Jewell: Taming the fed frontier under a big sky

Montana procurement director helps small firms in far-flung outposts

Many images of the American West as a frontier wasteland are outdated, even stereotypical. But some are accurate, as Maureen Jewell discovered when she began managing the Billings office of the Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).

“In this area, computers, much less the Internet, were very rare in a business” when she began her work in 1995, she said. “When I took the job, one of my great shocks was that I didn’t have a computer.”

After about three years and a lot of arm-twisting, Jewell managed to get computers for her office. But to this day, many remote areas that are home to businesses she works with do not have Internet connectivity.

Jewell is statewide director of the PTAC program, which is part of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority. She also serves as president of the Association of PTACs, a one-year post that she will step down from next month.

In addition to flying back and forth to various states and Washington, D.C., last year, Jewell worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs in developing a set-aside contract system for small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. She also worked on a radio frequency identification initiative.

The PTAC program offers aid to small-business owners who want to do business with the government. Scattered nationwide, often in far-flung outposts without the amenities of larger towns and cities, employees of small businesses frequently need education and training in government procurement, help in identifying realistic opportunities and assurance that they comply with government requirements.

All of those challenges can be difficult, and technological hurdles make them even harder, she said. Ultimately, however, companies that make the effort can end up competing with more established firms for contracts.

“One of the turning points was when the feds decided they were going to do electronic data interchange” (EDI), she said. The government chose the EDI-based Federal Acquisition Computer Network as a standard in 1994, but it wasn’t widely used, and the Clinton administration ended the mandate in 1998. By then, the Internet was becoming the natural mechanism for electronic commerce. “The challenge for us in Montana and most of the western states was that they were making statements and changes in policy based on where the technology was on the East Coast,” Jewell said. “When they started talking EDI here, most of the state was on rotary-dial party lines.”

Montana business owners, determined to work with the government, began to improve their technologies in the 1990s, she said. Jewell’s mission, and the Montana PTAC organization’s intent, was to help business owners understand the technology and use it effectively. As the government’s approach to e-commerce evolved, vendors found themselves required to offer online catalogs, for example.

“You keep working and working and working until they finally become comfortable,” she said. “Then as soon as we’d get them comfortable, somebody would change the rules. Most of these people weren’t kids.”

Even when the business owners were willing to learn to use the technology, they didn’t always pick it up quickly, she said.

Some business owners resisted government contracting because it involved too much paperwork, she said.

“That was their attitude, and they had to be talked out of it,” Jewell said. “It’s like learning a new language.”

Meanwhile, the nature of business in Montana was changing. When Jewell began working for the Billings PTAC, most of the state’s government contractors were suppliers of construction materials and services. Now many Montana firms provide professional services, and Lockheed Martin gets custom-made parts from a high-tech factory in Helena, she said.

The prospects for Montana’s small businesses have improved significantly because of Jewell’s involvement, said Donna Kirkpatrick, a program manager at S&K Technologies in St. Ignatius, Mont. Kirkpatrick accompanied Jewell on many long trips to visit companies.

“Because businesses are spread out in a state like Montana or Wyoming and because of the programs that she’s been involved with, the visibility and awareness of these small businesses has helped the businesses become larger and more competitive,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s important that the businesses know and are able to find those business opportunities. Marketing and networking are so important, and those are things that the PTAC program does.”

Even with many small businesses willing to learn how to trade electronically, businesses’ remote locations are a hindrance, Jewell said.

“We still have people in very remote areas who cannot get Internet access,” she said. “It’s not an option.” In many such areas, the Montana PTAC has created agreements with libraries to set up one Internet-connected computer especially for contractors.

It’s a real problem, she said, and “it’s one that’s not well understood in [Washington] D.C.”

The office of president of the national PTAC association is a one-year term, but it amounts to three years of close involvement, Jewell said. She spent one year as president-elect, and when she steps down as president in April, she’ll become the immediate past president.

While in office, she has begun to change the group from a loose consortium of nationwide PTAC groups to a formal organization with a strategic plan. That change was “so that we could move from reacting to the changes in federal appropriations law to being in place to work with clients in a very rapid manner,” she said.

Jewell said she would like the organization to respond quickly to new initiatives that can open or broaden markets for certain types of vendors. “When something like this happens, it’s the small businesses who are able to react fast,” she said. “Major manufacturers can’t. A very small business can do that because they don’t have the commitments that far out.”

Jewell has been effective because she can talk to anyone from an American Indian business owner a few miles south of the Canadian border to members of Congress and agency officials, said Alice Richard, assistant director of small business in the Defense Contract Management Agency’s Seattle office.

Jewell “has the ability to work with a very diverse group of individuals,” Richard said. “She is on [Capitol] Hill to share the knowledge and requirements that are so critical to the PTAC programs across the country.”

Motivating companies to advance their technology is the key ingredient of the job, Jewell said.

“You’ve got to be interconnected,” she said. “You’ve got to see the big picture and know what’s going to affect the little guy, or one day he’s shut down because you couldn’t help him move to the next step.”

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