Band of brothers

Soldiers learn quickly how to work as a team. The "Army of One" notion may make a good recruiting slogan, but in the field, soldiers must cooperate, interact and rely on one another's individual strengths if they are to succeed.

That turns out to be good practice for soldiers who return home to launch their own businesses. A new governmentwide acquisition contract reserved exclusively for small businesses owned by service disabled veterans has been designed so that it is almost impossible for any one business to meet the contract's requirements.

Neal Fox, assistant commissioner of the Office of Commercial Acquisition at the General Services Administration, said GSA designed the Veterans Technology Services (VETS) solicitation that way to encourage teaming and therefore allow more businesses owned by service-disabled veterans to benefit from the contract, even many who will not be official contract holders.

Qualifying veterans must own at least a 51 percent interest in a company for it to be included. Some company officials, however, believe the requirements are too severe, particularly the amount of experience that bidders are expected to show.

The contract covers three monetary tiers and dozens of individual work elements. The language in the request for proposals tells companies that to show complete experience, they should provide three experience examples for each of the three monetary tiers.

The contract is divided into two functional areas, one covering systems operation and maintenance and the other information systems engineering. GSA plans to award two separate contracts, one for each functional area, according to the RFP. Functional Area One has 38 work elements; Functional Area Two has 26.

Some company leaders are concerned about the numbers they get as they interpret the RFP. Betty Neal, director of the proposal department and capture manager at Zolon Tech, said that to show complete experience only in Functional Area One, a company is expected to submit three examples of experience at each revenue tier for each of the 38 elements, a total of 342 separate experiences. If the company is bidding for both functional areas, that number rises to 576.

The document distinguishes experience — the company's own reports of having done relevant work — from past performance, a more demanding standard that includes a performance evaluation of the work. However, the RFP's language demands that all of the experience be recent, either ongoing or completed in the past three years.

"It appears that they're applying extreme requirements," Neal said. She and other business leaders have submitted questions regarding the language to GSA, she said.

But Fox said Neal is overstating the matter and that companies will need to submit about 30 experience reports.He added that GSA does not require all bidders to have that level of experience. "If [a company's experience] didn't cover 100 percent, they still could be a strong contender," he said.

The purpose of laying out such a sweeping ideal is to encourage interested companies to develop partnerships, Fox said. Although the contract awards will go to about 40 individual companies, they can count the experience of other companies with which they have established partnerships, he said.

"That brings in many more service disabled veteran-owned businesses than we would have otherwise," he said.

Fox is correct about the need for partnerships, said Kim Shackleford, chief marketing officer at the Ambit Group, another VETS bidder. "If you don't have other [qualifying companies] on your team, you simply can't" bid as a prime contractor, she said. "The capabilities are so broad and encompassing that most small businesses I know would have trouble meeting them."

Forming teams, however, won't be as easy as Fox may think, Shackleford said.

The Ambit Group has had little success so far. "What happened, intentionally or unintentionally, is that you then have this feeding frenzy" as businesses planning to bid try to line up partners, she said.

The Ambit Group has tried to persuade some companies to agree to exclusive partnerships, but nobody is going for it, she said. "They're all very hesitant because they're unsure what shape this will take," Shackleford added.

Some agencies are greeting the contract and a separate set-aside program for service-disabled veterans with some skepticism, she said. They're new, and some details of how they are supposed to operate are still unclear, she said. The RFP and an accompanying amendment also suggest that companies will be penalized if they rely too heavily on subcontractors that are not also owned by service-disabled veterans.

The key to being compliant is to use as subcontractors businesses owned by service-disabled veterans as much as possible and use other types of businesses when necessary, said John Moliere, president of Standard Communications. The RFP's goal is to ensure that service-disabled veterans' companies perform at least 51 percent of the contract's work rather than having such a firm win the contract and send most of the work to other businesses.

Moliere has 12 service-disabled veterans' businesses on his team, and all of the business that goes through those companies would contribute to that 51 percent target.

The VETS solicitation stipulates that work performed by such a contractor counts as if the prime contractor did it.

"This is what was being encouraged" in the RFP, he said. "We also have two small veteran-owned businesses, two large integrators and a large local and long-distance company. None of the latter goes to meet the 51 percent requirement, but they help round out the team with capability, presence and bandwidth."

How to win

The Veterans Technology Services request for proposals instructs bidders to report their companies' experience with projects at three monetary tiers. The goal is for the companies to demonstrate that they have a breadth of history with various project sizes. The three tiers are:

  • Tier 1: $25,000 to $100,000.
  • Tier II: $100,000.01 to $250,000.
  • Tier III: More than $250,000.

Source: General Services Administration

NEXT STORY: SBA gets mixed message

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