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AMP helps businesses gain competitive edge

Jin-ah Kim | 3/12/2009, 9:11 a.m.

As a female-owned small business here in the Bay State, Arvest Press Inc. has learned how to play the game — and the name of the game is knowing how to use the Commonwealth’s resources.

For the Waltham-based commercial printing company, doing business with state departments started five years ago when it obtained certification as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) from the state Office of Minority and Women Business Assistance (SOMWBA).

So far, the company has won dozens of contracts with the Commonwealth. Michael Kaye, Arvest’s vice president of sales and marketing, attributed the company’s success in part to the Affirmative Market Program (AMP).

“AMP was extremely helpful,” said Kaye. “AMP showed us how to use that certification, how to start meeting people within the state and how to do business with them.”

Kaye said he has attended workshops on conducting business with the state, vendor conferences and social events where he could network with the state procurement officials, all hosted by AMP.

Housed at the offices of the state’s Operational Services Division at 1 Ashburton Place, the Affirmative Market Program was established in 1996 through Executive Order 390, which promotes state contract awards to develop and strengthen certified Minority and Women Business Enterprises, also known as M/WBEs.

“We work with the Executive Branch and we set policies for the inclusion of minority- and women-owned businesses,” said AMP Executive Director Monserrate Quinones. “We work with the vendor community for its growth and development.”

Quinones said that under Executive Order 390, all departments in the Executive Branch of the state government, as well as all state entities participating in AMP, must set their own M/WBE spending targets called “fiscal year benchmarks” that represent the total dollar amount that a department anticipates spending with M/WBEs. An AMP Plan is required for all large procurements over $50,000.

Each department calculates a separate benchmark for individual M/WBEs based on past spending, which is tracked and reported annually in the AMP’s Fiscal Year Report.

Piles of papers and books sit on the round table and wooden desk in Quinones’ office. She and AMP business coordinator Maria Gonzalez are in charge of monitoring the departments’ benchmarks and their actual spending, as well as generating the annual report.

Pinning down the numbers and charts, Quinones said that statewide expenditures with certified M/WBE vendors have significantly increased in each of the last three years, with the largest spike coming last year with the support of first-year Gov. Deval Patrick.

The state’s combined M/WBE expenditures on goods and services increased by 6.5 percent in 2005, by 8 percent in 2006, and by 15 percent in 2007 to a total of more than $488.6 million, according to AMP reports.

Gonzalez and Quinones both said that many vendors misunderstand the purpose of AMP or confused it with other programs.

“I’ve gotten a few phone calls from vendors saying, ‘I am certified, so what are you gonna do for me?’” said Gonzalez.

The most common misconception, Quinones said, is that AMP is what is known as a “set-aside program.” Under set-aside programs, a certain amount of all state-funded purchases are reserved specifically for businesses with special certifications, such as M/WBEs.

“AMP, under Executive Order 390, is not a set-aside program,” Quinones said. “That’s the first thing we teach when we have trainings and meetings with vendor communities. You still have to be competitive.”

She said the program instead helps M/WBEs to gain a competitive edge by teaching them how to find a niche in public procurement within the Executive Branch and state government. But, she clearly states, AMP does not guarantee any business.

“We just help you to be able to get your foot in the door,” she said.

Kaye of Arvest Press agreed. He said that procurement officials used to not consider small minority- and women-owned businesses as potential contractors. Since AMP’s 1996 launch, he said, they have included M/WBEs in their requests for proposals.

“Now we are invited to their parties,” said Kaye. “Before, we weren’t on the playing field. Now we are on the field, and we have a chance to win the game by ourselves.”

As CEO of East Coast Petroleum, a WBE with 18 full-time employees, Loretta DeGrazia can attest to that.

Over the past two decades, she has witnessed the changes in the Massachusetts business climate. She established East Coast, a Dorchester-based oil, heating and air conditioning company, in 1985. Now, nearly a quarter of her company’s revenue comes from state contracts, and she recently hired one new staffer specifically to capitalize on more opportunities available to M/WBEs.

DeGrazia admitted that she was late in taking advantage of AMP, saying only she learned about it in 2003 through another state program. A large number of M/WBEs, she said, still do not know about the program.

“[AMP] is the best-kept secret, in my opinion,” she said.

DeGrazia said she believes it is important to educate small business owners on how the state assistance programs work.

“AMP teaches them [how to] get more business, SOWMBA certifies them, and other associations help them to grow,” she said

Education matters in doing business with the state. There is specific language used in the field — terminology like Comm-PASS, the Commonwealth Procurement Access and Solicitation Site, the state’s electronic solicitation system where all procurements greater than $50,000 must be posted.

As business opportunities with the government expand, AMP attracts more people. The annual AMP legislative breakfast, held last November, had 250 attendees, including legislators, state agents and small business owners — over six times the number of people who attended the first breakfast in 2004.

“It was full of vendors, speakers and agencies,” Gonzales said. “It was amazing to see just all these people.”

Gonzalez said she expects to see more minority and women business owners at upcoming trainings, like the AMP Advanced Business to Business Training later this month.

As Kaye of Arvest Press sees it, such trainings give growing businesses a chance to get a leg up.

“Through the program, we’ve learned a lot,” he said. “We have been able to service more, provide more to the state, and hire more women and minorities.”

For more information on the Affirmative Market Program, visit www.mass.gov/amp.