Small businesses tap into government work

The U.S. Department of Energy’s prime contractors awarded nearly $785 million in subcontracts in fiscal 2018, a figure representing more than 30 percent of Hanford’s roughly $2.4 billion budget that year, according to a recent Department of Energy report.

While most of the prime contractors have aggressive small business subcontracting goals written into their contracts, many of the primes have found that the relationships go beyond simply meeting obligations.

“These small businesses are an extension of the work we do. We really view them as partners who are critical to our success here at the site because they provide the talent and the skills that we need in order to complete the mission here at Hanford,” said Rob Roxburgh, deputy manager for communications and public relations at Washington River Protection Solutions.

Tasked with safely maintaining the tank waste at the Hanford site until ready for disposal, WRPS relies on the local supplier base for resources when they are not internally available, said Jose Legarreta, procurement services manager for WRPS.

Since its contract with the Department of Energy began in 2008, 64.8 percent of WRPS’ subcontracts have gone to small businesses, exceeding the company’s overall small business goal of 58.2 percent.

“There is a requirement on our part to seek and do business with small businesses, but beyond that, we also like to call ourselves a good corporate citizen in that we like providing the local area with business opportunities, employment opportunities and training opportunities,” Legarreta said.

Hanford prime contractor Mission Support Alliance also views the Department of Energy’s small-business subcontracting requirements as a positive factor for both sides, said Rae Moss, director of communications and external affairs for Mission Support Alliance.

MSA handles key activities at Hanford including analytical services, emergency response, information resource management, maintenance, property disposition, security and utility services.

“The Department of Energy’s goal is to encourage us to work with local businesses and small businesses to help the community and to offer jobs,” Moss said. “So, we’re not going to be bringing in corporate people to fill these jobs, we’re going to use local people.”

Participants at the annual Washington River Protection Solutions-sponsored Bridging Partnerships Small Business Symposium learn about maximizing opportunities available through government contracting. (Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions)

On the small business side, companies that choose to work as government subcontractors often gain the opportunity to expand their knowledge base by working alongside a variety of people, while getting the know-how to do future work in all levels of government, Moss said.

MSA benefits from its relationships with small business subcontractors because they allow the company to focus on what it does best, while eliminating the need to be an expert in all areas, she said.

“We’re able to get people with a high level of expertise for very specific projects that we’re working on, so it’s really a benefit to us and to the Hanford site because we’re able to hire-in very specifically what’s needed for isolated projects,” Moss said.

However, on the small business side, the idea of getting involved in government work can be intimidating, given its reputation for bureaucratic procedures, paperwork and additional requirements not found in the private sector.

Those stigmas do, in fact, often prove true, Legarreta said, but at the same time, learning to do government work can be a gateway to increased opportunity with compensation coming in the form of higher profits for companies that are undaunted by the additional requirements.

Companies wanting to maximize the opportunities available through small business subcontracts at Hanford should begin by doing their research, said Kelly Brazil, contracting officer and small business program manager for the Department of Energy’s Office of River Protection.

“We always encourage people to read the mission of the office they’re going to contact first. Check out the website and see what types of work they’re doing and what types of work they subcontract for,” Brazil said. “It’s really important to understand the mission of an office before you contact them. That’s just going to make it more meaningful on both sides.”

Brazil, who also leads the Hanford Small Business Council, serves as an advocate for small businesses looking to do business with the Office of River Protection. When contacted by local companies that are just getting started on their quest to find work at Hanford, she often recommends they begin by reaching out to the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which offers paid and no-cost services, including assistance with developing a capability statement that can be submitted as part of a proposal for government work.

For companies that have done their research and are ready to work at Hanford, small business program managers and advocates can serve as a resource for getting information in front of the right people, she said.

“We’re just here to help them as much as we can,” Brazil said. “When they contact me, I do the best I can to make a match for them or redirect them to one of the prime contractors on the Hanford site.”

When work isn’t immediately available, Brazil said companies should plan to follow up somewhere between once a quarter and twice a year as long as they still are interested in the opportunity.

Roxie Schescke, president of Pasco-based subcontractor Indian Eyes LLC, said she was able to break into Hanford after identifying an opportunity and aggressively demonstrating that Indian Eyes was a qualified small business with the know-how to meet the stringent requirements that come along with working for the Department of Energy. The company had previously done work at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado.

“As a small business, when you first start, everyone says, ‘Don’t do that shotgun effect,’ but you have to be aggressive when you identify a customer that you feel like you have a niche for and that you can provide a solution to,” Schescke said.

WRPS small-business program manager Talia Ochoa said one important key to getting into government subcontracting is to learn and understand the processes that are involved. She recommends that potential subcontractors take advantage of community outreach opportunities, such as the annual Hanford Small Business Council’s and Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Bridging Partnerships Small Business Symposium and the chamber’s Women in Business conference, both of which WRPS helps to sponsor.

Another potential opportunity for small businesses to learn the ropes of working with the government is by applying to the Department of Energy’s Mentor-Protégé Program, which seeks to foster long-term business relationships between small disadvantaged businesses and Department of Energy prime contractors.

Both WRPS and MSA, as well as most other prime contractors, have mentor-protégé programs in place.

WRPS has a mentor-protégé business relationship with Tri-City-based Elite Construction & Dev., a partnership that has enabled Elite to adopt new procedures that allow government agencies to seamlessly interface with the company, said Chandler Wade, chief marketing officer for Elite.

The partnership also has offered Elite new insights into the latest safety techniques and procedures, as well as specific skills related to doing work for the government. However, in Elite’s eyes, the most important aspect of the partnership is the networking opportunities it has provided and relationships it has fostered, both of which are priceless for Elite’s future growth and success, Wade said.

“The benefit to a business that is selected as a protégé is ultimately an increased amount of business opportunities,” Legarreta said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

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