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Think Big

Yes, you can win big contracts-with a bit of help.
October 1, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/167482

Companies can grow significantly when they land large contracts. So how can you hook up with a major corporation as a subcontractor? We spoke with several women entrepreneurs about cultivating a corporate clientele, doing the big deals and being certified as a Women's Business Enterprise-a designation accepted by over 700 major corporations and several government agencies.

"When I got certified, it was a gateway to major corporations," says Mercedes LaPorta, president and CEO of Miami-based Mercedes Electric Supply Inc., which has been a certified WBE for four years through the Women's Business Enterprise National Council. "I got involved with [the WBENC] on the national level and joined their forum to have meetings with major corporations such as UPS, Office Depot and PepsiCo."

Brenda Newberry, CEO of The Newberry Group, a $20 million-plus IT consulting firm in St. Charles, Missouri, believes a business should be judged on the quality of service and value it delivers. "Our WBE status simply affords [our company] the opportunity to be considered [for contracts]" explains Newberry, 53. "Once selected, our talents, capabilities, capacity and reputation take over."

The WBENC's president and CEO, Susan Bari, says her organization partners with 14 regional affiliates across the country to certify women-owned businesses. While the WBENC is not the only third-party WBE certifier, it is the largest one assisting women.

So how does a woman entrepreneur land a major corporate contract? Being a WBE is not essential, but it is helpful. "You have to make the connection and sell yourself to the diversity people [within corporations]," explains LaPorta, 52, whose electrical supply company projects 2006 sales of $35 million. "After that, find out who the actual buyers are in the corporation and get an appointment with them." Then, as with any sale, it takes research and preparation.

The new trend toward strategic sourcing, where big corporations reduce the number of subcontractors they employ, is posing a challenge to women entrepreneurs seeking subcontracting opportunities. Women entrepreneurs should therefore consider being a second- or third-tier subcontractor by working directly with another company that has the prime contract. Corporations encourage prime contractors to meet subcontracting supplier diversity goals, and some of these connections can be made through WBENC networking opportunities. Some corporations sponsor business fairs specifically for prime contractors, while others direct WBE suppliers to their prime contractors. Or "you can partner with someone else, doing a joint venture to sell a corporation on your services or products," suggests LaPorta.

Once you get the contract, maintaining the relationship is key. "Companies demand quality, and if you cannot deliver this, you won't receive repeat business, regardless of your classification," says Newberry.