Maryland event puts contractors in touch with federal customers

By Marjorie Censer
Monday, December 20, 2010

Getting started in government contracting is typically considered the biggest challenge for companies, but it can be equally challenging for businesses with one or two federal contracts to expand their work.

That's one reason why Maryland's economic development office last week sought to link companies with government contracting officers from more than a dozen federal agencies at its inaugural "Contract Connections," a daylong event engaging companies.

The sold-out event, held at the Food and Drug Administration campus in Silver Spring, drew a crowd of 250 contractors seeking to cast a wider net with federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Naval Air Systems Command.

Annapolis Junction-based BrightKey, for instance, runs warehouses, manages call centers and oversees mailrooms for clients, many of which are nonprofit groups. The 300-employee company already has a contract with the Justice Department but, facing a weakened economic environment for nonprofits, is hoping to expand its government business.

Wayne A. McIntosh of BrightKey's government solutions division said the company sees its mailroom services -- including screening for anthrax and other substances -- as a natural fit for the government. He said attending last week's event was a way to get his company in front of potential customers.

Though much of the recent discussion about contracting opportunities in Maryland has centered on military and intelligence work related to BRAC, as the nationwide plan to realign and close military bases is known, this event specifically included civilian agencies, said Lisa Swoboda, deputy director of the office of military and federal at Maryland's economic development office.

The economic development office particularly looked to agencies that already use many Maryland-based contractors; for example, almost one-third of the Department of Health and Human Services' procurement spending went to Maryland businesses in fiscal 2008, according to a state economic development office analysis. Nearly half of the Commerce Department's spending went to Maryland companies, Swoboda said.

On the brisk morning of the event, contractors in dark suits took notes as agencies -- divided into three different panels -- detailed upcoming opportunities and answered questions about future contract structures and security clearances. Some reassured companies that they don't always have to be on particular schedules or have the highest level of clearances to win work.

Sessions later in the day put company representatives across the table from agencies for 10-minute individual appointments.

For many businesses, these chances to make face-to-face contact with agencies are few and far between. Herman Hewitt, senior vice president of business development at Reston-based MetroStar Systems, said it can be tough to get even a few minutes with government representatives. Despite traveling to Tennessee for a recent National Guard event, he didn't get to meet Guard chief Gen. Craig McKinley.

At last week's event, Hewitt's strategy was to make contacts at the FDA, the National Security Agency and NASA.

"Just to walk the hall, just to speak with them for five minutes -- you're not going to get that opportunity" at most events, Hewitt said.

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