When it comes to working with the government, it pays to toot your own horn – particularly if you are a woman and you own your manufacturing company.
“When I talk to anybody government contracting-wise, I will say we are a small woman-owned business 10,000 times because we want to grasp their attention with that,” says Sarah Loch, operations manager for Aurora Manufacturing in Berlin. “A lot of people, believe it or not, are searching for women-owned businesses because there are not a lot of them, especially in this niche.”
Aurora, which is owned by Deana Ceman and Gina Brooks, was launched in 2000 out of its sister company, Aurora Welding, which was offered more contracting work from Oshkosh Corp. than it was able take on. Aurora Manufacturing filled that need, specializing in assembly and remanufacturing as well as painting, particularly CARC (or Chemical Agent Resistant Coating) painting that is specific to government vehicles. Currently, the company is doubling capacity on its blast and paint facility, which will open up the possibility of obtaining more government contracts.
“We don’t like having all of our eggs in one basket,” Ceman says.
Being a certified woman-owned business enterprise (WBE), as Aurora Manufacturing is, will also help it to gain more business. The federal government must meet a “diversity spend,” or a percentage required on every project to go toward women- or minority-owned businesses. The percentage varies according to the project.
“It’s one of those things that once clients realize that you’re a woman-owned business, it’s like a feather in your cap,” says Carol Van Vreede, owner of Skyline Exhibit Resource in Green Bay. “They go, ‘Really, that’s awesome, you meet certain criteria that is difficult to achieve in some cases.’”
Qualifications to become a certified WBE include:
» A woman or women must own and control at least 51 percent of the company.
» The woman owner must serve as president or CEO and be active in the company’s daily management.
» Ownership and leadership positions must be held for a minimum of six months.
In 2011, the U.S. Small Business Administration also launched a contracting program for women-owned small businesses (WOSB) in particular, providing wider access to federal contracting opportunities.
The certification in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a contract, and companies such as Aurora and Skyline know that. They and others are always looking for ways to expand their reach and provide the innovation, quality and turnaround that contractors seek. Skyline added a new 40,000-square-foot facility in 2009 to accommodate some of the larger exhibits it creates, built an on-site print shop and it has recently launched an air-powered exhibit system, a product that has been in development for five years. Van Vreede expects her business will grow by 30 percent in the next year because of the exhibit system alone.
Still, the WBE certification gets companies like Aurora and Skyline noticed.
“It’s allowed us to get on what I’ll call the dance card on projects that sometimes we wouldn’t have been exposed to,” Van Vreede says. “Fairly regularly, companies will contact us, sometimes from southern Wisconsin or companies that may not even be on our radar, realizing that we are a woman-owned exhibit house.”
Prior to her certification, Van Vreede would sometimes get questions from clients asking about her status as a certified woman-owned business, helping to prompt her to proceed with the application process.
“The reality is there aren’t that many women-owned manufacturing companies in Northeast Wisconsin,” Van Vreede says. “So it does put you in a select group, which I’m very proud to be a part of.”
As a part of that group, Van Vreede has been invited to be a part of roundtable discussions with Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and others in support of women in manufacturing and the Women-Owned Business Enterprise (WBE) in particular.
The experience of going through the application process, which is administered through the state Department of Administration’s Office of the Women’s Business Ombudsman, varies. It’s a fairly lengthy process that includes multiple applications asking about tax history, company profit-and-loss statements, personal information, goals and objectives, says Van Vreede, who adds that breaking it into bite-sized pieces makes it more efficient. Aurora Manufacturing’s main client, Oshkosh Corp., has a small business liaison officer who helped ferry Ceman and Brooks through the certification process.
Wanda Sieber, who owns the logistics company Unishippers in Green Bay, Seattle, Wash., and Mobile, Ala., is working on the process of certification, which she has found cumbersome. “If there’s one thing I’d like to see is that this process become a lot easier, because it’s hard enough running your business and becoming profitable, let alone having a four-month process to get registered,” she says.
Still, as Sieber works her way through the applications, she’s capitalized on being a woman-owned business by taking other steps, such as forming a networking group of other women who own Unishippers franchises nationwide. The synergy group has been a great way to share ideas and “entrepreneurial muscle,” she says.
Sieber also is part of the “Uni-Divas,” a group of female business owners within the Unishippers system who get together twice a year – in the winter, they meet in a warm state, and in the summer, they meet in a cooler state.
“We certainly have some fun while we’re together, but we get so much business done, and probably for two to three weeks afterward, there are just tremendous files being sent back and forth,” such as company policies, standard operating procedures, handbooks, tips on accounting and collection. “It’s amazing that six months later we get together again, and wow, there’s just as much to talk about as the time before.”
Owning Unishippers with her husband also has given her the opportunity to offer work to her six children, who have been able to experience multiple aspects of the business.
Deana Ceman and Gina Brooks and their husbands (Gina’s husband, David, is the general manager and Deana’s husband, Steve, is a project manager for the company) have found that kind of support system among each other – they’ve all known each other since high school, for one thing, and say they all tend to bring out the best in each other.
“Having the talents that we each have, this (company) was able to grow into what it is,” Brooks says.
“Each person brings a talent to the table that we never even knew that we had, and we kind of developed it together,” Ceman says. “And we’ve stayed friends through it all, which can be very difficult, to stay friends through a business relationship and still have the respect for each other. I think that’s really important, too. But that focuses more on our business, not so much the woman-owned part.”
On the web
»To learn about becoming a Woman-Owned Business Enterprise: www.sba.gov/content/women-owned-businesses
»To search a directory of women-owned businesses in Wisconsin: http://wisdp.wi.gov/search.aspx
»To learn more about Aurora Manufacturing: www.aurora-mfg.com
»To learn about Skyline Exhibit Resource’s new air-powered exhibit system: http://skylinewindscape.com
»To watch a video of Wanda Sieber’s journey with Unishippers:www.unishippers.com/content/franchising/success_stories_wanda_sieber.htm