For three days in November, Pittsburgh became the epicenter of federal acquisition for the A/E/C industry. The 2017 SAME Federal Small Business Conference was held Nov. 15-17 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. A record 2,554 attendees representing large and small businesses and more than a dozen federal agencies convened in the Steel City for unparalleled education and training and market research and networking opportunities.
SBC showcased more than 320 exhibitors in a bustling Exhibit Hall with an Innovation Theater that enabled technology demonstrations, offered face-to-meetings with agency representatives at matched networking tables, and included more than 20 hours of education sessions and business opportunity briefings that put small business in position to succeed with valuable information both on growing and developing your company. Sessions and briefings covered what to watch for in teaming relationships, legal and regulatory trends to monitor, and how to differentiate your firm from the competition, as well as specific project forecasts from the government for particular business-lines, such as horizontal and vertical construction, dredging, environmental remediation, and energy programs.
This year’s conference was highlighted by the presence of The Honorable Lucian Niemeyer, Assistant Secretary of Defense (Installations, Energy & Environment), who addressed the conference on Thursday morning and New York Times bestselling author Isaac Lidsky, who gave an inspire keynote address that traced his unique challenge of overcoming blindness as a young adult through a career as a lawyer and ultimately as an entrepreneur who has grown Florida-based ODC Construction, once a teetering small business, into a thriving success story in the residential construction business.
In addition to the offerings Wednesday through Friday, ahead of the conference on Tuesday SAME hosted training sessions designed for government attendees on topics such as “Time and Cost Management Best Practices,” “Red Flag Indicators,” “Improving Engagement Processes,” and “Project Risk Management.” The pre-conference agenda also included the SAME Board of Direction meeting and a business development seller-doer course offered by SMPS.
The 2017 SBC officially kicked off Wednesday with a Federal Engineering Leaders Panel moderated by SAME National President Col. Sal Nodjomian, P.E., F.SAME, USAF (Ret.) that featured insights on trends, challenges, and strategic focus areas of the U.S. Army, Department of the Navy, U.S. Air Force and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Panelists included Maj. Gen. Mike Wehr, P.E., USA, U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Maj. Gen. Tim Green, P.E., USAF, Director of Civil Engineers, Deputy Chief of Staff, Logistics, Engineering & Force Protection; Rear Adm. Bret Muilenburg, P.E., CEC, USN, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command and Chief of Civil Engineers; and Stella Fiotes, AIA, Acting Principal Executive Director, Office of Technology, Construction & Logistics, Department of Veterans Affairs. The leaders each briefed several minutes on their respective agencies and then participated in a facilitated Q&A.
Among the key takeaways, Gen. Wehr committed that engaging early is critical for small businesses that want to work for the Army. Early engagement facilitates good decision-making and helps build productive relationships. For the Air Force, increasing the pool of small businesses that compete and bring solutions to the table is paramount. The Air Force relies on the professionalism and technical competence of industry to deliver for the mission and collaboration is essential to making that possible. Adm. Muilenburg relayed that the Navy is going to have renewed emphasis on urgency and execution. These two traits are key, as the global maritime environment is riskier than ever before and it needs to be able to be fast in identifying needs and delivery for the mission. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, modernizing infrastructure is a top priority. The agency is committed to providing the right building at the right place at the right time.
For each of the agencies, two overarching themes emerged: resilience and outreach. Building facilities and infrastructure that can withstand disasters, combat cyber threats, and endure changing mission priorities to be relevant and sustainable into the future is a preeminent goal. Additionally, the government is committed to working to ensure that the nation’s industrial base remains competitive and working towards meeting the nation’s engineering needs.
After the opening session, throughout Day One, SBC attendees could visit the Exhibit Hall, sit in on business opportunity briefings, or attend education sessions on topics such as “Surety Bonds: Empowering Contractors and Strategically Building Businesses,” “Challenges & Opportunities Working in the Overseas Environment, “Fundamentals of Teaming on Design-Build Projects,” and “Award Protests: The Good, Bad, & Ugly.”
Day One concluded with a networking reception in the Exhibit Hall, where attendees could continue on conversations with exhibitors in a casual setting.
Finding Your Vision
Day Two at SBC started with a presentation by The Honorable Lucian Niemeyer, whose office oversees the Defense Department’s $880 billion real property portfolio that encompasses more than 500 installations, 562,000 buildings and structures, and 25 million acres. Niemeyer addressed the Secretary of Defense’s priorities and how they relate to the defense industrial base, specifically the A/E/C industry and project delivery: improve readiness; increase military capabilities; increase lethality; and reform business practices.
The assistant secretary touched on the concerns of military construction projects falling behind schedule and how that impacts readiness. There are several factors that may be at play in causing this trend; it will be up to industry and government to identify the issues and find ways to improve processes. Niemeyer also touched on the new National Defense Authorization Act and additional reporting requirements, and brought up the importance of benchmarking now where the challenges are and the opportunities to improve business practices.
