, that meant she needed to call her clients and encourage them to respond. She also needed to obtain formal letters from the lighting manufacturers who will participate with her in the program.
“If you’re lucky enough to get on the GSA schedule, then the real work begins,” Ms. Kramer states. “There’s more paperwork. You need to learn a new software program, then input all your product information within a six-month period.”
Ms. Kramer believes she’ll need to hire another sales person whose sole function will be searching for the right contracts, submitting bids, traveling nationwide to meet with prospects and submitting all the follow-up paperwork required – but based on the new 5 percent Woman Owned Small Business goals, it may be a good investment.
“You’re also required to do a minimum of $25,000 in federal government sales annually just to stay on the schedule,” she adds. “Of course, I hope to do much more, but there are no guarantees. I know the government can deliver enormous volume. The question is, how much and how quickly? I’ve been told it could take up to two years before we start seeing results.”
Francine Manilow, founder and president of 31-year-old Manilow Suites, which provides temporary upscale housing to corporations and individuals, agrees that the process is cumbersome, but she never hesitated to move forward. “That’s where the money is,” she observes.
Recently listed on the GSA schedule, she has already received a call from a U.S. Navy representative in Honolulu about his need to lease eight apartments for servicemen on assignment. Because of her nationwide connections with top corporate housing companies, she’ll be able to provide him with the housing he needs.
“Having the GSA logo on your website is worth the blood, sweat and tears,” says Ms. Manilow, who plans to use the prestigious credential to pursue not only other government contracts but also corporate ones.
For businesses that don’t have the desire or past performance record to seek GSA status, Ms. Kramer suggests going after local and state contracts, which are often easier to obtain. She herself has won hundreds of local contracts over the years, most recently with the city’s Department of Aviation and the Chicago Park District. But she cautions that even the local process can be wrought with challenges.
In October 2011, the city of Chicago launched two new programs designed to encourage growth in small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses, according to Jamie Rhee, the city’s chief procurement officer.
The first program, the Small Business Initiative, is designed to encourage businesses to participate in city-funded construction projects. For the first time, all City of Chicago construction projects under $3 million are set aside for small businesses. A second initiative, the Diversity Credit Program, is designed to increase the use of minority- and women-owned businesses in the private sector by encouraging prime contractors and major corporations to utilize minority women-owned businesses in private sector projects.
But just because you’re recognized by the city as being WBE-certified doesn’t mean they hand you business, explains Ms. Kramer. “You still must complete the required paperwork and submit bids,” she says. “And when you do win business, you must deliver in a way that enhances your company’s reputation.”