About 25 years ago, Suna Adam was working for an engineering firm when she had an itch to do more environmental work.

The LSU graduate founded Gulf South Research Corp. doing environmental consulting for the federal government as a subcontractor. Since 1993, she has grown the company to 32 employees and has offices in four states.

“We did a lot of the archaeological and biological surveys when George W. Bush was president. Our archaeologist and biologists have walked the entire border from Brownsville to San Diego,” Adam said. 

Gulf South Research Corp. is among the hundreds of small businesses in Louisiana awarded nearly $2.8 billion in federal contracts during fiscal 2018. 

“Years ago, it was really hard to get into (contracting) because you had to be a subcontractor,” Adam said.

That was before certifications such as woman-, veteran- and minority-owned businesses that sometimes enable companies to be awarded sole source contracts, plus there are other programs such as the 8a business development program for small disadvantaged businesses through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Woman-owned businesses

In December 2015, the federal government began offering sole source contracts to woman-owned small businesses as a way to increase participation. 

One lesson Adam has learned over the years is to partner with only a few prime contractors she trusts rather than any business approaching her to fulfill a subcontractor requirement. Adam said she wants to grow the company and branch out to more private sector clients but doesn’t aspire to become a big business. 

Gulf South Research Corp. was awarded $2.8 million for environmental assessment work, slated to wrap up by September, for U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security. 

The Small Business Administration keeps track of federal government contracting, because there are yearly goals for different categories of businesses, such as minority- or woman-owned. 

Inside the $2.8 billion figure, $181.7 million were for woman-owned businesses — defined as a company with at least 51% equity stake owned by a woman.

The federal government has sought to award at least 5% of its contracts nationwide to woman-owned companies — a goal that has fallen short nearly every year since fiscal 2014, records show. In fiscal 2015, the federal government awarded 5.1% of total contracts to women-owned companies. In fiscal 2018, only 4.75% of federal contracts were awarded to women-owned companies across the nation. 

But in Louisiana, roughly 6.5% of federal contracts went to woman-owned companies, bettering the national figure.

Meanwhile, there was $143 million in federal contracts for veteran-owned small businesses in Louisiana during fiscal 2018. Separately, $111 million in federal contracts were awarded to service-disabled veteran-owned companies.

Veteran-owned businesses

Solvet is a service-disabled veteran-owned business in Lafayette that was founded in April 2018. Solvet's chief executive officer, Jared Sere, is an Iraq War veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

After military service, Sere returned to Louisiana and earned a master's degree at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in business administration. Sere was vice president of strategic growth and emerging markets at Viemed for nearly a year before starting his own business. 

But the executive kept ties to Viemed and has a business partnership with the medical equipment supplier that specializes in breathing devices such as ventilators for home care. 

“Having my own business is something that I’ve always wanted to do; it’s been in the back of my brain, and I was looking for the right opportunity to start that for the last 10 years,” Sere said. “I ran into the right partners.”

Solvet sells medical equipment and supplies to the federal government. For example, it was awarded a $53,984 contract with the U.S. Air Force in August for bariatric wheelchairs at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The company’s strategic partnership with Viemed enables it to specialize in respiratory care patients treated at home, many of whom are veterans. The company only has three employees but sometimes leverages the licensed respiratory therapist network across 30 states as a joint venture with Viemed.

“We reduce the strain on the (health care system) by keeping these patients comfortable in the home … as opposed to being recycled through the hospitals and clinics,” Sere said.

Many of the patients the products are sent to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which manifests itself as difficulty breathing. While cigarette smoking is the most likely cause of the illness, some veterans exposed to toxic substances on the battlefield deal with the disease when they return home.

The company has plans to expand to other goods and services to sell to the federal government in the coming years. Sere’s advice to new small business owners? Be patient.

“Entering into the federal contracting world can be tedious,” he said. “You have to learn how they do business in order to do business with them.”

There are local resources to enable small-business owners to get certified and facilitate contracts with the federal government. The Louisiana Procurement Technical Assistance Center has staff dedicated to several regions across the state. More than $8.6 billion in government contracts have been awarded to clients of the Louisiana procurement assistance office since its inception.

Minority-owned businesses

In Louisiana, minority-owned companies, known as historically underutilized businesses, have captured a larger percentage of the federal market than the national average.

Minority-owned companies were awarded $302 million during fiscal 2018, or nearly 11% of all federal contracts in Louisiana. Nationally, minority-owned businesses made up only 2% of all federal contracts that year. The federal contracting goal each year for minority-owned companies is at least 3%.

If Hurricane Katrina hadn't hit Louisiana and destroyed much of New Orleans, Pontchartrain Partners, a minority-owned construction services business, might not exist.

The reconstruction effort after the storm in 2005 brought together Danny Blanks, Bart Cook and James R. Washington III as business partners as the federal government prepared to spend $14 billion to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina. 

Blanks, CEO of Pontchartrain Partners, previously worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Bernard Parish in the mid-2000s. 

Pontchartrain Partners was created in 2009 and has grown to more than 100 employees. The business has nearly grown out of its small-business certification, something the partners expect to happen in the next few years about the time it hits $150 million in annual revenue. 

At first, the company was a subcontractor for larger companies on federal contracts but it has since opted to bid for work as a prime as a growth strategy, especially for professional services on construction projects. 

"We prime on almost 90% of projects," Blanks said. 

Pontchartrain Partners has worked extensively in Louisiana on projects over the years, such as the Bonnet Carré Spillway, about 30 miles up river of New Orleans, and the Morganza Spillway, which sits about 40 miles north of Baton Rouge. Pontchartrain Partners also has entered into a joint venture with one of its earliest business partners, Baton Rouge-based Evans-Graves Engineers to compete for federal government work. 

In recent years, high water levels on rivers across the country has spurred work opportunities from Arkansas to Illinois. 

The company was awarded a $1.1 million federal contract in September for the U.S. Army to repair a low-water crossing in Fort Polk, which is about a 1½-hour drive north of Lake Charles. The company also has offices across the country. 

"We got a call from Arkansas; they've had a lot of levee breaches for the first time," Cook, chief of construction operations said.

Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.