Earlier this year, Eugene Cornelius came to Washington, D.C., to lead the Washington district office of U.S. Small Business Administration. In the following Q&A, Cornelius talks about major changes underway at SBA “” everything from retraining staff in government contracting and acquisitions to letting surrounding counties know about SBA’s varied programs. Whether you’re a small business or you’ve long since graduated from those ranks, SBA has something for you, says Cornelius. “This is the time to take a second look at SBA,” he says. “Even though they [businesses] have passed the graduation stage of 8(a) or they are too large to look at 8(a) they may want to come in and look at teaming with people who are in the 8(a) portfolio and seeing if they can go for contracts that otherwise would not be offered or opened up to them.”
What led up to your current position as District Director of U.S. Small Business Administration's Washington DC office?
Eugene Cornelius: I started with SBA in November of 1999. I started as the district director over Michigan and after a successful two year period of taking it from the bottom to the top I was promoted into Washington through our senior executive series developmental program. I was given two jobs, one as the assistant administrator for Administration over Procurement and Contracting for the agency itself and then I was placed as an associate administrator for the 8(a) program, a national business development program for small companies across the country. Then I left that position to go down to the New Orleans area to become the district director for the state of Louisiana, where I oversaw all the programs and led the agency through the Katrina disaster recovery. Upon being successful at that the administration called me back to Washington to lead the largest district in the nation for 8(a) government contracting.
Interesting, when was that?
Eugene Cornelius: February of this year I came back to Washington to lead the Washington district office.
How's your new role going so far?
Eugene Cornelius: Well, it's been a little over 90 days and it is going great. We have made some major changes. We are restructuring our staff, retraining our staff in government contracting and acquisitions. We've hired new marketing outreach people. We have developed new relationships with the city, and have been very active in promoting and developing our relationships in Prince Georges, Fairfax County and Arlington and in Montgomery County. We have really gone out on a major marketing outreach to get our programs into the community and to make sure that people are aware of the products and services. On top of that we are cleaning up our 8(a) portfolio to make sure we have the best and the brightest and moving from the entitlement kind of perception for 8(a) to making sure we have the best and most qualified firms in our portfolio. So we have taken on some really high profile synergy proactive measures to put SBA in a higher light.
Can you speak for a minute about the whole issue of the entitlement?
Eugene Cornelius: Absolutely, I think it is a mistake to believe that this program is an entitlement program. It's not; it's a business development program for people who are serious and who are trying to get into the government arena. The government spends $340 billion in products and services, and if people want to compete, this is a program that will get you a start-up. We will teach you, we will show you through in controlled environment “” how to go for government contracts. But if you are not performing and you are not in compliance then you should not be in this program and we are not going to keep you in this program.
You used the term “performing“ “” what are some yardsticks to gauge whether you are right for this program?
Eugene Cornelius: The program itself requires that you be in business for two years and that you've had some experience in what you are doing. We are going to look at what previous contracts you've had be it private sector, be it small, be it nonprofit. What contracts have you performed and have you completed, and are your product, goods or service something that the government really is into buying? A lot of people will apply for the 8(a) certification, but are they really selling a commodity that the government really buys; and if they do buy it, what agencies and how much and given that report is there really a chance for your product or services?
What different products and commodities are of interest to government agencies right now?
Eugene Cornelius: Well one of the things of course is technology. It's even more critical at this particular time as we watch the baby boomers and government workers leave for retirement. We are now moving from Human Resource intensive to using technology we can be more efficient and keep the costs of government down. That's a trend. The other trend is there are a lot of capitol projects going on. If you look at Anacostia in the southeast, their homeland security has projects, construction projects and alike that are about to be developed, and there is a need for that. There is a need for training and counseling and development of the personnel as the baby boomers resign from federal government and the new ones come in and we need them trained to do the jobs and serve the public.
If someone meets the requirements to sign up for this program, what happens next in terms of development?
Eugene Cornelius: Well there's a host of things. There are courses that SCORE “” the service Corp Of Retired Executives (the people who been there done that) put on for small businesses such as how to do your taxes, how to certify your business, how to hire the right personnel “” everything that you can imagine from how our export centers teach you how to work in a global world, how to do international trade. We have a host of services, our Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) have one-on-one counseling sessions with our small businesses on what they need to do to develop their business plans. To look at their long term cash flow analysis, whatever the small business may need and of course SBA has its lending side of the house to make sure they have the working capitol and the bonding they need. Once a small business gets a contract, there's bonding requirements, there's working capitol requirements. SBA has a comprehensive program for all of them. We use SBDC for individual training, counseling, and we use SCORE to put on workshops in training and classes. We do a combination. I believe in my district that ultimate learning experience is on-the-job training so SBA has two vehicles that I believe will be used during my tenure to make sure that our businesses are developed, and that is the Joint Venture and the Mentor ProtÃ©gÃ© programs. The Joint Venture program allows two small businesses to get together and go for a bid that neither one of them would normally have gone for, individually. It gives them the chance to team up and work together to go and get that job, learn and do well on that job together, strengthen each others weaknesses and work well together. The Mentor ProtÃ©gÃ© agreement allows the former 8(a) firms and medium to large sized firms to team up with our 8(a) firms as a Mentor ProtÃ©gÃ© and teach and then go for a bid on a contract and work together to make sure that they bring that contract to fruition. By the older team and the more experienced team having the experience and have completed jobs they can teach my small business more than I would be able to teach them in the classroom.
Where can someone go for information?
Eugene Cornelius: The first website I would recommend for anything involving SBA would be www.SBA.gov. When you go to SBA.gov you can link to your local area, it's by state and jurisdiction. There are 68 district offices across the United States and territories. You can go to your district office and get all the information that I'm talking about from their website.
Anything else you wanted to add about executives who may have their own companies and want to team up with other businesses?
Eugene Cornelius: This is the time to take a second look at SBA. Even though they have passed the graduation stage of 8(a) or they are too large to look at 8(a) they may want to come in and look at teaming with people who are in the 8(a) portfolio and seeing if they can go for contracts that otherwise would not be offered or opened up to them.