Colleen Burns is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to ensuring that military installations, federal agencies and contractors give a required share of work to small businesses in El Paso and southern New Mexico.
Her official job title at the Small Business Administration – procurement center and commercial market representative – reveals little about what she really does or her independence and power.
The territory she covers is as daunting as it is vast, taking in Fort Bliss, four more military installations and three other federal institutions, plus all the prime contractors they do business with.
Nationally, there are only about 65 procurement center representatives, or PCRs, as they’re called. Few of them are also qualified to work with the private sector as a commercial market representative, as Burns is. The nearest PCRs are in Albuquerque, Phoenix and Dallas.
Burns’ duties might seem incompatible. On one hand, she counsels small-business owners on how to meet federal contracting standards, win contracts and go from baby subcontractor to a prime contractor, handling multiple jobs worth many millions.
On the other, Burns is like a sheriff who rides alone in a huge territory. Call her number in SBA’s area office in Downtown El Paso, and you’ll get Burns herself or her voice mail, not a secretary or assistant.
Before becoming SBA’s first PCR here in 2009, Burns spent two years as chief of contracting at the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso.
Previously, she held a top-secret post at the Pentagon as chief of contracting for the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, or REF.
The REF’s mission was to make sure troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had quick access to the newest military and private-sector equipment and emerging technology.
“Everything I did was top secret,” she said. “After a while, that got kind of old.”
When the IBWC position opened in El Paso, Burns jumped at it. “El Paso is better than the Pentagon,” she said.
From 1995 to 2005, Burns was director of contracting and small business at Fort Bliss.
Because of her knowledge of government contracts and agencies, as well as their shortcomings, El Paso Inc.’s request for an interview raised concerns in the local SBA office.
SBA’s public information officer, Adrian Madrigal, was on hand for the interview, during which Burns sometimes spoke guardedly.
At one point, Burns was describing the difficulties in handling the sudden influx of hundreds of millions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 when she turned to Madrigal and asked, “Is this too controversial to say?”
He answered, “If you have a question about it, then maybe you shouldn’t.”
So she didn’t. But she did speak extensively about how she helps small businesses get federal contracts, why local contractors didn’t get more work at Fort Bliss, and how big small businesses really are.
Q: You work with the Small Business Administration. What exactly do you do?
I’m what’s called a procurement center representative, and I act as a liaison between small businesses and the government, trying to find procurement opportunities for them. That, in a nutshell, is what I do, but it encompasses lot of things.
It encompasses training and counseling. I do procurement outreach for different small businesses.
Q: At SBA, when you talk about small businesses, what does that mean in terms of size, employees and finances?
It is based either on their employees or the dollar amount of revenues for the last three years. For example, for a construction company, the standard is $33.5 million in business over three years. So what you actually think is small is not really small.
Other types of companies might be based on the number of employees. Generally, under 500 employees for most mining and manufacturing industries, and $7 million in average annual receipts in most nonmanufacturing industries.
Q: Since you worked at Fort Bliss and the International Boundary and Water Commission, you must run into a lot people you’ve worked with before.
What’s interesting is a lot of the agencies I used to work for I’m now over, so that does help the small businesses, because I can get them in to see the appropriate people. It’s very helpful, not only in the contracting arena, but also with people actually initiate the requirements.
Q: In reviewing federal contracts, what do you look for?
Mainly, what I look for is to have them set aside for small business. So anything over $10,000 comes through me that is not already set aside for small business, I want to research and verify that a small business cannot do it.
Q: How much is supposed to go to small businesses in federal contracts?
It depends on the agency. It’s set by the agency. But the range that is supposed to go to small business overall is usually 22 or 23 percent in an agency like the Department of Defense.
Q: And civilian agencies like IBWC?
A civilian agency gets different percentages. IBWC does have a very high percentage. They’re actually higher than a DOD agency, but then sometimes they can’t meet their goals because they make them too high. IBWC is actually looking to renegotiate their goals.
Q: When construction at Fort Bliss was at its peak, El Paso contractors complained that they weren’t getting contracts. What was the problem?
Fort Bliss won big on the BRAC list. They received the most money, and then they had to move fast on the construction projects. The local contractors were not prepared to bond at the level they needed to win these projects. They were very upset.
Then, the rules for subcontracting were not in place. Even if they were listed as a subcontractor in a subcontracting plan, when the bid was submitted, once it was executed, they weren’t used.
Now because of the changes SBA has made, if you are submitted as a small contractor in a subcontracting plan, you have to be utilized or the contracting officer has to call you and tell you why. That was the big issue then.
Q: If bonding requirements were the main problem, how much are we talking about?
The problem was no contractor in El Paso could even get a bond for $30 million, and the projects were phenomenally large. We had seven different suites of Corps of Engineers projects that were dining halls and barracks and that sort of thing.
Q: So far larger than $30 million?
Yeah. They did set some projects aside and break pieces out, but it wasn’t enough. And then, the prime contractors brought their own subcontractors in, too.
The contractors’ complaints were legitimate, but at the rate at which we had to move, we had no choice. We were not prepared.
Q: But some El Paso contractors and subs have qualified, right?
Yes, but what happens is once you get these bonds, you can’t bid on other projects until the contract is signed, and that can take months. All your money and bonding capacity is tied up and you can’t go on to the next project.