Col. Nodjoimian and SAME Small Business Council Chair Patricia Bonilla then presented the SAME Small Business Awards. This year’s honorees are Burgos Group and CMS Corp. for Small Business Support to DOD Programs; to Amec Foster Wheeler for Support to Small Business Programs; to Joshua Frank, RSM Federal, with the Industry Small Business Advocate Award; and to Jim O’Brien, P.E., F.SAME, of O’Brien Engineering Inc., with the Post Small Business Liaison Officer Award.
The morning session closed with a keynote address by Isaac Lidsky, author of Eyes Wide Open and owner of what Inc. Magazine called the “most eclectic resume in business.” A child actor who would go on to graduate Harvard at 19 and found an internet technology business, before returning to Harvard Law School and eventually serving as an attorney for the Department of Justice and as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, Lidsky progressively went blind from the ages of 13 to 25 due to an degenerative eye disease. Literally watching himself lose his eyesight would ultimately shape Lidsky’s resilient nature and his leadership style, characteristics that he utilized to turn around a struggling small business in Florida that has grown into a regional company with several hundred million dollars in annual revenue.
Lidsky left attendees with several takeaways for their own journeys through adversity, perhaps none more apt than asking ourselves “what precisely is my problem right now, and what precisely can I do about it?” As Lidsky stated, when he decided to always answer those two questions, that’s when he broke fear’s spell, because as he also assessed: “Fear is a profoundly destructive force. Fear distorts reality. Fear replaces the unknown with the awful.” Overcoming fear thus becomes the achievement that enables us to succeed; instead of rationalizations, justifications and excuses, we confront the problem with a clear vision.
Day Two at SBC included more business opportunity briefings featuring presenters with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Air Force Civil Engineer Center, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Department of State Overseas Buildings Operations. Thursday also featured the first networking roundtables, which gave small businesses the chance to make appointments with large business and federal agencies to discuss upcoming acquisition opportunities and to learn more about doing business in the federal arena. Education sessions covered a diversity of topics, such as “Preparing for Life After Being Small,” “Prospect Meetings are NOT About Making Sales,” and “Debriefing: A Business Development Opportunity?”
Thursday also featured the second annual CEO Roundtable, which welcomed more than 30 senior industry and government leaders to candidly discuss project delivery challenges and ways forward, and then wrapped up in the evening with a networking reception in the Exhibit Hall.
Become the Standard
Day Three in Pittsburgh offered networking roundtables, business opportunity briefings including insights on the Department of Energy’s small business program, and education sessions centered on partnering, teaming, and growing your company into a large business, with topics such as “Partnering the Old Fashioned Way,” “Navigating The Mentor Protégé /Joint Venture Maze,” “Why You? A Large Business Perspective,” and “Graduation…Celebration or Devastation?”
The 2017 SBC came to close around midday with closing keynote speeches by Dr. James Galvin, SES, Acting Director of the Department of Defense Office of Small Business Programs, and Jackie Robinson-Burnette, who until early November was Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Government Contracting & Business Development at the Small Business Administration. She recently moved on to a new position in the private sector, providing access to capital for small businesses, but she has been instrumental in many of the recent changes within federal contracting including the All Small Mentor-Protégé Program.
Dr. Galvin outlined some of the ongoing changes, both in effect and being discussed, at the Defense Department regarding federal acquisition and how small businesses may be impacted. The main item is category management and consolidating services for greater inefficiencies for taxpayer dollars. However, such approaches could impact the small business community depending on how they are carried out and the Office of Small Business Programs is working to ensure the voice of small businesses is heard in the larger discussion ongoing in the acquisition community.
Robinson-Burnette reminded small businesses in the audience that they can control their success. You can “be the standard” she said, on how you do business and that will have a lasting impact. She also addressed many of the improvements that have taken place at the Small Business Administration in recent years, notably an emphasis on making it easier for small companies to operate in the federal space by improving processes. During her time there, she emphasized to agency staff, to consider: “if customers had a choice, would they still come to you?” Thinking about how well your systems work for those who rely on them can be the critical factor in assessing their value and their positive impact.
Following the closing session, SBC attendees were able to choose from three networking luncheons featuring expert speakers specific to small business types: women-owned; service-disabled veteran-owned and veteran-owned; and 8(a) and minority-owned. This new offering at the conference aims to give small businesses insights that can help them directly as they plan their way ahead for 2018 and beyond.
Photos, Presentations & 2018
The 2017 SBC set an attendance record with 2,554 attendees—up from 2,346 in 2016, 2,067 in 2015, 1,866 in 2014, and 1,653 in 2013. The conference has grown more than 60 percent in the last five years and with it headed back to New Orleans in 2018, will surely again be the ONE conference where small businesses can grow their presence in the public sector architecture, engineering, and construction marketplace; where large businesses can engage with the best subcontracting and teaming partners; and where government agencies can conduct above-board networking and market research, and support their small business missions for the years ahead.
Presentations from the 2017 SBC are available under the “learn” tab at www.samesbc.org by searching for a particular session. Photos are available at SAME’s flickr page. Recap the event on social media using #SAMESBC.
Thank you to all the sponsors, speakers, exhibitors, and attendees and to the Pittsburgh Post for helping make the 2017 Small Business Conference a success!