One of the biggest markets to tap—and likely to expand—is the federal government.
By Barb Ernster
With its myriad agencies, the U.S. government offers the makers of specialty fabrics and fabric end products ample opportunity for those who learn to navigate this market. Consider the needs of just one agency: Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS contracts for billions of dollars in goods and services, and has a procurement list that is an inch thick when printed, according to Mui Erkun, ombudsman and industry liaison for the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer at DHS. With agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Coast Guard under its belt, it has a huge need for textiles that go into uniforms, protective wear, emergency shelters and medical supplies, vehicles and transportation equipment, to name just a few.
Most government contracts are posted on the FedBizOpps website for awards more than $25,000. It currently lists more than 36,000 active opportunities. (See “How to begin” in the lightbox at the top of the page for more information.)
The market for textiles used in government projects ranges from construction to uniforms, but you must be persistent, says Teresa Bouchonnet, a business development specialist with the North Carolina Military Business Center in Franklin, N.C. Its website has a number of links and helpful information for anyone wanting to enter this market. She also recommends looking at FedBizOpps three times a week after 2:00 p.m. to review the solicitations and awards.
“You can think outside the box about where your products may be a component on a bid, such as construction. People call me all the time looking to team with their products,” says Bouchonnet. “It’s also important to follow world events, such as the need for tents in Chile and Haiti after the earthquakes.”
The fluctuating market
It is difficult to predict the markets because they can develop quickly and are based on events outside of our knowledge, such as stimulus money arriving or military conflicts that stop and start, notes Hardy Poole of the National Textile Association. The second Gulf War was longer term, so those companies already in the business of supplying small amounts were suddenly running at maximum capacity. However, he adds, NASA might not receive the same level of funding as in the past and if this occurs, companies that were supplying NASA will likely see their business slow down or stop.
“Developing business with the federal government many times is challenging and requires an investment in time and commitment,” says Poole. “Large, medium and small companies have explored this area of business, but many have chosen not to continue due to the system’s complexity.”
Still, he encourages even small shops to at least study and evaluate the needs of government purchasers. Despite the complicated process and learning curve, Bouchonnet won the first contract she ever bid on: deployment bag straps used in parachute drops. She receives e-mails daily about large contract awards and works with new companies that are winning contracts against other businesses that have been bidding for years.
Each year government departments produce a procurement forecast that is published in print and online, searchable through their websites. Erkun says the DHS is already anticipating its needs for 2013 and working on budgets. The forecast gives a heads up on what each department is seeking to purchase, who the point of contact is, and when the RFP will be issued. Companies can call for an appointment with the contact person. Understanding the goals and objectives of a department or agency is key to doing business with them, he adds. Companies need to research that mission and what products they’re using.
“So many companies come to me and say, ‘You need this product, Mui.’ Well, they don’t know what I need and they spent a lot of time creating a product that will support something we already have or we’re not there yet,” he says. “I get calls from industries and they haven’t even been to our website. That’s part of the homework.”
Companies can also attend agency-sponsored conferences (in person or by webcast) to learn how the agency is planning to spend its funds and meet the program managers. The DHS is holding its annual industry day in November. The Department of Defense (DoD) also holds Advance Planning Brief to Industry (APBI) meetings; the one for textiles is held in May near Washington, D.C.
“I have attended a number of conferences, and many times after businesses have attended events they have won contracts. They won based on price, product and quality of goods, but it also helps that the government can put a face to a business,” says Bouchonnet.
Erkun says if you have the resources, marketing your product or service in government circles is helpful. Companies that exist inside the Beltway often hear of opportunities more and outsiders can team up with these companies for joint ventures. He also suggests subcontracting with government Prime Contractor Vendors who may be looking for textiles to complement their product or service. Another option is to submit an unsolicited proposal to a department for evaluation by a team of technical experts. The more unique your product, the more attention it might get. If the agency is interested, they’ll pursue it or promote the information on FedBizOpps.
Many companies forego the bidding process in favor of being a supplier to the bidding contractor. For most construction, architectural and engineering projects the agencies will hold a pre-bid site visit, which gives both the bidder and anyone interested in supplying the bid a chance to meet, says Bouchonnet. The government is now looking for green products that reduce carbon footprint, particularly in building projects. These projects also typically need furniture, window treatments and drapes. The Forest Service is very good at posting the contact information for those who attended the site visit. Many of their projects require some type of textile products, from geotextile sediment fences to netting used to protect from rockslides.
The classified section
Natick, Mass., is home to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center. It is the central research point for the DoD and other government services, such as the FBI, ATF and Secret Service, where specialty and classified products are developed. It works on such things as backpacks, body armor and high performance clothing fabrics. Because of the nature of their work these products are normally not advertised publicly, but a company could meet with scientists at Natick to discuss new ideas and approaches to solving problems.
Natick also has an office that deals with a variety of shelters, and Poole believes there are good opportunities here to develop new products for the government, particularly shelters made of composite materials that can offer chemical protection and temperature control.
“You’re touching on the people who know what the classified needs are and they may see the new or additional potential in your product,” says Poole.
The GSA contracts path
General Services Administration (GSA) contracts can be a great way for companies to expand sales of products or services. It’s quicker for the government to purchase products and services because the GSA contract holder is prequalified and terms are prenegotiated. More federal agencies are requiring products or services to be purchased through a GSA contract instead of through competitive bidding options like the FedBizOpps website.
There are more than 40 different contract areas and thousands of GSA contractors, according to Andy Ronchak, owner and president of Green Leaf Corp. in Eagan, Minn. He does all the groundwork required for companies to obtain a GSA contract award, and works exclusively with small business companies around the country. Some companies that have already been selling to the government find that a federal agency will require them to obtain a GSA contract to get future federal sales. The GSA contract is good for five years and, if you’re in compliance, is automatically renewed three times every five years, for a total of 20 years.
However, having a GSA contract does not mean the federal sales automatically come to you, says Ronchak.
“You still have to get out there and find the contacts that buy your type of product and make the sale. If you do your due diligence and make your calls and marketing and you’re successful commercially, you should be able to be successful in the federal government as well,” he says. “Once you have the sales, word spreads quickly and things can take off. People buy in groups or buy similar kinds of products and the federal government purchasers usually know each other in those similar groups.”
Staying in the game
The government procurement process is a challenging field to navigate and might not lead to contracts immediately, but it can lead to long-term business and certainly increases your company’s visibility among senior military leaders, program managers, procurement staff, prime contractors and bidders.
“I would encourage businesses to look at the government as a market,” says Poole, “but in doing so, go into it with a commitment that you’re not going to just test the water and walk away; you’re going to make the effort to build relationships and make a better product that the government needs and will buy.”