MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
Within the Department of Defense lies a critical component to supporting small businesses in the United States: the Office of Small Business Programs. The program supports and empowers small businesses in five categories: veteran-owned; service-disabled veteran-owned; historically underutilized business zone; small disadvantaged and women-owned.
Marine Corps Systems Command is home to one of those program offices.
MCSC handles the acquisition of equipment and technology Marines need to be prepared and effective in combat. To facilitate these functions, MCSC awards about $2 billion a year in contracts. Approximately $500 million of those contracts are allocated to small businesses, according to Austin Johnson, the MCSC Office of Small Business Programs director. Johnson’s office plays a vital role in helping businesses navigate the process of federal contracts.
“In our advisory role, we advise the senior leadership on small business policy and regulation,” he explained. “I see myself as a mediator between small businesses and the government. Although we can’t award contracts in my office, we can advocate on behalf of the small businesses to the people that do award the contracts.”
On the advisory side, the OSBP provides training for program managers on topics such as the small business utilization in contracts and communicating with industry. Johnson said he encourages the PMs to get involved with small businesses in a variety of ways, including considering opportunities for small businesses at all stages of the acquisition life cycle.
On the small business advocacy side, the program office operates as the “gateway to the command,” and establishing a line of communication with Johnson is key to getting started. He encourages businesses to not only browse through the OSBP website, but to ensure they send an email, as it goes directly to him.
“Once I receive the email in my inbox, I add the information to my vendor file,” he said. “So, all my contract specialists, when they're doing their market research, have access to it. I can build a [distribution] list so when we're doing upcoming events, I can send [the business] an invite.”
Along with keeping businesses in the loop, he ensures they have the proper certification before setting up their SAM.gov and SBA Dynamic Small Business Search profiles and collects capability statements to provide contacts to the right people.
“Once I receive their capability statement, and I verify their capabilities can meet a requirement within the command, I'll share that with the respective program office,” Johnson said. “They can then request a meeting with me, or if they already know what program they can support, they can ask me to help facilitate a meeting with that particular program office.”
From there, businesses can talk with program managers and contracting officers to find out about upcoming projects, the requirements of the contracts and proposals and a general walk-through of the acquisition process, said Deputy Director of Contracts, Christine Kuney. She added that attending events hosted by MCSC contracting and OSBP is a great way for businesses hoping to work with MCSC to gain valuable insight.
How to do business with MCSC
Small businesses play an important role in keeping MCSC running smoothly, but there are challenges. Kuney feels there are two key factors: federal contracts are nuanced and small businesses usually have one or two focus areas of service. To help address this issue, the OSBP and the Contracting Office offer quarterly Small Business Roundtables and Industry Days.
The two offices collaborate by hosting Small Business Roundtables to give businesses the chance to network with each other and learn more about the OSBP and MCSC as a whole. This is a jumping-off point for small businesses to get a firm grasp on the MCSC contracting process.
“We give small businesses an opportunity to figure out how to do business with us,” said Kuney. “We provide all of the websites and resources they need and points of contact. So, for new businesses, or even ones who have not done business with the Marine Corps in a while, it gives them that information.”
Once companies have information on how to do business with MCSC, they have to find projects with the command. Industry Days give small businesses the chance to get contacts and information on projected needs for MCSC. Program leads give detailed presentations on their future projects and allow industry partners to reach out one-on-one to assess their viability of fulfilling the contract. These events also help the Contracting Office because businesses can give procedural feedback from their perspective.
“The more information we get, the more we can clarify,” said Kuney. “The more input they give us, we write a better requirement and it allows us to solicit a solid [request for information] that industry can propose to.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, participation at both of these events was primarily from local businesses, within either the local community or the East Coast. With the prevalence of online events and virtual meeting tools, MCSC’s event participant pool grew drastically.
“Now, when we do them virtually, I can have businesses joining in from San Diego, California or Orlando, Florida,” Johnson explained. “And so, from that perspective, those virtual events have paid huge dividends.”
