Winning Government Contracts

There's $200 billion there for the taking. Don't you want to get in on the action?

As this summer's forest fire season begins with a vengeancein California, forestry experts are still recovering from lastyear, which was considered one of the worst in almost a century.Blazes raged from California to Utah, Idaho and beyond.

One of the areas worst hit by the fires was the BitterrootValley in Montana, where an estimated 300,000 acres were burned inthe valley alone and almost a third of the Bitterroot NationalForest was destroyed.

While the Bitterroot Valley may be known for fiery scenes ofmass destruction, for the past 15 years it has been the home ofBitterroot Restoration Inc. (BRI), a small landscape restorationcompany that has flourished, due in part to its ability to wingovernment contracts from the National Park Service, the Departmentof Defense, and other state and federal agencies. "You wouldbe amazed how many people don't bother to figure out what wewant done," said a botanist who works for the National ParkService in Denver. She agreed to discuss small-business contractingif she was not identified.

"[Business owners will] look at bid packages and ignorethem. Or they'll send you some brochures or write you a longletter about how they want to work for you," she laments."They need to tell me what they have [to offer] and how theycan deal with my problem, with good evidence, and goodreferences."

Founded in 1986 by Pat Burke and his ex-wife, Jan Krueger, BRIspecializes in restoring native plants and ecosystems on disturbedand polluted land-from mine sites to flood plains, highwaysand forests destroyed by fire. "When we first got started, thewhole notion of ecological restoration barely existed-no onetalked about it but a couple of academics," said Burke, whohas master's degrees in forest ecology and philosophy. "Ihappened to be one of those academics. I went to a conference atBerkeley in 1986 and realized this had a lot ofpotential."

In its first year in business, BRI brought in $17,000 inrevenue. Burke's ex-wife held a job to support the family.Today, the company employs more than 100 and has offices inCalifornia, Montana and Oregon. Revenue for BRI almost doubledbetween 1999 and 2000-from $2.4 million to $4.2 million.Burke said he expects revenue to double hit $9 million this year.Government contracts account for 55 percent of total revenues.

Burke estimates the landscape restoration industry as a wholegenerated about $349 million a year-and predicts it willtriple to $1.2 billion by 2003. There are more landscaperestoration companies in the West than the East due to theconcentration of mining, the legislation requiring restoration andthe sensitive ecosystems of the area.

BRI sets itself apart by taking a holistic approach-notjust to restoring landscapes, but to the way it does business. Thecompany is involved in every stage of the restoration process, fromplanning and design to pollution clean-up, soil restoration, seedcollection, plant propagation, planting and site management.Clients range from mines and park operators to highways, militarybases and private lands such as ranches.

"A lot of mining companies would hire agriculturalexperts," said Burke. "They'd come in, look at thesoil and say, 'OK, we need so many pounds of nitrogen, so manypounds of phosphorous and so many pounds of potassium. We take anecological approach. We looked at nearby vegetation, a fullyforested area or mature grassland, and say 'What does it taketo get there?' What we do is basically jumpstart the naturalprocess."

But if BRI is mimicking Mother Nature, why not just let damagedlandscapes recover on their own? "Eventually, most sites wouldre-vegetate themselves," said Len Ballek, BRI's vicepresident of marketing. "But it could take 100 years or more.Also, in a lot of cases, native plants might be totally missingfrom the surrounding area."

Considered a leader in his industry, Burke went to Washington,DC, last week to talk with legislators and others about the prosand cons of restoration initiatives. Not every forest fire requireshuman intervention to restore the landscape. "A lot ofecosystems in the West are fire-dependent," explained Burke,"and a lot of times the best thing to do is nothing."

That said, the severity of last year's fires "are theresult of 100 years of fire suppression combined with historicdrought. The damage was so dramatic in some places, Burke said,"the soil was sterilized because it was so hot."

You don't have to do landscape restoration to land agovernment contract. Every year, the federal government spendsabout $200 billion in "procurement services," accordingto John DiGiacomo, director of the Procurement Technical AssistanceCenter in Rockford, Illinois, and co-author of Win Government Contracts for Your SmallBusiness. "Last year, the government wrote 18½million contracts," says DiGiacomo. "That ran the gamutfrom buying peanut butter to major systems."

Savvy small-business owners should try to take advantage of thegovernment's goal to purchase 23 percent of its goods andservices from small businesses, with special consideration towomen-, disadvantaged- and disabled-owned small businesses.

Alluring as $200 billion may be, dealing with a complexapplication process and government bureaucracy scares off manysmall-business owners.

Fortunately, there is help. One of the best places to go forhelp is a local Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).There are 94 PTACs in operation today. Almost all the services thatPTACs provide are free to small businesses, but expect to be askedfor detailed information about your business, and you'll needinformation about successful contracts you complete.

"We tell everybody there are three secrets to winninggovernment contracts," said James Kleckner, a consultant forthe Rockford, Illinois-based PTAC and another co-author of WinGovernment Contracts for Your Small Business. "First,read; second, read; and.can you guess what the third secretis?"

"Business owners really do need to read the document, makenotes on what they don't understand, and use resources of thebuying office or PTAC."

Resource Guide
For more information on government contracts, see thefollowing:

Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the authorof 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. Fora free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," sendyour name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 ore-mail it to Prior contributed to this report.

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