Army small business director Tommy Marks seeks to build on a strong foundation with four program pillars—mission, compliance, outreach and training—in line with Better Buying Power principles. The objective: to cultivate and sustain a broad and diverse base of small businesses that can deliver needed capabilities to the warfighter.
Since he left college in 1977, Tommy Marks, director of the Army’s Office of Small Business Programs (OSBP), hasn’t had a job that wasn’t related to the Army. “It’s been all Army,” he said, and that includes 24 years on active duty.
He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2001, and spent time as a defense contractor working for the Army, then with a small business that supported the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC). Later, he spent six years deployed to Kuwait for the Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), overseeing the execution of more than $30 billion worth of contracts. He ended his LOGCAP tenure as executive director.
Marks brings a wealth of Army knowledge to his leadership of OSBP, where he took over as director in April 2015. According to Marks, he hardly saw himself as having a lock on the job. “I was blessed enough to get selected out of a panel of folks that applied for the job,” he said. “I’m humbled that the secretary and the undersecretary thought enough of me to be the one to lead the Army’s program,” following Tracey L. Pinson, who had been director since 1995. “There were other folks as qualified, or probably more qualified.”
Marks said that his “first baptism, really, into small business, was meeting Tracey Pinson when I came to the Pentagon as the policy chief for services contracts. I’d briefly met her once in the field.”
Pinson led OSBP from 1995 until mid-2014, when she retired to go to work for the Small/Diverse Business & Strategic Alliances unit at Boeing Defense, Space & Security. Shortly after her retirement from public service, she was diagnosed with cancer and died in December 2014. During her tenure, the share of total Army contracting dollars awarded to small business increased from 25 percent to 32 percent.
Perhaps most notable was her impact on service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses (SDVOSBs). She launched the National Veteran Small Business Conference and Expo in 2005, which grew to become the biggest event of its kind and led the Army in exceeding the statutory 3 percent contracting goal for SDVOSBs for the first time in 2012. Marks said of his predecessor, “Those are some tough stilettos to put my feet in and follow.”
We interviewed Marks on Oct. 20, 2015, shortly after the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting & Exposition, at which OSBP held its third Army Small Business Seminar.
Army AL&T: You’ve been on the job with the Army Office of Small Business Programs since April 2015, so you’re the new kid on the block. Do you foresee changing direction in any way? For example, some of your stated priorities are outreach to small businesses and increased internal advocacy for small business involvement in contracting—what else should we stay tuned for?
Marks: Let me start by saying this: Number one, what I inherited from my predecessor, Ms. Tracey Pinson, was really a solid foundation for the Army, which has led the small business community in DOD for years.
I’m not changing anything, really. I’m just emphasizing what senior leadership—which includes Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ASA(ALT)) Ms. (Heidi) Shyu, as our acquisition executive—and the Army look for us to do: focus on the four pillars of mission, compliance, outreach and training, which is in line with Better Buying Power.
So, added to that, what we’re trying to do is establish some in-house training that will be provided both to industry and to our acquisition professionals—including the latest legislative updates affecting small businesses, which are a moving target sometimes.
Army AL&T: What is the return on investment for the Army Office of Small Business Programs? In the discussion at AUSA regarding the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR, rhymes with “fibber”) program, it was said that the taxes paid by Qualcomm, which got its start as a SBIR, could fund the program. Do you consider the Army Office of Small Business Programs a “profit center” for the Army or the government?
Marks: Well, I think when you couch it in those terms, return on investment, that’s really what everyone is looking for, and, of course, we’re not a profit center in the government.
But the return on investment can be defined as other than just profit centers. So, for us, the industrial base—which is most important to our mission support in order for our warfighters to do their mission—is where we look for return on investment. Do we have the right mix of companies that can come to the table and do the things that we need done to provide those weapon systems, those services and the maintenance that covers the weapon systems after production? Small businesses take part in that. So that’s really the foundation.
It’s not that we just give contracts to them. What we do is ensure that those small businesses with the right capabilities, that can support our mission requirements, get a fair shot at providing their products and services to the Army. (See Figure 1, for a breakdown of small business spending by portfolio.)
