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Veterans can get free assistance establishing a business

By DENNIS GRUBAUGH, The Illinois Business Journal

Veterans Day is a good time to remember the many contributions military members have made to this country — and to the livelihoods those vets carve out after patriotic service.

The Illinois Procurement Technical Assistance Center at Western Illinois University offers assistance, Dr. Theresa Ebeler says. She heads up the Metro Southwestern Illinois Region, one of nine PTAC centers in the state. The Metro office specializes in helping veterans trying to start or build a business.

The Illinois PTAC network helps businesses identify, compete for, and win government contracts, of which there are literally thousands at the local, state and federal levels. Last fiscal year alone, Illinois businesses won nearly 400 such contracts worth nearly $900 million.

During that timeframe, Illinois PTAC served 1,573 clients across the state by providing counseling, instruction, bid opportunities and training.

PTAC helps entrepreneurs with conducting market research, finding government opportunities, and getting to know the agencies involved. It can be a tough goal to crack without the right kind of know-how.

The Illinois PTAC at Western Illinois University is provided through cooperative agreement with the Defense Logistics Agency. Program support is made possible by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Western Illinois University.

Ebeler’s office is at 109 W. Legion St. (rear) in Columbia, giving it good proximity to Scott Air Force Base and many of the veterans connected to it.

Ebeler is one of seven Certified Verification Counselors working with the Veteran Administration Office of Small Disadvantaged Business Utilization Programs in Illinois.

PTAC provides resources to Illinois businesses in such areas as procurement readiness and compliance, vendor registration, market research, and Small Business Innovation Research proposal development.

PTAC can assist businesses getting certification as a Minority Business Enterprise, a Women’s Business Enterprise, a Woman-Owned Small Business, a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, a Veteran-Owned Small Business, a Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business, an 8(a) disadvantaged business or a HUBZone firm.
Congress established the Procurement Technical Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program in 1985 as a part of the Department of Defense Authorization Act. The agreement allows Illinois PTAC services to be accessible to all Illinois businesses at no charge.

Ebeler, who ran the Illinois Small Business Development Center in East St. Louis several years ago, said there are advantages to a being a certified Veteran-Owned Business. Some applicants want the formal recognition simply so they can market themselves as such. And many want to participate in government contracts that are set aside exclusively for the veteran-owned niche.

In fiscal 2018, some $20 billion was set aside for veteran firms, she said.

The U.S. Small Business Act mandates percentages of participation, which vary by industry sector. For example, specialized data-tech firms might have a minimum 3 percent participation requirement because of the complex government need.

“Being recognized as a Veteran-Owned Business eliminates a lot of the competition in bidding for contracts,” Ebeler said.

Among the nine PTAC offices, some focus more heavily on niche segments, such as manufacturing, agricultural or technology. The next closest affiliates to Metro Southwestern Illinois are in Carbondale and in Peoria. All the centers represent their own markets but work jointly in their ongoing mission.
“Our program works one-on-one with businesses to help them get from point to point, whether it’s getting certified or registered,” Ebeler said.

Training is also available on a wide variety of programs, from cybersecurity to HUBZones.

PTAC puts its clients in a position to succeed, Ebeler said, but the business’ ultimate level of success is up to the participants.

“I recently did a survey of Veteran-Owned Businesses and some said that if it wasn’t for the PTAC program they would never have been able to get through the certification process,” she said.

Despite more than 35 years of service, the PTAC network and its free resources are not readily known.

“There are so many eligible businesses that just don’t know we exist,” she said.

Businesses wanting to work with PTAC should sign up with the Illinois Small Business Network.

“That allows us to provide confidential counseling to them and then to provide them with an enormous amount of resources pertaining to their government contract interest,” Ebeler said. “I listen to them about their business and the direction they want to go.”
Such conversation helps determine if a business wants to be registered with the state of Illinois or federally, through Systems Awards Management – known as SAM — a universal, federal registration point.

Following that first step of registration, the second step is potentially going through the certification process. Clients must decide if they are best served by state or federal certification, which is free, or going through a third party, which involves costs, even though it may be more useful to them.

“For example, I have a veteran-owned business that wanted to work with a gas company, and the gas company is part of a national organization of veterans. He had to pay $750 to get certified, but he was awarded a $1.75 million contract for work with this gas company. So, it was certainly worth his time.”

Using another example, a business wanting to work with the Quincy Veterans Administration home would have to go the state procurement route. PTAC would walk them through the registration and the state certification through the Illinois Central Management Services.

Any business wanting to work with Scott Air Force would be going the federal route and would register with SAM.

The complexity can be challenging for a novice businessman.

“If you’re an average veteran-owned business wanting to get involved in contracting, you can start researching on your own and it seems almost a rabbit hole. That’s why our program exists, to listen to these businesses, see where they want to go and help them build their resources to go on that path.”

Registration can be done fairly quickly. It’s a two-step verification process. Certification, though, takes more time. PTAC makes sure all necessary documents are in hand, and each client is assigned an analyst to look at their certification application.

“There is no set time, but I’ve seen approvals within a month to six months,” she said.

Most veterans who approach PTAC are “very organized” by virtue of their exposure to the military, she said.

Businesses wishing to work with the Illinois Procurement Technical Assistance Center must be located in the state. There are PTAC offices in every state.

To find an office nearest you, go to www.ilsmallbiz/ptacnearme.

For more information call Ebeler at (618) 420-8313.

This story originally appeared in the IBJ’s November issue. For more stories from that issue, go to the Current Edition link at ibjonline.com

 

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