Abe Abraham, president and chief executive of CMI Management Inc., started his electronic records management and support business in his Springfield home in 1989.

Since 2000, Abraham's company, which is now based in Alexandria, has had a 130.21 percent compound annual growth rate. Its government revenue has increased to $45.4 million in 2004 from $1.6 million. That won it No. 11 on this year's Fast 50 list of small businesses in federal information technology contracting.

The annual list compiled by Washington Technology ranks the tech companies based on their growth in government contracting business over the last five years. To be considered, companies must qualify as a small business according to criteria set by the federal government.

Topping this year's list is Merlin Technical Solutions Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo. The company specializes in adapting commercial technology for the federal market. Its clients include the Air Force, the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Homeland Security Department. Merlin has had a 361.88 percent compound annual growth rate since 2000, climbing from $193,900 in government revenue to $88.2 million in 2004.

Many founders of companies on the Fast 50 say they owe their success to building a strong management team, finding the right market niche and recognizing obstacles before they overwhelm their businesses.

Abraham, an immigrant from Ethiopia, said the key to his company's success was assembling the right team to take advantage of the "game-changing event" when it came along. For CMI, it was a contract it won from the Department of Homeland Security in July 2003. Last year, the company, which now has more than 600 employees, took in $45 million in revenue from the homeland security contract, Abraham said.

The importance of being prepared when opportunity knocks was echoed by Angela Drummond, president and chief executive of SiloSmashers Inc. of Fairfax. SiloSmashers, which offers information technology programs and project management, moved up four spots to No. 39 on the Fast 50 list .

Typically, a small business earns its stripes as a subcontractor while it develops the ability to handle prime contracting work.

"Building the internal infrastructure to manage prime contracts, having the financial support, the contract support, somebody to manage that -- it took a couple of years to build that up," Drummond said.

But to expand, a company eventually needs to be the prime contractor, said Rodney E. Thomas, president and chief executive of Thomas & Herbert Consulting LLC of Silver Spring, No. 41 on the Fast 50 list.

"You don't learn what you need to know unless you prime," he said. "If you're subbing, you don't know what customer relationship management is. You don't know what earned value management is. You don't know why it's important to have [Defense Contract Audit Agency] approved rates. . . . You don't have those challenges."

The Fast 50 companies were ranked on how fast their government revenue grew from 2000 through 2004, including federal, state and local revenue. To be included, companies had to have a minimum of $100,000 in government revenue in 2000. They also had to meet the federal government criteria for a small business or be a member of the federal 8(a) program.

The complete Fast 50 list is at www.washingtontechnology.com

Ethan Butterfield is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

After starting a business in his home, Abraham has 600 workers.