SAYBR Contractors Inc. of Puyallup has a long list of military projects under its belt. But when a contract for work on the Yakima Armed Forces Reserve Center went out for bids last year, President Karen Say was not aware of the project. SAYBR got the contract, in large part because of a Spokane Valley woman who has made a business out of putting together federal procurement officers and small, minority-owned businesses.
Carla Wessel has parlayed contacts into contracts most of her working life. Her newest venture, Wessel and Associates, has already helped clients secure millions in federal government contracts, even though the business is only 15 months old. And often by working with procurement officers she has never even met.
She credits her abundantly clear gift of gab, but adds that her hate-to-lose mentality helps, too.
Wessel works sole-source and competitive projects. Many are set-asides for women and minorities under the U.S. Small Business Administration 8(a) program. She also locates contracts for service-disabled veterans, and small businesses in general.
She is not the area’s only resource; the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce offers a similar service, the Procurement Technical Assistance Center. The local SBA office also offers assistance.
More than 400 Washington companies participated in the 8(a) program in 2004. Nationally, the 8,900 8(a)-qualified companies captured $5.6 billion in federal contracts that year. According to the SBA, the contractors employed almost 200,000.
Wessel was introduced to the 8(a) program while working for Burton Construction Inc., a company that has since emerged from the program’s nine-year window of eligibility. After building up an extensive network of contacts, she says, some procurement officers suggested she think about taking on many of the other small businesses struggling to snare government work. In November 2004, she did just that, signing up two clients almost immediately. None of the companies she represents is from Spokane.
SAYBR was referred to Wessel by a Naval procurement officer. SAYBR was already a well-regarded company — in 2004, the SBA’s Seattle office gave Say its Minority Small Business Person of the Year award — but did not have the ability to keep track of all the federal work available.
Say was a skeptic when she interviewed Wessel, but says the Spokane woman has performed.
“It’s very challenging to get your foot in the door,” she says. “The difference is she has some relationships with some federal agencies that I did not.”
Wessel has been a ferocious relationship builder since the late 1980s. Networking breakfasts were big then, but fizzled as attendees fretted about the time away from work. Wessel, who earned a public relations degree at Gonzaga University, used names she collected at the breakfasts to keep participants exchanging sales leads by fax. She charged a monthly fee for the service.
A difficult pregnancy forced her to set aside that business. But she powered up her affability again in the late 1990s as a representative for Apple Computer. Wessel admits she was so computer illiterate she bought a Gateway computer for the job, not realizing its operating system was totally incompatible with Apple’s.
No problem. The Spokane group became one of the top sellers of Apple educational software in the Northwest.
Wessel never left her home. Never met a client.
“I had a blast,” says Wessel, who used contests to build sales.
But retrenching by a then-struggling Apple soon had Wessel, a single mother of two sons, looking for work again. She hooked on with another software company before joining Burton.
Wessel does not guarantee results. She charges a monthly fee, and a small percent of the value of whatever contracts her clients score. Clients can walk at any time. And, knowing her clients will eventually become ineligible for 8(a) work, she educates them about government contracting as they grow.
Wessel wants her clients so well-known their names pop up first when contracts come up. It’s all in the contacts. Often, she is alerted to contracts before the government posts them.
“Those are the gold nuggets I am trying to find,” she says.