Tankers bring host of contracting opportunities to McConnell Air Force Base

Exhibit Arts employee Larry Sexton sets up one of the trade show displays the company makes for federal agencies. (July 1, 2014)
Exhibit Arts employee Larry Sexton sets up one of the trade show displays the company makes for federal agencies. (July 1, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Contracting opportunities at McConnell Air Force Base have ramped up for area businesses as the southeast Wichita installation prepares for the first of 36 new KC-46A air refueling tankers.

On Monday, McConnell officials formally celebrated preparations for receiving the new tankers by hosting a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of $197 million in new construction projects tied to receiving the new aircraft. In all, Congress has allotted $219 million for tanker work at the base.

Even aside from that influx of new contract opportunities – mostly construction-related – federal contracting officials said there are routinely a host of other contracting opportunities at the base, separate and apart from work tied to the new tanker.

“We’re always posting things, … everything from grounds and custodial, folks that run the dining facility, fire-fighting equipment, repair and renovation of existing facilities,” said Dennis Fry, small business specialist in Air Force contracting at McConnell.

A couple of owners of area companies that do contracting work for McConnell as well as for other federal agencies said that while there are opportunities, competition for government contracts has intensified.

“When the commercial economy was not doing well, the government economy was pretty stable,” said Beth Harshfield, owner of Exhibit Arts. “Now, it’s almost like it’s switched. … Where you used to get 10 to 15 bids on a project, now you’re getting 40 to 50.”

Harshfield and her husband, Vernon, started Exhibit Arts in 2000. The company provides management and trade show services, and marketing and promotional products. She said its first federal contracting work came through doing projects for Navy recruiting, and that soon expanded to Air Force recruiting and other federal agencies through the Government Services Administration. The company employs 18 at its Wichita headquarters and fulfillment center, and another 86 employees across the country who work on its federal contracts.

For the past nine years, Exhibit Arts also has provided postal services at McConnell, delivering mail from the post office to the dormitories that house the base’s enlisted personnel, Harshfield said.

Curtis Whitten’s Wichita-based firm VendTech Enterprise also has a contract at McConnell. He provides equipment and services such as surveillance cameras. But that’s just a slice of his company’s work, which extends to other military bases and federal facilities outside Kansas.

Whitten, who earned a criminal justice degree at Wichita State University, started VendTech in 1998 as a vending machine company. In 2005 he changed its business at the advice of the Small Business Administration to a provider of security guards and security systems for federal agencies and facilities, as well as administrative support services.

Security, Whitten said, was his “core competency.” He said he started small by going with local contracts such as the city of Wichita’s transit center and eventually expanded into federal security contracts. VendTech currently employs about 100.

One of VendTech’s newest contracts is to provide guards for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan. Whitten’s company also has 15 percent ownership interest in a strategic partnership called VT-SGI, which has 738 guards and other employees at federal facilities in Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis and Des Moines.

“Our success has really come from the Small Business Administration … their understanding of what was our core competency and developing a strategic partnership,” Whitten said. “For us it was all about getting the right strategic partner, being able to team and learn as much as we can. It’s a very complex process.”

Whitten said the strategic partnership – he declined to name the partner company – helped VendTech get the capacity and expertise to pursue and win bigger federal contracts, which he said were labor and capital intense. He said increasing staffing or buying more equipment to pursue a new contract at times was difficult because he couldn’t get financing from a bank, even though his company was bringing in revenue.

Wayne Bell, district director for the SBA’s Wichita district office, said on average, annual federal contract opportunities in Kansas total between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. He said about 23 percent of those contracts are open to bid by small businesses. “A good bit of that work is landed with local firms,” Bell said.

For businesses starting out in federal contracting, he said, his office almost always refers them to the Kansas Procurement Technical Assistance Center, or PTAC, at WSU. Kansas PTAC assists businesses with getting their information on a federal awards management database, and offers free classes to help businesses navigate the world of federal contracting.

The process that PTAC takes small businesses through “really can formalize and standardize processes to a point that the business has improved its operations in general … to be able to capture high quality contracts and other things that come outside the federal government,” Bell said.

Scott Knapp, deputy director of Kansas PTAC, said the organization in Kansas was established in February 2013. Besides working out of offices at WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research, the federally funded organization maintains an office at Johnson County Community College.

“We teach about basic government contracting, capability statements, and work with companies on understanding (contract) proposals,” Knapp said.

PTAC also will help small businesses with state and local government contract proposals and processes, he added. “We’re heaviest in federal (contracts) but we work at all levels.”

Kansas PTAC will hold a free class on competing for government contracts from 1 to 3 p.m. Aug. 20 at the WSU Hughes Metropolitan Complex at 29th North and Oliver.

McConnell’s Fry said his office has a close working relationship with PTAC and SBA.

“We have a common interest in creating opportunities for small business,” Fry said. “We’ve got a good network here and that helps.”

Contracting realities

Small business owners who work on federal contracts said competing for and getting the work isn’t easy.

While Whitten said he “highly recommends” small businesses look at federal contracts, he said a small business could bid on 20 different contracts just to land a winner.

“I always tell people it’s about perseverance,” he said.

And, he said, the contracts are increasingly cost-competitive.

“The dollars have shrank,” he said. “You’ve got to be very competitive … I’ve told staff we need to get as lean as we can (when bidding on new federal contracts).”

Harshfield said she’s learned to develop a balance between federal contracting and commercial, or private sector, work. For example, her company counts Cargill Meat Solutions and McCauley Propellers among its commercial customers.

“I think it’s important to not lean too far to one side or the other,” she said. “We try to be very versatile exploring new markets.”