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posted: 8/4/2013 6:40 AM

Uncle Sam a tougher customer for small businesses

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  • Ken Anderson, vice president for sales and business development at Universal Synaptics, a company that manufactures computer systems to help the military do maintenance work on planes, vehicles and other equipment, is shown Tuesday holding a Navy aircraft weapon replaceable assembly as he sits at a desk at his office in Roy, Utah.

      Ken Anderson, vice president for sales and business development at Universal Synaptics, a company that manufactures computer systems to help the military do maintenance work on planes, vehicles and other equipment, is shown Tuesday holding a Navy aircraft weapon replaceable assembly as he sits at a desk at his office in Roy, Utah.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Uncle Sam isn't as easy a customer to land as he used to be.

Even before $85 billion in federal budget cuts went into effect this spring, small business owners who contract with the government were finding that the cost of going after federal contracts had spiked. On average, small businesses spent more than $128,000 in labor costs and other expenses in 2012 to pursue government contracts, according to a survey by American Express. That's up 49 percent from 2010.

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Now that many of the budget cuts are in place, it's become even harder and more expensive for small businesses to compete for contracts, which they often count on to generate a significant portion of their revenue.

Ken Anderson usually goes to 20 or more trade shows a year to meet with hundreds of Department of Defense employees who are interested in buying the technology made by his company, Universal Synaptics. But federal agencies' travel budgets were slashed in the so-called sequestration cuts that took effect March 1, so many of the shows were canceled. Now Anderson is spending more time and money flying to meetings at government facilities. Instead of going to one show, he has to make as many as 10 trips.

"One might be in Warner Robbins, Ga.; Cherry Point, N.C.; Patuxent River, Md., or Jacksonville, Fla.," says Anderson, vice president of business development at Universal Synaptics, which makes diagnostic equipment for military aircraft. "Instead of one trip to a show in Atlanta, now I've got to go all over the place."

Anderson says the extra trips he's making aren't guaranteed to result in a new contract for his Roy, Utah-based company. Meanwhile, his travel costs are up between 25 percent and 30 percent this year.

"You spend more time and money and energy in your business development and the process takes longer," he says. "As a taxpayer I say, this is really fantastic. But as a business owner, I say, this is tough and I have to figure out a way through it."

The cost of bidding on a federal contract can exceed 3 percent of the total amount of the contract, according to the House Small Business Committee. So on a contract worth $100,000, a business might spend more than $3,000 during the bidding process. Companies seeking federal contracts typically lay out costs for travel, product development and writing up proposals. That's money spent up front, with no guarantee that a bid will be successful.

The extra trips that Shep Brown and his staffers are making to meet with defense employees translate into an enormous time and monetary expense, says Brown, CEO of Howell Instruments, a Fort Worth, Texas, maker of testing and monitoring equipment for airplanes. They too used to attend trade shows where they could meet with a lot of people at once.

"It takes a month to do what I did in three days," says Brown, "Our manpower costs go up 200 percent."

The Small Business Administration, the government agency that advocates for small companies in other parts of the government, said it had anticipated that small businesses would get fewer contracts and fewer contract dollars because of the budget cuts.

"From the beginning, we have been clear that sequestration would have severe impacts across the government and for small business," says Emily Cain, a spokeswoman for the SBA. "We know that the economic uncertainty created by sequestration prevents small businesses from moving forward and pursuing new orders or opportunities to expand."

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the chair of the House Small Business Committee, declined to comment for this story.

The Commerce Department's report Wednesday on second-quarter economic growth might offer some hope to small businesses. The report said federal spending fell only 1.5 percent between April and June, compared with an 8.4 percent drop in the first three months of the year. If spending stabilizes, contracts might be easier to get.

In the meantime, though, small businesses that rely on federal contracts for revenue continue to spend more time and money to get and keep business with the government. And there's another hurdle: contracts are taking longer to be approved, forcing them to look elsewhere for revenue.

"The time that it takes from submitting a bid or a proposal to the award is strung out," says Bob Mander, owner of Ryan & Co., a company that writes technical documents for the government and nonprofit organizations. His Washington, D.C.-based business submitted a bid to the General Services Administration more than three months ago and he's still waiting to hear the status of the bid.

"They're not as far along as they should be at this point," he says.

In the past, federal agencies usually set a date for a decision in which a company would be awarded a contract, Mander said. But the GSA keeps pushing back the award date, and now it's not expected until the end of September. A spokeswoman for the GSA, Mafara Hobson, said the complaint wasn't related to the budget cuts.

While Mander waits, he's seeking more business from nongovernment customers, including advocacy groups that represent health care and real estate interests.

Small businesses that partner with companies that work directly with the government also are contending with longer wait times and a drop in revenue.

Dulles Case Center has been busy the past few months working on bids with the federal contractors that it partners with. The government has been seeking price quotes on the carrying cases that the Dulles, Va., company manufactures for weapons, radios, computers, medical equipment and other items. Owner Donna Kulesza hasn't heard anything beyond those requests.

"We've been doing three times as many quotes as we would in any given month," she says. "But we're seeing a lack of activity."

That means Dulles is doing work but not getting paid -- the government doesn't pay for the work a company does when it puts a bid together.

"The lack of revenue hurts from the orders not being awarded yet," Kulesza says. She was forced to lay off one of her employees in April.

Active Care, a company that provides disease management services, is a subcontractor to federal employee benefit programs, getting under 30 percent of its revenue from the government. The contracts it has agreed to work under were approved before the budget cuts took effect. But the government isn't releasing the money to fund the contracts, which include Active Care's diabetes management services.

"We've been given an indication of an indefinite hold," says Michael Jones, chief strategy officer of the Orem, Utah-based firm.

Jones talks to the company that's the prime contractor each week, but there's no sign that the money will forthcoming. It's a big contrast with his experience doing business with the government in past years.

"We were able to move through the process quickly," Jones says.

If the delay looks like it's going to extend another six to 12 months, Active Care will need to look to other customers, including state and municipal governments, to replace the federal contract revenue that it's losing.

Right now, Jones is in wait-and-see mode.

"We have several opportunities, but most are dependent on the outcome of these programs. It's a bit of domino effect," he says.

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