With the federal government pumping in huge amounts of money for Sandy rebuilding projects, it's an ideal time for small companies to seek contracts to get a piece of the action.
But a lot of them don't know where to start.
The Small Business Administration is hoping to change that by connecting New Jersey executives to the people who can help steer them through the bureaucracy surrounding contracting opportunities.
Shaun Donovan, Housing and Urban Development secretary and chair of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, said the government is trying to “make those connections between the companies that are looking for subcontractors, and the government agencies that are looking for subcontractors, and the small businesses that are looking” for a piece of the work.
Donovan, who spoke at a matchmaker session last week in Newark to connect big and small companies, said “we miss a big opportunity” if contracts go to big out-of-state business, as opposed to New Jersey firms.
“Because then, the money we are investing does not help to boost the small businesses in the community,” he said. “The idea is first of all making sure that a significant share of the money from those contracts has to go to small businesses.”
MZM Construction and Management is the kind of company the government wants getting this work. CEO Marjorie Perry said she got $2 million in Sandy beach replenishment contracts from the Army Corps of Engineers, but for her company, this sort of procurement is old hat.
A small business looking to break into contracting must be relentless and persistent, she said.
“It takes a lot of relationship building — somebody knowing somebody who gives you somebody else who gives you that small contract,” she said. “Your best practices are what are going to differentiate you in today's environment.”
That means attending events like last week's, held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology: “You need to show your face so they (contracting officers) know that you are still available. You have to be dogged,” she said.
About half the 450 or so attendees at the Aug. 7 event were small-business owners. The event also attracted large business, like AT&T and IBM, that hire small businesses as subcontractors on big government jobs.
As a minority and female-owned company, MZM was able to get certified under the SBA's 8A program, which sets aside a portion of federal contracts for small businesses. Perry said she's landed $8 million in federal contracts since becoming an 8A contractor two and a half years ago.
“(8A) is a great program, but you have to work at it,” she said. “We had a strategic plan on how to go and meet the key people … who can really work with you to give you what you need.”
Perry had already been doing beach replenishment work for the Army Corps of Engineers when Sandy arrived, instantly creating a much larger need for this work. Her 15-person company had traditionally done excavation work for the construction industry, “so I took my excavation skills and turned it into beach replenishment projects.”
Donovan urged small businesses to sit down with coaches from the SBA and its partner organizations to learn the contracting ropes.
“If they have never worked with the government, they may not have the bonding they need to do construction work, or they may not know the right forms to fill out,” Donovan said. “We have to provide technical assistance to make sure they are ready to get those contracts.”
To date, 27 percent of the federal Sandy rebuilding contracts have gone to small businesses, said Karen Mills, SBA administrator. So far, 382 Sandy contracts, totaling $30.8 million, have gone to New Jersey small businesses.
“If a small business in this community gets a contract, that money is going back into this community and those jobs are staying in this community,” she said.
The SBA awarded a $3.6 million grant last week to a consortium of New Jersey nonprofits, led by the New Jersey Small Business Development Center, that aims to provide long-term assistance to small businesses hurt by Sandy.
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