Army AL&T: Do you think it’s simple enough for small businesses to come to the Army, and say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea,” and the Army might say, “Sure. Let’s give it a shot”? Or do you think it could be simplified?
Marks: I think there’s always room to make it simpler. But I think we have things in place to make it—“easy” is really not the right word, but to show them that there are opportunities that are part of SBIR.
That’s been around for years. It’s one of the tools, avenues for small businesses out there whereby some guy, Tommy Marks, develops a capability in his garage and can potentially show that to the Army to see if it fits in a mission. It has to be tied to some mission requirement to really be of value to us.
We try to make Army contracting easier for small businesses by helping them understand Army mission requirements so they can mold their products and services to what we need. We then connect them with the small business specialist at the appropriate installation or contracting office who can keep them updated on specific Army requirements and continue to help them hone their capabilities.
Army AL&T: You’ve been involved in small business from both that side of the fence and government. In “Unintended Outcomes of Small Business Legislation and Policy: Opportunities for Improvement,” released in early 2015, Jacques Gansler and his colleagues found significant disconnects between the original purposes of small business programs and the way they are currently administered. For example, the report says that with respect to the goals that each of the services has for small business participation, “no one we interviewed understood the rationale or methodology for developing the goals, or whether one even existed.” Do you think that the Army Office of Small Business Programs’ work is fulfilling a deliberate and well-thought-out purpose?
Marks: I read the report months ago, right after I took the job. I actually went to an outbrief that they had. You know, some of the things that they said in there surprised me. But I would say that the Army program, again, that I inherited and have taken over from Ms. Pinson has a solid foundation.
Now, when it comes to the goals, I will tell you that in the community, the goals are what everybody talks about. And not everybody clearly understands them. In my six months in the job, even all the way up through the SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) and OMB (Office of Management and Budget), which are actually where those goals come from—as they try to implement what Congress has written, the execution is not always the same as when somebody just wrote policy. In the Army, we have a clear rationale and methodology. In fact, what we do (is) we start with the spending projections.
Then the commands look at what they’ve done in the current fiscal year in terms of small business utilization. They make adjustments based on their requirements forecast for the coming year and send a final projected goal up to my office.
We get an overall goal from DOD. Last year (FY15), it was 26.5 percent, meaning that 26.5 percent of total small-business-eligible Army contracting dollars should go to small business. Then that’s further broken down, based on spend across the federal government, (into) what percentages we should try to award in the socioeconomic categories of service-disabled veteran-owned small business, HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zones, an SBA program) small business, small disadvantaged business and women-owned small business. (See Figure 3.)
Our commands—you know, that’s where the rubber really meets the road. Out there in the field are five HCAs—the heads of contracting authority—who are actually responsible for the execution. They are Gen. Dennis Via at Army Materiel Command; Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick at the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers (USACE); Monte Kapec at Army Medical Command; Harry Hallock at the Intelligence (and Security) Command at Fort Belvoir; and Gen. Frank Grass at the National Guard Bureau contracting centers, which is a joint operation that the Army’s responsible for. Those are our five major buying commands for everything that the Army does. (See Figure 2.)
And so we work together as a team on what the goals ought to be. When we get the OSD goals, we then look at what OSD has asked us to do. And if there has to be some adjustment, that’s done in a teaming effort with the commands—nothing dictated from here like, “Hey, you owe me 20 percent,” because we (OSBP) don’t write any contracts. We don’t own any requirements in this office. That’s all out in the field, based on mission requirements.
Army AL&T: So you’re the middleman, in a sense, or you’re the broker? How would you put it?
Marks: I’m the Army’s lead advocate for small business. And so on behalf of the secretary, I’m the guy who talks to our commands and to DOD about what the Army will do, based on what our commands are able to bring to the table.
Army AL&T: How do the linkages work between all of the small business programs and your office and the other Army small business offices, such as the ones at AMC, the Army Corps of Engineers and many other major commands?