Q: If they can’t qualify, what can they do to get in on the business?
I had already left the area then, but I believe the chambers of commerce and Fort Bliss and SBA went out and tried to tell the contractors about joint ventures and partnering, where they could have two or more contractors together and reduce the bonding level. Or putting a larger contract with a smaller contract, to win some of these bids.
They could try subcontracting, but we didn’t have a lot of luck with subcontracting until the SBA recently made the changes I mentioned.
Q: What’s your best advice for companies that want to get in on federal contracts and then stay in the game?
The best advice I can give to contractors and what I think they have learned is to not just stay on Fort Bliss, not to market themselves just to Fort Bliss. They’ve got to venture out. El Paso contractors used to just stay here and Fort Bliss was the only piece of pie in town. They can’t depend on Fort Bliss alone anymore.
Q: What else?
You have to diversify; that’s so important. There was construction, but now they have all these barracks and dining halls built out, and they’re going to need services. Contractors need to diversify to meet these needs if they just want to stay here in El Paso.
Q: Can you name some local companies that moved up from subcontractors to prime contractors at Fort Bliss?
Milivan Solutions, Barnhart Taylor, Vemac, Prime Irrigation and then Basil Glass, which has gone from the 8A program to the HUBZone to bigger contracts.
Q: What can you do if you see an agency hasn’t set enough work aside for small contractors?
If I find there are small businesses that can do a requirement when it comes across my desk, I contact the contracting officer informally and I tell them I have small businesses I believe can do this contract.
If they do not feel that way, we can move up the chain. I can go to my boss, they can go to theirs, and they can go all the way up. If I’m working with the Army, it could go all the way up to the secretary of the Army and the head of the SBA.
Ultimately, it is the agency’s decision. That’s why I have to be sure that I have the small businesses and my ducks in a row because I have to be able to win this.
Q: Can you stop a project?
Q: Have you done that lately?
I have talked to the contracting officer and not had to go any further. A lot of times, you just do this informally and they concede.
Q: How many contracts will you review in a month?
I probably look at 60 to 80. But I don’t look at the contracts; I look at them before they go out for solicitation. What comes to me is the small business coordination sheet, which is a synopsis of what the agency is buying or contracting for. I have to say whether I concur or don’t concur on that.
If I need more information, I can ask for the statement of work or the purchase request or the market research.
Q: Who divvies up the portions for small businesses?
Every agency has a small business specialist, like what I was at Fort Bliss and the IBWC. At every agency that issues over $100,000 a year in procurement, that person makes the decision and they tweak it monthly to see if they’re meeting their goals. They might say, “I’m not meeting my woman-owned business goal this month, so I need to make this go to a woman-owned small business to meet this requirement.”
Q: Which federal agencies do you oversee?
The VA, Cannon Air Force Base, White Sands Missile Range, Fort Bliss, IBWC, Holloman Air Force Base, La Tuna Federal Prison and William Beaumont Army Medical Center.
Q: That’s a lot of agencies for one person to keep an eye on. How can you ensure that enough of the work is going to small businesses?
I do everything I can. They’re required by law to send me the small business coordination sheet, but they also have their own internal controls. So hopefully, we have enough checks and balances, because they have their director of contracting, their small business specialist, their internal goals.
Then I have my surveillance reviews. I go out and check these things, and I go back five years. I can look at every contract that’s been issued and then pull a sampling and see what jumps out at me that’s not going to small business.
I came from the contracting world, so I know what to look for from my past experience.
Q: What are you looking for?
A number of things. We pull a sampling of contracts and then when we’re reviewing the contracts, if we see any kind of trends, we write a deficiency report.
Based on their deficiencies and rating, we can come back for a follow-on review the next year. Deficiency reports go to the top, so when this kind of thing happens, people are attentive, and they make changes.
Q: What kind of dollar amount are we talking about for projects you check in a given year?
I don’t track the total dollar amount. I track what we think we have influenced, what we think we have helped.
For example, what my supervisor and I came up with last year based on my reports was $109 million that I influenced towards various small business categories – over and above what the agencies had already identified.
Q: Are agencies meeting their 22 or 23 percent goals?
I would say the majority of DOD agencies are.
Q: And civilian agencies?
Some of them might be struggling due to different circumstances. For instance, we got caught with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money, and that was supposed to be for small businesses. However, the fact was we had to execute it so quickly. I’m not sure that I can discuss that.
Q: IBWC received $220 million in ARRA funds and had problems handling it, didn’t they?
They had a very small staff, and they had to execute very quickly. They did actively look for a lot of small businesses, but they have outlying areas such as Laredo and Brownsville. It’s hard to find small businesses right there, right then, at huge dollar amounts that can bond at that level.
They did look, I will say that, and they have met their goals in certain small categories, but not in every category. They’re a work in progress.
Q: What can you do if you see opportunities for subcontractors that aren’t in a synopsis?
We can make recommendations. A lot of contract people are very receptive. I have worked with a lot of these people. I hired a lot of these people, too. We have a good rapport.
Q: Is part of your job to help businesses find their way into federal contracts? What do you have to do to help them along?
Once they become a small business and want to do federal contracting, they should come and see me, because I have all the information on all the agencies. I know who to go see. I know whether their requirement fits with that agency. I can send them to the person they need to see, get them in the door, tell them how they need to market and what to bring. So many contractors are lost at that level.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.