Contracting officers battle on

Contracting officers battle on

Elmer Sembly

Ex-Marines bring GWACs from the halls of NIH to the shores of small business

By Bill Murray
GCN Staff

Larry Manning and Elmer V. Sembly are not your usual federal contracting officers. Instead of shying away from the spotlight, they bask in it.

Sembly is outreach and education director for the National Institutes of Health's Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC), where Manning serves as chief contracting officer for the ImageWorld contract. Each of the two former Marines has more than 20 years of government service.

They said they believe that NIH's government acquisition contracts'Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners, Electronic Computer Store II and ImageWorld'are bolstering small business while racking up $305 million in fiscal 1998 sales, citing NITAAC figures.

'Some of the companies wouldn't be doing any government business' without the NIH contracts, Sembly said. He added that he and Manning accomplish as much as perhaps 50 marketing staff members at the General Services Administration, and 'we have only one assistant.'

Praise and pans

NITAAC has drawn kudos as well as criticism for the two men's efforts, although NIH fared well in a 1998 General Accounting Office report about GWACs.

'They're easier to deal with' than many other contracting organizations, said Rod Campbell, a contracting specialist at Defense Supply Services'Washington. 'They're very personable,' he said of NITAAC's employees. 'They know the contractors on a first-name basis.' Campbell estimated that he has bought $50 million through NIH contracts in the past year.

But Yvonne Jackson, product manager for the Army Small Computer Program at Fort Monmouth, N.J., has concerns about the NITAAC contractors' performance. 'They have 87 different contracts, which is too many,' she said. 'You don't know who your vendors are.'

Said Manning: 'We check the vendors' financial records when the contracts are awarded. They have to have the financial wherewithal to fulfill the requirements.' If a vendor fails to adhere to the terms and conditions, the contract is canceled, he said.

Jackson said the Small Computer Program has worked with NITAAC when Army organizations have purchased through NIH contracts. Some Army buyers have reported problems with the contractors, she said.
Beating the odds

Manning and Sembly said they have had to overcome two negative perceptions: that NIH is a research institution with no procurement expertise, and that they, as minorities, are not competent at their work.

'We have to go through this whole spiel about why we're here,' Sembly said last month at the Army Small Computer Program Status Review in Norfolk, Va. 'People don't naturally associate IT sales and marketing with black people.'

Sembly said he was twice named Marine recruiter of the year. Manning, a small-weapons instructor in the Air Force Reserve, said he has received two achievement medals.

Manning said NITAAC's 22 employees developed methods of evaluating past performance that other agencies now emulate. NITAAC requires its vendors to have electronic data interchange capabilities, but Sembly said he does not know how much of the ordering is via EDI.

Several vendors said they like the low cost of setting up an NIH contract. 'The amount of time it takes is minuscule' compared with negotiating a GSA Information Technology Schedule contract, said Aubrey Forlines, an account executive at Government Technology Services Inc. of Chantilly, Va., who previously worked for Planning Technologies Inc., an Atlanta 8(a) vendor that holds an Electronic Computer Store II contract.

Other vendors said NITAAC quibbles less over pricing and makes it easier to add new products. 'They're speedy about adding new technology,' said George Sullivan, a vice president at FCN of Rockville, Md., a small, woman-owned business.

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