On one track were procurement officials. On the other were experienced contractors. And between them, they would help spark more business for hundreds of small and minority-owned companies.
At least that was the idea when more than 250 people showed up last week for the Prince George’s Community College’s Center for Minority Business Development all-day business conference in Upper Marlboro.
Using two parallel discussion panel tracks, the conference offered interactive sessions on contracting challenges, tips for success and game plans for procedural change. This was the center’s first procurement conference, held April 26 at Camelot by Martin’s.
“One of the hardest things to do is to network with actual procurement people outside their world,” said Davienne C. Neptune, vice president of marketing and sales at Creative Business Solutions in Mitchellville.
Neptune got her chance when a panel talk on small and minority-owned vendors paired groups of procurement officials with business leaders to brainstorm strategies for helping minority-owned contactors. Neptune’s group included a representative from the Departments of Health and Human Services, and Transportation, as they came up with the suggestion to induce set-asides if the agencies could find at least two qualified minority-owned businesses.
Neptune said her business does mainly federal work in consulting and financial support, but she attended the conference to learn how to expand into local and state contracting.
Dyonne Gleaton of Global Glass & Film in Mitchellville described the conference as “broad, but to the point.”
Gleaton attended a panel talk on best practices in minority business enterprise programs, in which he discussed what recourse is available to subcontractors whose names are used by prime contractors to obtain set-asides without telling them. He said the panel did not address the entirety of his concern but helped him know businesses could contact trade associations to help mediate problems, so there would be no repercussions for reporting these issues.
He said the conference helped him see the “speckle of light” that represented hope for more business.
“Even if you know all these things already, you always need refreshers,” said Keith Logan, a principal at FSJ Enterprises, a management firm in Upper Marlboro. “It makes you say, ‘You know what, man? That was on my list.’ You get the momentum to make things happen.”
Among the more lively sessions was one focused on doing business with Prince George’s County. Eben G. Smith, contract compliance officer for the county’s Minority Business Development Division, used a call-and-answer technique with the phrase, “And that’s why I don’t get business,” to show businesses common mistakes they make when trying to contract with the county. He emphasized checking the county’s website for bids, attending pre-proposal conferences and making sure a business is ready to do the work when bidding.
“You have to lock stuff in and have résumés on hand,” said Dennis D. Smith of N House Design & Technology in Cheverly. “It’s hard to lock people in at the beginning of a job.”
Daniel N. Mushala of Residential Real Estate Corp. in Upper Marlboro said the conference helped him understand how to connect with customers on an emotional level and how to find them.
“The trick is combining all the stuff you pick up,” he said.
Some newcomers, including James W. Neal Sr., who is looking to get his family-owned construction business, Hal-Cor, off the ground in Aquasco, praised the conference.
“I got quite a bit out of it as far as ideas to use for my construction company. There was a lot on getting to know your customer,” he said.
At the beginning and end of the conference, roundtable groups of business leaders and procurement officials also tackled the obstacles business encountered while trying to win contracts.
“The contracting process steals so much time,” said Cory Clay, a former nonprofit worker looking for business through her writing skills.
The roundtable group also proposed bringing a list of frequent complaints and suggestions regarding contracting before all levels of government. It advised business leaders to make sure they had on board an attorney, banker and accountant, as those were essential to business development. Other suggestions included having a plan to assess growth after five years, to decide if an exit strategy is needed and establishing a dedicated business development entity.
The college’s center was established in 2009 through a county-mandated $5 million grant from the Peterson Cos. of Fairfax, Va., in exchange for county funds to support Peterson's National Harbor development in Oxon Hill. Its goal is to prepare and enable local minority-owned businesses to obtain contracts at National Harbor and other major projects.