Doing small business on larger scale

There was no limit to the amount of help or advice a Small Business Administration 8(a) company could get in downtown Anchorage on June 22-23 while the National 8(a) Association held its 2010 National conference at the Marriott Hotel.

"This is a good outreach, and there will be more help to come for rural Alaska business owners," said Karen Mills, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Mills and over 320 others gathered to offer SBA qualified 8(a) businesses advice on who to see and how to get government contracts that are set aside for disadvantaged business owners.

SBA 8(a) qualified companies are allowed to respond to government contacts as disadvantaged business because of their location and a commitment by the U.S government to provide opportunities to all residents of the country.

The conference started out with an introduction by Ron Perry, president of the National 8(a) Association, and was followed with a welcome by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell. A brief keynote address came from Mills, who explained her allegiance to rural America after growing up in the state of Maine.

"I carry this Native American-made basket with me everywhere I travel to remind me of where I am from," Mills said.

Mills promises to support new business in rural Alaska with additional outreach and called the conference a beginning.

"There are many potential opportunities for rural residents and business owners who want to obtain work from the federal government," said Mills. "There are counseling opportunities from any of our SBA centers here in Alaska, and we have a commitment to help the smaller village and will send SBA representatives to explain how to start businesses. We are also committed to online counseling, but are open to listening how we can improve and provide quality help."

Mills pointed out that Alaska has a higher per capita household connectivity to the Internet than other places in the U.S.

"Alaska is 'very' wired compared to other rural places in the U.S. through the Internet, and with our help we believe that there are all kinds of business opportunities available for government contracts and specifically there are some very good programs with the Department of Agriculture," Mills said. "I just feel that there is more of a spirit of entrepreneurship here in Alaska than other places that we have visited."

But Mills was clear to point out that the SBA was here to help businesses, not create jobs.

"It is up to us to help small business, not just create jobs. That will be up to the businesses that we provide assistance and guidance to," Mills said.

Mills was scheduled to visit Kodiak to observe the fishing fleet and talk with local business owners there.

After her speech, Mills walked the hallways shaking hands, and taking hugs from well wishers.

The first panel of the event of the conference consisted of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), whose officials provided advice for 8(a) business. Their suggestions soon became somewhat of a mantra that was echoed by other government agencies and primary contractors attending.

"Do your homework, know what the department needs, register as a vendor, update your status, respond to every question that we ask, and have the courtesy to follow up on opportunities," said Glenn Delgado, NASA associate administrator of Small Business Programs.

Panels of experienced contractors offered advice as well as a two-hour afternoon session of one-on-one consultations.

"I prefer the one-on-one more than the Q&As," said Alyssi London with the Sealaska Corp. "I came here to get more information on global expertise and prefer asking my questions in person."

London inquired about providing services to NASA or its contractors interested in global logistics.

During a prime contractor panel chaired by Jenifer Scoffield with ATK Space Systems, of Brigham City, Utah, a representative to a contractor that works with several government agencies originally from Alaska surfaced.

Layli Pietri has been a small-business manager with Balfour Beatty, a Fairfax, Va., company for over 15 years, but her roots are in Alaska.

"When I tell people that I am originally from Alaska, they always ask me what I think of Sarah Palin." said Pietri. "I tell them that Palin is from Wasilla near Anchorage and that I grew up in a small Eskimo village in the Bering Sea, where I really can see Russia from my front door."

Pietri is originally from Savoonga and is a member of the Pungowiyi family on St. Lawrence Island.

After the crowd's laughter, Pietri emphasized how important it was to update a company's information in order to let the prime contractor know of its capabilities, manpower and the service specialties of a business.

Others in attendance pointed out their excitement at traveling to the state.

"When I first learned of the conference and was asked to attend, I said oh no, there is no budget for travel like that," said Linda B. Oliver, acting director of the Department of Defense Office of Small Business Programs. "I quickly said that I am not going to travel that far north, but now that I am here I just love it."

An update and opportunities panel called "Working with the U.S. Women's Chamber" had CEO of the Women's Chamber of Commerce Margot Dorfman asking business owners to volunteer to testify in front of Congress over 8(a) contracting issues.

Both she and Terry Williams, national director, of the National Association of Small Business Contractors, pleaded with the audience to agree to talk with media representatives when issues need explaining about 8(a) contracting and asked for volunteers to come forward and agree to meet with members of the national media.

Other primary contractors indicated that the pendulum of change may see contractor personnel going to work for the government as government spending slows.

One of the most sought after certifications is a security clearance, according to one contractor.

"Some of us are lucky because we have either been in the military or worked for or been part of the National Guard, that's how I got my security clearance and it has been a selling factor for me to help my company get government work," said Gary Smith with the Capstone Group, which works for the National Guard Bureau.

Despite the economic downturn, Smith and others think that the 8(a) qualified businesses will continue to thrive, but some need to be wary of their major contractors losing employees to government contracting agencies, or to be prepared for company consolidation as competition for the same work increases nationwide.

For more information: Alaska News