An added benefit to attending these events is small businesses can get exposure to large businesses, the companies who typically are the prime contractor on larger contracts, said MCSC Director of Contracts Johany Deal. While some projects are just too big for them to reasonably compete, there is still the opportunity for a small business to contribute as a subcontractor to a prime.
“There’s no small business that could provide the prototype of an ACV [Amphibious Combat Vehicle],” Kuney explained, “but there might be a small business that provides a component that could then contact a prime contractor, and look at some subcontracting opportunities.”
Kuney said on some contracts, the percentage of small business subcontractors is an evaluation factor. This requirement not only provides small businesses the ability to get in the door of federal contracting work, but it also benefits the overall marketplace.
“DoD has small business goals that each organization is required to meet,” she explained. “But beyond that, keeping a competitive marketplace is important to not only the government but to consumers as a whole.”
What types of projects have businesses completed
MCSC purchases for two groups of consumers: the local command and the Marine Corps overall. The command itself is comprised of roughly 2,500 people and requires services and equipment to accomplish its mission. Small businesses are often strong candidates for contracts fulfilling roles like shredding services, training, computers, human resources and project management services. Using contract support for these services not only accounts for cyclical manpower needs but also capitalizes on budgets restraints.
Johnson explained that the DoD budget typically allocates about 40% of funds for services and the remaining 60% for equipment (52%) and research and development (8%).By contracting out equipment fulfillment or other services, the command can use program funds to get goods and services for a fixed period of time while saving money overall according to Kuney.
“A contract might be a base year with four option years, and the program is executed within three years,” she detailed. “We don't have to exercise those last two options which saves the government money, as opposed to hiring somebody like me who's going to be a permanent employee.”
Small businesses play a part in the day-to-day operations within MCSC, but they are also key players in the nuts and bolts of the command and fielding new equipment to the warfighter. They fulfill projects ranging from vehicle armor upgrades to upgraded training equipment. Going forward, the DoD plans to push hard for small business competition in microelectronics, missiles and munitions, high-capacity batteries, castings and forgings, and critical minerals and materials. The State of Competition in the Defense Industrial Base report discusses the current state of small businesses in defense contracting and lays out a plan to expand and diversify the industrial base, something Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks said is critical to our success.
“As DoD works to innovate, bring new technologies into our supplier base, and develop the workforce of the future, American small businesses and our U.S. industrial base must expand not only to improve resiliency, but to ensure we are able to meet the needs of our warfighters for tomorrow’s high-tech challenges,” she explained in a press release.
As DoD works to innovate, bring new technologies into our supplier base, and develop the workforce of the future, American small businesses and our U.S. industrial base must expand not only to improve resiliency, but to ensure we are able to meet the needs of our warfighters for tomorrow’s high-tech challenges. Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks
Benefits of choosing small business
Keeping the relationship fair and reasonable is the crux of expanding the small business base within defense contracting. One way that the government fulfills that need is a 3% profit minimum for all awarded contracts; this is a huge guarantee for a small business. Johnson said this is a key component to fulfilling the government’s obligation to maintain a strong industrial base and proves to be a mutually beneficial relationship.
“The benefit for the businesses is they're able to earn a profit,” he explained. “They're able to contribute to the national economy because they're keeping people employed. The advantage for the government is, of course, we're getting the best products at the best price…”
Challenges like COVID-19 show the fragility and necessity of small businesses in the U.S. From manufacturing medical supplies to responding to health crisis or providing IT support to keep commands running, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. With the OSBP program, there is an advocate to fight for the survival of small businesses so they may continue to contribute key capabilities and services to our warfighters.
“We're helping to sustain those companies,” stated Johnson. “So that when we need them, they're around.”
To learn more about the OSBP, listen to the MCSC podcast, Equipping the Corps. Johnson talked with Manny Pacheco about the program and how small businesses can effectively get into government contracting.