Federal contracts aren’t just for Boeing

By Mike Benbow Herald Columnist

Last year, the federal government paid private businesses $11.3 billion to perform the work it needed done in our state. Businesses located here received contracts for $8.6 billion worth of that work.

Already this year, the feds have doled out $3 billion in contracts for Washington work, with $2.3 billion going to the state’s businesses.

You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that there’s a local business opportunity — actually many of them — in those big numbers.

Enter Erin Nielsen.

Nielsen is the director of the state’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which is based in Everett at the Economic Development Center of Snohomish County.

It’s her job to help link governments at all levels with a work contract to local businesses that want the job. And her office is pretty good at it. Earlier this year, it won a 2010 Center of Excellence Award among the nation’s assistance centers for its work.

During the last 10 years, her agency has helped small business in the state, mostly in Snohomish County, get $1 billion in government contracts. Last year, it had 1,368 clients and helped them garner $204 million in government business, Nielsen said.

If your business is in trouble, Nielsen probably won’t be able to help.

“If you’re barely hanging onto your business, you should go more into business development,” Nielsen said, noting that getting a government contract can take a while. “If you’re in a crisis position and need money next month, we probably can’t help you.”

But if your business is looking to expand into government contracts, Neilsen and center manager and counselor Kylene Binder may be able to find a good fit.

Neilsen noted that many contracts are highly competitive or have gone to the same company for many years because it has special expertise. But she said there are still plenty of contracts for local work that wind up going out of state.

“The government wants to use local businesses,” she said. “It wants a local firm, not someone bidding from New York or California.”

Ryan Crowther of the economic development council said the $1 billion in contracts the agency has helped with during the last decade show that there is a lot of opportunity for local businesses.

“If small businesses can grow, they can compete against the large firms locally,” Nielsen said. “Many of the big companies bid on contracts, then they subcontract the work to the local businesses and keep the profit.”

Nielsen said mostly large companies grab the contracts for standard products — computers for example — because their costs are lower. But local companies have the edge if they have special information, innovative ways of doing things, or manufacture a needed product and don’t have to pay shipping costs.

Consultants with local knowledge are always better for doing things like developing government outreach plans because outside companies “have to spend government money to find out who to talk to,” Nielsen said.

This area also does well with specialty products such as replacement parts for military aircraft, she added.

Businesses looking for help can go to one of the agency’s many seminars in the area or can just call Binder at 425-248-4215, Nielsen said. Her office regularly presents seminars, for example, on going business with the U.S. Navy and in Government 101.

I know most businesses were just trying to keep the work they had for the past couple years. But as the recession continues to ease, now might be the time to think about doing some business with the government.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459; benbow@heraldnet.com

Doing business with government

Here are two free upcoming seminars to help small businesses win government contracts:

Government Contracting 101

Looks at the basics of government contracts, including what governments buy, and helps small business owners decide whether to jump in.

When: 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., June 3

Where: Economic Development Council of Snohomish County, 728 134th St. SW, Suite 128, Everett.

Selling to the Navy

Lucy Leu of the Navy’s small business program in the Puget Sound region talks about Navy contracting, who to deal with and how to get started.

When: 10 a.m. to noon, June 29

Where: Economic Development Council of Snohomish County, 728 134th St. SW, Suite 128, Everett.