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A Frenzied Forage for High-Tech Work

In N.Va., Contractors Scramble for Chunk of Government's Spending

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page B01

It was a typical business luncheon in a nondescript ballroom of a Tysons Corner hotel, the kind with 300 name tags, an Important Guest Speaker and grilled chicken with red pepper sauce.

But the stakes on this day were unusually high. The speaker, Greg Rothwell, oversees $11 billion a year in Homeland Security spending, and this was his roadshow on how he would divvy up that bounty. Most would go to information technology, the life source of business in Northern Virginia. The rapt audience, including many small- to medium-size contractors struggling in a cutthroat business, were hungry for a piece of that pie.

Chakib Jaber, left, with Spin Systems officers Wael Al-Ali and Shourya Ray, said small contractors scrambing for a share of federal dollars must "learn the ropes" to be successful. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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After Rothwell introduced his deputy, Elaine Duke, the crush of suits and ties began. A huddle formed around him and a line stretched behind her, a sea of determined supplicants armed with business cards and requests for face time.

The crowd at the Sheraton Premiere shows how tech veterans work their contacts and expand their Rolodexes in the federal government's $42.2 billion procurement marketplace. As the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies search for computer services and other products, thousands of jobs are being created, nowhere more so than in Northern Virginia.

At one table, Shourya Ray, vice president of an IT company with 18 employees, made sure he sat with bigger fish. Nearby, Robert Dozier Jr. already had scored a $2 million government contract but was angling for more. Near the front of the room, Richard Klimoski, dean of George Mason University's School of Management, listened as a well-connected lawyer dished out advice on how to improve his government contracting classes.

The Sheraton, the Tower Club and the Tysons Corner offices of big accounting and law firms are the settings that define an industry whose most eager members are often small companies with their first customers and medium-size firms with a foot in the door. These are partnerships and unions begun in garages and living rooms but now based in offices in Lanham and Falls Church and Silver Spring and Herndon.

Theirs is a world of free breakfasts and endless networking, of looking over their shoulders and watching their backs. Their bible is the RFP (Requests for Proposals), which they scan not only for opportunities, but also for evidence that someone else has the inside track. Their struggle continues long after schmoozing at a Fairfax Chamber of Commerce event.

In cramped boardrooms and cubicles and brand-new offices, top executives scramble for the right introduction and the latest gossip and warn each other away from companies with bad reputations. Making a successful pitch, they agree, is all about who you know.

"The way you get work is you have to have somebody on the inside who is walking the floors, shaking the hands, letting people know you are available for work," said Ray, vice president of operations for Spin Systems Inc. "You look around, spot a technical problem that the customer can't articulate or doesn't know how to solve, and you point out how you can solve it."

Hitting the speaker circuit, said Dozier, executive vice president of Dozier Technologies Inc., is a good way to meet larger contractors who already are doing business with the government but are in search of small companies or minority partners because there are financial incentives for spreading the wealth.

Dozier is the company's on-the-street salesperson. His wife, Crystal Dozier, is the behind-the-scenes manager. Two years ago, they worked off a card table from home. Last month, they moved into brand-new offices in Lanham and immediately began to set up meetings, garnering new assignments by speaking an acronym-filled lexicon.

"Every federal office has an OZ-da-bue," Crystal Dozier said, meaning an Office of Small, Disadvantaged Business Utilization. "These people can help you know who your CO-tars are," she added, referring to the contracting officer's technical representatives. For a small company, a 'cotar' is the actual customer.

Sometimes contractors watch their pitches disappear into these offices as if they entered a black hole. Government officials often think bigger companies are more reliable, said Maria Horton, president and chief executive of Emesec Inc., an information security company in Herndon with about eight employees. "They want to bet on a sure thing. So I'm always looking for secret doors and passageways. What's the real secret?"

The answer can come in the form of a benevolent, bigger company that takes a smaller company under its wing and informally mentors it.

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