George E. Jordan nj.com
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Eleanor Kubacki, the founder of a N.J.-based public relations firm, shares her journey as part of the SBA’s All Small Mentor Protégé Program. The program encourages large companies and small businesses to form joint ventures and apply for government contracts.
Two years ago, Eleanor Kubacki was struggling to win federal contracts for her advertising and public relations business.
Kubacki expected the mountains of paperwork and government red tape, but never anticipated she’d hit rock bottom in the basement ballroom of a seedy Baltimore hotel at a sparsely attended Small Business Administration match-making event. She said it felt desperate to be there handing out flyers and talking to anyone willing to hear about her company, the EFK Group in Trenton.
“It was probably one of the most bizarre situations,” Kubacki said. “Going after federal work, you start on ground zero. It’s all about tenacity. You end up in places doing things that you can’t even imagine. It was a real turning point in my life.”
Within a year of the awkward Baltimore meet-and-greet, Kubacki’s fortunes started to change.
EFK was approved three years ago as one of only 13 New Jersey companies in the SBA’s All Small Mentor Protégé Program, which encourages large companies and small businesses to form joint ventures and apply for government contracts, according to SBA regional spokesman Matthew R. Coleman.
Kubacki convinced one of the nation’s largest branding firms, Ogilvy, to partner with EFK, whose status as a certified women-owned business in Trenton’s federal HUBZone made the pair eligible for set aside federal contacts designated for certified minority- and women-owned businesses.
Ogilvy-EFK’s first contract was a small deal with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, but they then hit the jackpot in December: a five-year, $13 million contract with the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“This is brilliant. You grow with them. You have shared resources and opportunities,” Kubacki said of Ogilvy. “It’s like an American dream for a small business to all of a sudden have these open doors and opportunities to learn from the best.
“It’s a dream come true.”
Kubacki, who stumbled across the protégé program browsing the SBA website, said she sought government work after her advertising clients began switching from monthly retainers to one-off assignments. That trend pointed to an unstable future for her 20-year-old business and its 15 full-time employees. So she decided to invest half her time and EFK’s capital preparing the company for federal contract work.
EFK was approved in 2018 for the SBA’s All Small Mentor Protégé Program, which permits joint ventures between large firms and qualified small businesses to seek contracts across the vast network of federal agencies, including the mammoth Department of Defense.
There are benefits – and challenges – for everyone involved.
Under SBA rules, protégés like EFK have near total control over the joint venture and the day-to-day operation of the contract. Small businesses also learn from a larger company and use its qualifications to compete for federal contracts that the smaller partner otherwise would not qualify. For their part, the mentors can capture contracts reserved only for small businesses.
“It is not easy. There are a number of steps to go through. These are not steps you go through overnight,” said Tony Silva, Ogilvy’s government practice group managing director, whose team works with EFK.
“The real value in the partnership is two-way,” he said. “There are not a lot of HUBZone, woman-owned businesses doing what Eleanor is doing. She sold me on the idea.”
The partners – and they both agree - must be a good match for the collaboration to work. For example, the SBA’s stipulation that gives the protégé control may frustrate the larger company if the small business partner doesn’t have the management experience, or the companies don’t see eye to eye on contracts with complex performance requirements.
That’s not the case now that this program is available. Silva said layoffs and economic shock from the pandemic have prompted a wide range of former military officers and corporate consultants to start small businesses to compete for government contracts.
There also are more companies in the pipeline. The Biden administration is expected to increase opportunities for small businesses based in distressed communities as part of a strategy to create jobs for women- and minority-owned businesses. With that federal support, Silva said the SBA mentorship initiative gives small entrepreneurs the experience to compete for government contracts in their communities.
“There are a lot of great people who are entering government contracting in a significant way,” he said. “Why shouldn’t a municipal or county or state government give money to businesses in their local communities?”
As soon as EFK landed the five-year Science Foundation contract, Kubacki began to plot her company’s growth so she can bid on larger government contracts.
Last year, EKF bought a majority stake in Winning Strategies, the politically connected Newark advertising and branding company founded by Jim McQueeny, the former chief of state for the late Democrat Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
EFK and Winning Strategies set out as a single firm at the start of the year and Kubacki said she is in negotiations to acquire other struggling New Jersey advertising firms.
“When I went there, the mentor program was so young. It was sort of that dream in the sky, and I really didn’t know how to obtain it,” Kubacki said. “Little did I know it was around the corner. It happened very quickly.”
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