"You don't want to be a perennial subcontractor," Jack Ezzell, president and CEO of Zel Technologies (ZelTech), advised an industry crowd during a conference sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
Being a prime contractor often is crucial to establishing a performance record and a long-term relationship with the Pentagon and other federal agencies, according to Ezzell, a retired Air Force colonel whose 15-year-old research, engineering and consulting firm has won lucrative contracts focusing on military command and control, battle management and intelligence operations.
"Our company is not atypical of the small-business community," Ezzell said. "There are lots of them out there who are prepared to provide quality products and will assist and be a vital part of transformation."
But Ezzell noted that small businesses often must overcome obstacles such as the growing practice of contract "bundling," by which agencies merge two or more contracts into one, making it difficult for small businesses to meet the combined requirements.
"The challenge when you bundle is that there are fewer opportunities for small companies to go after the big jobs," Ezzell said. "However, you'll see more and more tag teams emerging in the marketplace. You'll see more and more joint ventures of small businesses where we come together to go after a large contract and bring on major firms as subcontractors."
Agencies' required set-asides for small businesses also can lead to unique challenges for those businesses, according to Ezzell. "Early on [in the contracting process], in many cases, small businesses are courted," he said. "We're brought to the table because there are set-aside percentages that have to be met, but then ... the government doesn't follow up on small-business contract awards as aggressively as it should."
Mark Lumer, the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command's principal assistant for contracting, agreed that military agencies must improve their efforts to reach out to small businesses, particularly those that offer specialized "niche" solutions. "Right now, we don't do a good job of that," Lumer said.
Defense officials also must strengthen their partnerships with all industry sectors, according to Major Gen. Dan Dick, the Joint Forces Command's director of transformation.
"I truly think it's imperative that we, the government, do better at articulating and talking with ... industry on what we're doing and where we're going," Dick said. "We have too many palace guards out there. We've got too many barriers to communication."
Dick said industry engineers and the military "operators" of their products also must begin collaborating earlier in the acquisition cycle, as part of a "spiral development" approach to transforming war-fighters' capabilities. "We can build a little, test a little and build a little bit more," he said. "We've done this for a long time, but we need to do it even more."