Selling an idea
- By Judi Hasson
- May 29, 2000
It's a recent Friday morning, and Elmer Sembly is taking a rare day off.
"Read me chapter one," his 2-year-old daughter, Kayla, demands.
"No, I'm on the phone," replies the man responsible for marketing $29
billion in information technology contracts to vendors and government agencies.
Sembly is a busy man these days, hardly ever away from his work. He is helping
to spearhead a relatively new philosophy in the federal government that
saves billions of dollars by combining the purchasing muscle of departments
In fact, Sembly spends much of his time on the phone, running the outreach
and education program for the National Institutes of Health's cutting-edge
procurement program, Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners (CIO-SP),
which is based at NIH's Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment
Center in Rockville, Md.
"We need to develop partnerships in order to advance research and technology.
We partner in order to come up with new concepts," Sembly said.
Four years ago, the CIO-SP program broke ground when it organized a
one-stop shopping center for contractors to bid for government IT work.
It was heralded as one of the most ambitious programs to test new contracting
techniques and new ways of marketing services.
This year, NIH is doing it again with the CIO-SP 2 follow-on contract.
This $11 billion program will pick vendors by August to deliver a wide
range of IT services for government agencies. The payoff for NIH: a 1 percent
fee for its work. And Sembly is the man in charge of image, marketing and
making sure vendors and agencies come together.
"The question we always get is, "What is NIH doing?'" Sembly said. "Our
office is really central procurement for NIH, which is actually 23 different
institutes and centers. And we have to be salesmen. We have to show them
the relative benefit of coming to us. They can go elsewhere. So we have
to be the innovators."
In fact, Sembly, a runner and former Marine recruiter, is much more
than that. He is the personal ambassador for three NIH programs that together
account for billions of dollars' worth of government IT purchases. They
are CIO-SP 2, worth $11 billion; Imageworld, $10 billion; and the Electronic
Computer Store II, $8 billion.
Jim Terry, the deputy program manager for Science Application International
Corp.'s CIO-SP contract, calls Sembly "a Renaissance man."
"He's very personable," Terry said. "I don't know how he answers all
his phones. He's got a thousand people calling in. He's good at getting
back to people. He knows the nitty-gritty of contractual issues."
Sembly's background is diverse, and surprisingly, contracting has not
been part of it. He has worked for the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Customs
and earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in, of all things,
applied behavioral science.
The only child of a gospel preacher and a government worker, he describes
himself as "very competitive." His favorite books are by human development
writers Anthony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and Daniel Goleman.
"I do focus on relationships. I enjoy people. I enjoy diversity in people,"
Sembly said. "I enjoy getting to know people and the ability to cross color
barriers, ethnic barriers. Getting to know people as people has helped me
advance my career."