Uncle Sam Wants Your Business

Patty Cox works in Main Hall helping Montana businesses land government contracts.

Center helps local companies land government contracts – for free

When it comes to government contracts, it’s easy to assume that if you want to work with Uncle Sam, you’d better make planes, ammunition or some other product with military implications. Just don’t tell that to the dozens of Missoula-area businesses that accounted for a shade over $7 million in government contracts in just the second quarter of 2015. Is there a Lockheed-Martin facility tucked away somewhere? Hardly.

“It’s janitorial services for a ranger station and selling hay to the Forest Service,” says Patty Cox, a certified procurement professional and the head of the Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center at the University of Montana. “In rural communities, it’s things like fire-camp catering or selling a couple of horses to an agency in addition to things like big construction contracts.”

The Montana PTAC office at UM – online at http://www.montanaptac.org/ – is one of 600 around the country and nine in Montana. The program exists thanks to joint funding from the Department of Defense and local entities such as universities and economic-development agencies. It provides consultation services to companies ranging from those that are longtime government contractors looking to expand or change their emphasis to those that have never even considered working for an agency – and the invaluable advice comes free of charge for its clients.

“In Anaconda recently, the ranger station needed janitorial services and so they posted ads with my information on them so I could help someone through the process,” Cox says. “Part of that is helping a local company understand what’s needed and then, if they are a good fit, helping them navigate the bid process.”
And completing that bid process and the registration required for federal contracting is no small task. Even experienced contractors who have used the vendor portal – called the System for Award Management, or SAM – can be stymied by the complexities and requirements.

“It can be challenging to find the right opportunities even for very experienced people who have bid on projects over the years,” Cox says. “I just met with an experienced engineering firm, and they followed up to say that they’d submitted a bid for a job they would have never found if it hadn’t been for PTAC’s help – even though they’ve been doing this for a long time.”

That’s in part because the PTAC office has a sophisticated matching system that’s more powerful than the search functions available to the general user and in part because Cox is really good at what she does. In fact, her status as a certified procurement professional puts her in select company when it comes to assisting businesses with government contracts.

“Patty is one of a handful in the country with this certification,” says Joe Fanguy, director of UM’s Office of Technology Transfer. “That’s helped PTAC become the latest arrow in the University’s economic-development quiver, which now exceeds 500 regional businesses when combining PTAC clients with the existing portfolios of our MonTEC business incubator, the Blackstone LaunchPad to help student and alumni businesses, and the Montana World Trade Center.”

Though Montana’s location and population might not make it an obvious choice for government work, businesses here have an odd advantage when it comes to contracts: The vast majority of them are small by government standards. And that’s helpful because the feds want 23 percent of their contracts to go to small businesses.

“Even what we consider here to be a big company is often classified as small, so they have the skills and experience for a job and remain attractive to procurement officers looking for a small-business partner,” Cox says.

But sometimes even small businesses with the right combination of experience, skills and a solid bid find themselves lost in the labyrinthine regulations that must be met before shovels start turning dirt. That’s where Cox comes in to help.

“Because a local contractor also has an Idaho location, there was a hiccup in their application, and we had to work together to figure out how to solve it,” Cox says. “Every time it’s an amazing feat because you have to know these regulations and stay up to date to be able to find the needle in the haystack.”

PTAC Success Stories

Momentum Prosthetic Clinic LLC: When the national prosthetic clinic Clifford Creekmore worked for unexpectedly announced it was closing its Missoula location, Creekmore decided he would open his own clinic in the Garden City. Creekmore’s old clinic had been a regular referral location for the Fort Harrison Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System, and for his newly created Momentum Prosthetic Clinic to continue serving veteran clients, Creekmore had to move quickly. Montana PTAC worked to get Creekmore’s new clinic the proper documentation and registration to be eligible for the VA as the business was starting out. That speedy reaction meant the new clinic could continue serving Creekmore’s clients and retain its contract with the Montana VA — plus keep three jobs from leaving Missoula.

PinnaCal: Specialized tools like torque wrenches and pressure gauges are required to get technical maintenance tasks just right, but who makes sure the tools themselves are calibrated properly? A local Missoula company called PinnaCal does just that, and the young company was looking to pursue government contracting when owner Jessie Ellis sought out Montana PTAC. Because of the highly technical nature of the business, Cox helped PinnaCal get through the required registration and then walked through market research and strategies with Ellis so she could calibrate her approach. The process led Ellis to pursue smaller contracts that best suited her business’ size, and Cox was able to connect her with the appropriate buyers for the very specific but necessary service.

Parke Logging: The U.S. Forest Service Region 1 office in western Montana decided to pilot a new program and assemble a new Heavy Equipment Task Force – a request that’s never gone out before. Alan “Luckie” Bryant from Parke Logging came to Montana PTAC for advice on how to submit a bid for the new request and immediately got help reviewing the solicitation, which changed a few times during the process, requiring Cox to keep Bryant up to date. They came up with unique pricing to match the never-before-seen request and prepared a final proposal. Near the end of the process, Bryant ran into a snag with the Forest Service’s procurement system, and Cox was able to work with the contracting officer and Bryant to get it sorted and get the bid submitted on time. “You went above and beyond to watch out for us,” Bryant said afterward.

— By Alex Strickland

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