Sue Tellier’s firm is one of just two in the country pre-qualified by the Michigan Defense Center to be involved with its bid writing grants. Photo by Johnny Quirin
JetCo Solutions, an eight-year-old Grand Rapids consulting firm that helps companies win government contracts, has been named by the Michigan Defense Center as one of just two firms in the U.S. pre-qualified to be involved with its bid writing grants.
The other consulting company is based in Utah.
As explained by JetCo Vice President Sue Tellier, her company is a consulting firm that helps other companies sell products and services to government.
“We do that at all levels of government,” she said, from federal to state to local, and while Jetco focuses on Michigan, it has served clients throughout the Midwest and beyond.
“But we really try to specialize in helping small businesses sell to government,” she added, because there is so much potential there.
“We have found that lots of small companies have amazing capabilities and great talent, but the government doesn’t get to buy from them because (the companies) don’t have the in-house sales team to sell to government,” she said. “It’s a very specialized market; responding to a government RFP isn’t like responding to a commercial RFP. It’s totally different.”
For one thing, it is far more complicated.
JetCo isn’t actually about jets; it was founded by Jon E. Tellier, Sue’s husband and the firm’s president. At the time, the company name was hurriedly put together using his initials, but she said the name seems to have stuck. That was in 2007; today the company employs 10. The newest employee was added in January, and business is so good, Sue Tellier said JetCo is “likely going to expand again in three or four months,” perhaps with the addition of three new employees.
The Michigan Defense Center, based in Lansing and operated by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., is designed to help bolster the Michigan economy by creating a better connection of Michigan businesses to the defense industry.
According to the Michigan Defense Center, in 2014 there were $3.3 billion in contracts awarded to more than 300 Michigan businesses, creating more than 51,000 defense-related jobs. Seventy percent of the things a soldier shoots, drives, flies, wears, eats or communicates with are contracted in Michigan.
The Michigan Defense Center was established in 2006 by the MEDC in response to the growing threat of base re-alignment and a rumored closing of the Detroit Arsenal. That did not happen, and a few years later, coinciding with the collapse of the auto industry in the recession, Macomb County produced a report that put defense on the top of a list of targeted industries that would provide desperately needed economic diversification for Michigan.
Recently, the Michigan Defense Center began offering bid writing assistance grants to Michigan-based businesses and nonprofit organizations wanting to respond to a published Department of Defense or Department of Homeland Security contract opportunity. The bid writing grants range from $1,500 or less up to $10,000 maximum, with the grant applicant coordinating its application with the local PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Center) and the Michigan Defense Center.
The MDC flyer on its proposal writing services grant states the other of the MDC’s pre-qualified proposal writing providers is LSI Business Development Inc., which has a presence in more than 30 states and is based in Layton, Utah.
Sean Carlson, vice president of the Michigan Defense Center and International Trade, said the grants for proposal writing were unveiled in early 2015, and other firms can apply to be listed along with JetCo and LSI.
“You can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m a proposal writer,’ and be put on the pre-qualified list without having demonstrated any success in the past,” said Carlson, which both LSI and JetCo did.
Another plus for JetCo is that Jon Tellier is a military veteran. “We want to support that,” said Carlson.
Carlson said he is not aware of many companies that specialize in writing bids for other companies. “There could be a market here for some folks,” he added.
LSI is rather unique, he said, because it has been around since the 1970s.
Ironically, one of the barriers to small companies winning federal contracts is the sheer number of them available.
“Sometimes being able to sift through all the opportunities to find the right one — one that aligns with your company — can be a very difficult process,” said Carlson. Likewise, he said the RFPs issued by the federal government can be “an onerous task” to respond to — “very daunting for a small business owner.”
JetCo isn’t limited to serving small companies. According to Sue Tellier, it also works for large companies, most of which are based near Washington, D.C. Sometimes they are interested in bidding on a project at TACOM but don’t have an employee or office in Michigan, so they retain the services of JetCo.
The U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, formerly known as Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, is headquartered at the Detroit Arsenal in Warren.
Defense manufacturing is a major part of the history of the Detroit region. Less than two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, production of cars for the civilian market ceased, replaced by production of tanks, aircraft and military vehicles. By December 1942, Detroit was known as the “Arsenal of Democracy” and civilian auto production didn’t resume until the war was over.
“They’re still busy” at the Detroit area defense industry, said Tellier, although there have been a lot of changes involving tighter government spending over the last few years.
“We don’t work with full fiscal year budgets anymore,” said Tellier, because Congressional bickering over budget issues often results in “continuation” of funding without any formal full-year budgets approved and put in place.
Government agencies “can’t really plan ahead when they only have a six-week or 12-week budget, but TACOM’s done pretty well,” said Tellier.
JetCo has adjusted to the budget uncertainties by making a greater investment in its research tools, and the firm closely watches expiring government contracts to be ready if new contracts are going to be let.
JetCo Solutions is located at 560 Fifth St. NW, Grand Rapids, in an 1878 building that was originally a furniture factory. Tellier said it is a “great creative space” where the JetCo staff can spread out and collaborate on projects.
“Our clients don’t need us to be in their offices. They need us to be active for them,” said Tellier.
The firm has up to two dozen clients at a time. Tellier said JetCo will not serve two clients that could possibly compete with each other. “We want to dance with the guy who brought us. We’re very loyal,” she said.
For most clients, JetCo provides complete capture services, she said. That means JetCo finds contract opportunities to bid on, writes the bid response for the client company, submits it and does the follow-up on the results.
Some companies, however, find their own targets and hire JetCo just for its bid writing expertise. “They don’t have in-house resources to do that writing,” she said.
Most JetCo clients are second-stage small businesses, generally with a minimum of $2 million in annual revenue. She said JetCo once had a client that was very small, with only about $250,000 in revenue.
“They’re a multimillion dollar company now. They’ve done very well in the government space,” Tellier said.
Startups, however, cannot sell successfully to the government, she said, because they lack a track record. Government contract officers “are risk averse. If they buy from a company, they want that company to be around in two years.”
“I truly believe that state and local (government) is a nice starting point before you move into federal because you are building up an arsenal of past performance that federal contracting officers will care about,” she explained.
A small manufacturer with a niche product for the transportation industry could consider local departments of public works before trying to sell to the federal Department of Transportation, according to Tellier.
One of JetCo’s local clients is DK Security, which was founded in 1994 by John R. Kendall and Robert C. DuHadway.
“They already have a really good footprint in the public space,” said Tellier, and were getting contracts for security services with the state before turning to JetCo in 2010. The company decided to go after some federal contracts and needed outside professional help.
One thing JetCo has learned is to get to know its clients completely; Tellier said they know from experience what bid opportunities DK Security might be interested in and those it isn’t.
“I won’t bug them with (information on potential contracts) I believe they would not be interested in.”