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posted: 1/14/2013 5:00 AM

Despite budget woes, government market remains an option

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Uncle Sam may or may not get his financial act together. Ditto for the state of Illinois. Same for many of the 6,968 local governments -- everything from village hall to the mosquito abatement district -- the U.S. Census Bureau counted in our state last year.

How much of a problem the lack of fiscal management becomes for small and mid-size businesses that seek to sell goods and services to government agencies remains to be seen. The good news is that two local experts whose job is to help small businesses connect with government buyers are relatively optimistic.

"Government is still spending," says Rita Haake, program manager of the Illinois PTAC at College of DuPage, Lisle. "The fact is that purchasing has to occur. Will 'wishes' be granted? No. Government will be buying necessities instead, and the marketplace will be more competitive.

"But the opportunity still is there."

At least at the federal level, the small business piece of the pie remains constant. "Whatever size the pie is, Congress has required that 23 percent of federal purchases go to small business," says Marc Violante, Illinois PTAC director at College of Lake County, Grayslake. State and local governments more often must go with the lowest bid, he adds, but federal agencies must meet that 23 percent requirement.

For businesses that sell to government entities -- or would like to explore the opportunities -- Violante and Haake are good people to know. PTACs are Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, created in the mid-1980s to help smaller businesses learn how to sell to governments at all levels. There are 93 PTACs throughout the country; 10 are in Illinois, five in the greater Chicago area.

There are options: The state has a Sell 2 Illinois program intended to open opportunities to local businesses, and a Business Enterprise Program that focuses on businesses owned by women, minorities, and individuals with disabilities. DemandStar, run by Seattle, WA-based Onvia Inc., has offerings from some 400 agencies across the country.

There are advantages to the PTACs that Haake and Violante manage, however.

Two examples: A computerized bid search that will send notifications to participating local businesses and listings of small business officers within agency buying centers. More importantly, both centers will help local businesses tailor their bids to often arcane and confusing agency requirements.

"There's a learning cycle," Haake says. "How do I really respond?" The "pretty document" that may wow a commercial prospect won't fly in the government sector, she says.

Be aware that governments "realistically are not a bailout" for struggling businesses, Haake notes. At least on the federal level, lead times of 12-18 months are common.

Responding with the required information and in the proper manner matters, Haake says. Businesses "must have registered with the system," Violante says. "Check certification requirements, too."

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at 2013 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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