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Experts dole out advice to 8(a) contractors

Jill Burke

8a-mills
Jill Burke photo
Karen Mills, Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Association, was the keynote speaker at the National 8(a) Association Conference on Tuesday.
The National 8(a) Association Conference is underway at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Anchorage.

Here are some of the highlights from the morning sessions Tuesday:

Keynote speaker Karen Mills, Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Association, heralded the role small businesses play in the American economy. 64 percent of all new jobs, she told a sold-out crowd, come from small businesses. "It is going to be small business that leads us forward," she said about the role of small business in revitalizing the nation's ailing economy. "It is going to be small business that is the backbone of our economy, because we know that when small business succeeds, America succeeds."

Alaska plays its own role in that economic engine; 227 companies in the state are registered for contracting priorities within the federal government. Of those, ownership designations break down as follows (with some companies sharing designations in more than one category): 172 Alaska Native corporations, 22 woman-owned, 41 minority-owned, six tribal, three service disabled veteran-owned.

Mills said after the 2008 crash of the credit markets, the SBA took steps to increase its loan guarantees for small business, which nearly tripled the number of small business loans made in Alaska in 2010 over the volume seen in 2009. Nationally, the volume doubled.

30 percent of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act contracts have gone to small businesses, including $2.9 billion to 8(a) firms alone, "including many here in Alaska," she said.

An effort is also being made to combat waste, fraud and abuse through greater oversight and turning in "bad actors" and rule breakers to either the Inspector General or the Justice Department, Mills pledged. It appears part of avoiding trouble is to not set yourself up for disaster. During a break in the hallway outside the main conference room I overhead an SBA counselor advising a firm that was interested in seeking an outside consultant to be both wise and wary. Choose carefully, and make sure you do your homework because there are a lot of bad people out there looking to take advantage of honest 8(a) firms, the man cautioned.

The rest of the morning was spent with NASA procurement officers from around the nation and NASA-related prime contractors explaining to participants the dos and don'ts of contracting: Do your homework. Know your client and what services they need. Skew your offers accordingly. Stick with your strengths. Be focused. Use a "laser approach" rather than a "shotgun approach." Think ahead. Anticipate needs. Don't be a stranger, but also don't call obsessively. Neither approach will work. Do have patience. It can take one to two years to develop relationships and opportunities. People aren't going to do business with people they don't know and trust. Do think about partnering up with other firms.

Realize that "if you like stability, government contracting may not be for you."

But, if you're adaptable and nimble, you can succeed where larger firms fail. "This is business -- survival of the fittest," one panelist reminded the crowd.

The procurement officers weren't shy about the money involved. NASA spends $16 to $17 billion each year; one branch has a $100 million contract coming up for bid. But they also emphasized that the work they're doing -- from earth studies to travels in space -- can be extraordinarily rewarding. Working with them is a way to be a part of something bigger than oneself. The speaker from Dryden Research center put it this way: "We are there to make dreams come true."

The conference continues through Wednesday.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.