Clyde Dent, who was mentioned in an article in Wednesday's edition of The Post, did not lay the carpet in the new FBI building. His company does not bid on government contracts. At the time the FBI building was constructed, Dent's company had between 35 and 40 trucks. Dent is in no way associated with the seminar discussed in the article or with the people who gave it.
In get-ahead America, where ambitious entrepreneurs used to think in terms of building a better mousetrap, a slightly different dream has taken hold and flourished -- getting a federal contract.
"Federal contracts are basically recession proof," the instructor reasured his eager students, a roomful of would-be contractors attending a "how-to" seminar.
"Give them something they didnt know they wanted and only you can provide," explained James F. Garrett, a retired Pentagon procurement agent.
Then Garrett added an important corollary: "Make it so that you are the first in line that can make this government person look good."
The seminar ad in the newspaper promised a full day of instruction on the fine print of "How to Obtain Government Contracts." For $95 adminission, the students are led through the intricate distinctions of "Invitation for Bid" and "sole source procurement" and other important esoterica of selling things to Uncle Sam.
Garrett is director of the seminars, which are offered by a private company. The instructor is D. Kent Goodger, a contracting officer with the Treasury Department who has been teaching the course in his off-time for several years.
The students gathered on a recent Saturday at a suburban hotel were a cross-section of ambitious Washingtonians -- get-ahead people in the era of equal opportunity, federal employes and ex-employes who want to run independent businesses:
A government specialist on computer security who wants to quit and start his own firm. A window shade manufacturer who has never done well selling to the federal housekeeper, the General Services Administration, and wants to know why. A retired Korean air force officer who wants to bid on U.S. radar installations in China.
An employe at a secretarial school who wants more business with the government. A government lawyer who wants to go out on her own and do "joint ventures" on government work. A government auditor who is thinking of starting his own firm. A contractor who has gotten "nowhere" trying to win federal contracts. An elderly couple who manufacture electronic parts and are looking for new markets to sell.
As the seminar participants each recited his or own ambition, Garrett and Goodger rattled of inspirational examples of other entrepreneurs who successfully found the key to federal purchasing.
The window-shade man was told about Clyde Dent, the Washington carpet installer who was a "one truck operation" until he got the job of laying carpets in the new FBI building.
"Now he is big business," Goodger said. The students sighed approvingly.
To the secretarial school, Garrett urged a close look at the exact wording of government procurement proposals.
"They can't contract out 'typing,'" Garrett said, "but they can pay for 'camera-ready copy' -- and all this is a clean-typed page."
Smiles all around.
A black woman who is an accountant was steered to the Small Business Administration and its new "mini-loan" program for women, particularly minority women.
Beyond the special tips, Garrett offered some sure-fire general rules: "Find a need and fill it." Pore over the fine-print advertising the government regularly publishes on its procurement.
"Or create a need and sell it." This is the preferred route, he said, because if a business talks the government into needing something, it has a good chance of becoming the prime source of supplying it.
For instance, one consultant approached Treasury and persuaded the department of the need for public-service television ads to explain eletronic banking. The fellow with a good idea got a $30,000 contract to develop the concept.
Afterwards, when the TV ads were prepared to run, another entrepreneur talked the department into an $80,000 contract to determine the public reactions to the campaign.
A sigh of satisfaction from the seminar students.
These "procurement courses," accordint to Goodger, have become popular across the nation, as American businesses seek out the big customer in Washington. The Commerce Department arranges a traveling procurement program for congressional districts, which is eagerly sought by members of Congress, who want constitutents at home to learn how to do business with the government. "There is a waiting list," Goodger said.
Honesty, he stressed during his presentation, is the best way to do business with the feds. But he said there is nothing wrong with legitimate shortcuts and verbal "greasing of the way."
For instance, by regulation, the preferred form of federal procurement is through advertised bids and a public opening of each contractor's proposal. But in practice, Goodger said, nearly half of federal contracts are done through secret negotiations.
"More than half the requisitions I get carry the name of a proposed contractor on them," he said.
These, he said, had some prior input from the contractors themselves.
"Get to know the technical people in your business area," Garrett suggested. "Read their work. In time you may be able to participate in writing the specifications for what they want. You can set things up so they are slanted on your favor."
When a bid proposal is advertised which contains "bizarre language," it probably means, he said, that the only contractor who can meet specifications is the one who helped draw them up. "It's getting played back," he explained.
Procurement officers, the seminar was told, have a powerful incentive toward equal opportunity -- spreading the dollars around in every congressional district, if possible. Every year, a Pentagon computer produces a printout of federal procurement which shows, district by district where the money went and "the goal is to have them fairly equal," Goodger said.
When it comes to federal contracts, Congress cares.
"Don't underestimate the power of Congress," Goodger said. Every Business, large and small, should let its representative know that it is seeking contracts.
"Let them know you're in this business," Garrett said. "Write a letter and tell them how you supported them in the last election and ask if they remember your check."
The students laughed a bit. Garrett added: "Stick a little one in this year's letter. It's legal. It's an election year. They'll be very receptive. And they will flood you with opportunities available for contracts in your area."
If a government agency mishandles a contract, tell Congress. "Complain to your congressman," Garrett said. "It pays."
One of the students, a contractor who had trouble once with slow payment from the government, tesitified how sound the advice is.
A call to his representative, the contractor said, "only ended up including lunch with the congressman but also an admiral flew me up to New York where I picked up my delayed check."