Industries Small Business

Staying connected

New Prince William business group focuses on needs of small companies

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Print this page by Paul Koscak

“Getting it together” could be the new motto of the Prince William County Chamber of Commerce.

Formed in July in the merger of two separate business groups, the Prince William Chamber now is the largest chamber of commerce in Northern Virginia. Its 1,850 members stretch across the 360-square-mile county, from Haymarket in the west to Quantico in the east.

The combined chamber has a new president and CEO, Rob Clapper, and a new headquarters, a prominent steel-and-glass office building off Route 28 next to Manassas Municipal Airport.

But the real evidence of the new chamber’s strength may lie in how it helps small businesses. At least 80 percent of the chamber’s membership is made up of companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Don’t look for a calendar of expensive luncheons at fancy digs with big-name speakers. Instead, the chamber offers venues where members network, mentor and share ideas within their own business circles, mostly for free.

The goal is to give businesses something they immediately can use in this tough economy, says Trentwell “Pete” White. He manages the chamber’s business councils, which are groups of niche businesses.  Rather than sponsor large gatherings of business owners, chamber members run six councils — which include everything from government contracting to construction to science and technology — offering introductions, leads, training and networking opportunities.

“It doesn’t do any good to have monthly meetings where a government contractor is sitting next to a florist,” says White, a former government contractor. “Programs are at the practical level, so businesses can use the information.”

White used the Government Contracting Business Council as an example. The group teaches newcomers how to do business with the government. That includes information on what agencies to pursue, how to write proposals and what steps to take to qualify for the Government Services Administration schedule and avoid conflicts of interest.

Presentations are made by chamber members ­who are contractors rather than representatives “from the GSA or other agencies with the dream-world” perspective, says White.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” comments Robert Grasso, former chairman of the 350-member contractors council. “Big companies are always looking for small-company [subcontractors]. Some big companies can’t even bid because they don’t have enough small-business components.”

Grasso says connections he’s made on the council helped in winning three contracts for his employer, Logis-Tech, which offers acquisition and logistic support services.  And when he seeks mechanics for airplanes or Humvees, he turns to the group.  “You must have a relationship with an existing contractor to get into government contracting,” another benefit the council offers, Grasso adds.

When Hensel Phelps won a contract from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the giant construction company looked to the Construction & Utilities Business Council for help. “We held an event for them to find drywallers and plumbers,” White recalls.
The group offered the same type of assistance to Transurban Group, the contractor building high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, when it needed skilled construction workers and IT professionals.

The council also shows contractors and small construction companies how to meet the requirements of large construction companies seeking subcontractors.

Because so many members represent small businesses, the chamber needs to keep things affordable for them to network and stay connected, says Clapper, who previously headed the Greensboro, N.C., chamber of commerce.

He points to November’s heavy calendar of opportunities — seminars on media outreach, maximizing profits, Internet marketing and retirement planning for small businesses plus midday networking.  “Even if you attended just these sessions, you couldn’t get this mentorship and education [elsewhere] for the $400 membership fee,” he says. “Can you afford not to be connected with like-minded business people to survive in this economy?”

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