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Advice for Sale In Battle for Federal Contracts

By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page E01

By 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, when the crowd at the FOSE trade show was just beginning to swell, Marie L. Hartis had already been visited by a contracting matchmaker, asking if her company, Itronix Corp., needed help selling to the government.

Itronix's booth, with a bright yellow Hummer and racks of pamphlets boasting of its success with the military, should have been the first hint that the Spokane, Wash., firm was doing just fine. More than 4,000 of Itronix's rugged computers, designed to withstand extreme temperatures, are being used in Iraq by the Army.

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Hartis put the consultant's business card off to the side and continued her own sales routine. "That's pretty typical," she said of the encounter.

In the Washington Convention Center, 450 technology firms and government contractors set up shop this week to show off their antivirus software, data encryption devices, network protection systems and other products. But in doing so, they've made themselves targets of a different type of sales pitch. Consultants like the one who approached Hartis aren't as visible as the vendors at the trade show, but they work the convention just as aggressively.

The boom in government spending saved the Washington area from the harshest effects of the dot-com crash and continues to make it the leading metropolitan area in terms of job growth. Less heralded are the cottage industries it spurred, such as headhunters that pinpoint workers with security clearances and consultants that try to help companies break into the government contracting business.

FOSE, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., serves a similar purpose -- helping contractors meet government buyers. FOSE, which continues through today, is now one of more than 250 homeland-security-related trade shows in the nation every year, according to O'Keeffe & Co., a McLean public relations firm focused on that market.

The impetus for the growth is clear. While local companies collected $42.5 billion in federal-contract revenue in 2003, $19 billion of that went to 1 percent of the firms, about 60 companies, according to a study released by the Greater Washington Initiative this week. The industry has ballooned, but not everyone is getting an equal share of the business.

Small firms have long complained that it is expensive to become a qualified government vendor and tough to compete against large companies that offer more services and seem to know every federal procurement official on a first-name basis. So anything that can help level the playing field is worth checking into, right?

Samuel McDowell thought so. Last year his Germantown firm, Communication Technologies & Consulting LLC, hired an independent consultant who promised to get the company its first government contract.

It never happened.

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