In a locked room in a Frederick industrial park, a technician displayed one of his company's latest projects. He placed a satellite phone, a laptop computer, a camera and recording equipment in an ordinary-looking suitcase, snapped the steel latch shut, and voila: a mobile information center for use by military intelligence.
The phone and other gear draw power from the suitcase, which can be connected to the battery of a military vehicle or any conventional power outlet in the world.
The product is an achievement. Winning the contract to build it was a bigger one.
Joel Tootill, chief operating officer at Engineering Systems Solutions in Frederick, which designed the suitcase system, described the process: pitching for the work, waiting for bidding to open, doing research and preparing a bid, then waiting more. It's an "onerous task," Tootill said, that in the end "has a lot to do with relationships."
The number of Frederick businesses with government contracts surged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which sent the U.S. government, already the world's biggest spender, on a shopping spree. Defense spending on outside contracts totaled more than $200 billion last year, according to the Pentagon. Although the bulk of them go to a handful of conglomerates, those companies give out tens of thousands of subcontracts: rich pickings for small businesses, if they know how to get them.
Last month, ESS -- a 120-employee business owned by a disabled veteran -- planned and organized, pro bono, a conference aimed at teaching local businesses how to win government work. The meeting was sponsored by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) and Strengthening the Mid-Atlantic Region for Tomorrow, an organization that promotes science and technology partnerships in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. It drew about 400 participants.
For some, such as Charles Asmar, owner of Eldar Internet Solutions in Urbana, the scene at the Frederick Holiday Inn was a first exposure. "I'm just here to meet some people and see what comes of it," he said, scanning a crowd of contractors who all seemed to know one another. "It would be excellent to break into this."
Frederick's richest source of government work is Fort Detrick, whose transition from Cold War-era biological weapons development to post-9/11 biodefense work pumps more than $500 million a year into the local economy. With 7,800 employees, Detrick is Frederick's largest employer and a chief client for scores of small businesses, from cargo haulers to encryption specialists, nestled in the county's industrial parks.
Over the next decade, Detrick plans to spend more than $3 billion to build new facilities for tenants including the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the agency whose scientists helped investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks; and the Department of Homeland Security's new National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center.
In the crowd at the conference, Nicholas Hill, manager of government contracts for the Winchester, Va.-based construction firm Howard Shockey & Sons, scoffed at speakers who advised the crowd to surf the government's Web sites for work opportunities.
"Right. When you get there, the job's already gone," said Hill, whose firm has done several high-profile government projects. "You've got to get in there earlier."
Bartlett, dismayed that the Detrick spending that he has backed in Congress has been flowing outside Maryland, has thrown his weight behind the effort to open a "one-stop shop" at Detrick next year. The facility, near Detrick's campus, will be staffed with advisers to help local companies qualify for government work and connect with the base's 32 organizations and their contracting officers.
It can take years for a firm to become eligible for government work, depending on how technical or secret the projects are, plus thousands of dollars in upfront costs. "The minute you start wooing an agency, it takes 18 months to two years before you get any work," said Jo Ann Brown, ESS's business development manager. Brown planned last month's conference, leaning on big contractors to speak, exhibit and connect with local counterparts.
The best way to make government connections, some say, is to hire them. ESS employs a half-dozen Fort Detrick alumni. "You have to hire people from these organizations in the hope that their connections will bring you business," Tootill said.
Michael Stitely, ESS's director of contracts, is a former contracting officer at Detrick. "It's like night and day to see what small businesses deal with," he said. "Every government contracting officer should spend a year working with a small business so they know the challenges that they face."
Bartlett's office has taken Stitely up on his suggestion and is working with ESS to implement such a program.
Looking to expand its business with the intelligence community, ESS next year will finish building a "a secure compartmented information facility" where workers with security clearances of top secret and above will build intelligence-gathering devices.
The company also plans a foray into computer forensics, the type of code-cracking work used to extract terrorism-related information from hard drives found in Afghanistan three years ago or evidence linked to corporate crime from company computers.
ESS hopes to win the work by deploying an intelligence-gathering device of its own.
Scott Walker, director of the company's mobile information technology division, is a former Army computerized weapons systems specialist and son of a military intelligence officer. He was behind the suitcase project and other defense work. "I'll build you anything you want," said Walker, 43.
But first, he builds relationships.
"Most of my customers are veterans. Some of them I actually fought" alongside, he said. When pitching new business, "that speaks for itself."