Marks: The Army is all about chains of command, right? And so, having been raised in a chain-of-command environment, it wasn’t too tough for me to tie together, you know, who does what to whom and who’s responsible for what on the linkages. So the Small Business Administration, at the federal level, is responsible on behalf of (the president for) everything to do with small business. SBA has assigned DOD a small business utilization goal of 23 percent for the past few years. DOD, in turn, assigns small business goals to the services based on this goal as well as other facts. We, in turn, assign goals to the commands based on the methodology I described earlier. We then work with the small business offices at these commands to provide them with the guidance and support they need to achieve their goals.
Army AL&T: The Army has succeeded in making its goals for a long time. What makes the Army different from the other services, which didn’t make their goals until recently?
Marks: I think what made the Army different was the command emphasis on the role that small businesses play in the overall picture of the Army’s industrial base. With that emphasis, the whole team pulled together to ensure that we had the right mix. There’s no magic formula to that, but you’ve got to have large and small businesses to make a good industrial base. And where most of the ideas come from—and I think even in Gansler (“Unintended Outcomes of Small Business Legislation and Policy: Opportunities for Improvement”), they will tell you this—small business is where a lot of those up-and-coming ideas, especially in technology, come from now. A lot of those small businesses start small, but they do what? They grow based on the rules, they end up growing themselves. But that’s just the nature of the business.
Army AL&T: Do you find that there are small businesses that do one thing really well and just stick to that thing?
Marks: Well, I think we find a variety, actually, across the spectrum. There are those guys that when they went into it, they knew this is what they want to do, and they’re satisfied with that and they perfect that. So that’s where they stay. Then there are those that are really into growing their companies, and eventually, a lot of those grow not to be a large business, but they grow out of being small. You hear them talking about how it’s hard for them to compete against the very large businesses of the world, because, at this point, they can’t compete against the small businesses. So we’re starting to get a lot of that. But again, that’s all a good balance for what we need in the industrial base because it keeps things competitive. I mean, if you didn’t have small businesses or your mid-tier [companies] and all you had was large businesses, then they just would control everything.
Army AL&T: The small business arena is complicated by numerous categories and subcategories of congressionally mandated set-asides and incentives. In your experience, is this complex system stable and functioning smoothly? If not, are there any initiatives pending in DOD to work with Congress on improving it?
Marks: Each year, there are changes and recommendations going in. The latest thing that has come out is that Congress looked at how women-owned businesses are treated. So, as of October, you can now set aside, as a sole-source award, to a woman-owned small business if there’s one that’s capable and qualified to do the job, based on a certain dollar threshold. Those are ways that, when Congress looks at contract spending overall, they know whether we need to provide additional help to certain socioeconomic categories.
It’s not a giveaway, which sometimes is what people think. There are qualifications you’ve got to meet. Ultimately, it’s about capabilities that can support Army missions. If it can’t support what we need to do for our warfighters, we don’t have the money to spend on just anything. And second, we don’t need it just to have it on the shelf. So that’s the message that I’m trying to deliver. Now, you’ll hear folks say that, “Well, that’s going to cut out small businesses.” Well, small businesses have to do like everyone else: You’ve got to be innovative and you’ve got to be forward-thinking. If you’re doing that, then I think you’ll survive. Those companies that survive, whether they’re large, medium or small, are those that are able to think outside the box and look down the road, not just to what’s happening now.
A lot of (businesses) were born out of the war. Now we know the war is not over-over, but it isn’t anywhere near what it used to be back in 2003 until about ’10 or ’11. Money was just plentiful. Those days are gone. If you’re not willing to look at yourself and how you can make changes, then you’ll be left behind.
Army AL&T: For the first time, in 2014, all of the services, not just the Army, met their small business goals, probably in part as a result of Better Buying Power (BBP). What do the BBP initiatives mean for small businesses working with the Army? How is this different than before BBP?
Marks: I was raised in an environment where units do best when the boss checks. It’s not that better buying power wasn’t already here. It started with Dr. Ash Carter, now the SecDef (secretary of defense), and then continued with Mr. Kendall (the Hon. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics). So they named it.
It’s just the emphasis that was put on (BBP) from the top. So, with that, people started paying more attention to it. For example, part of Better Buying Power is that every senior executive has to have small business language in their performance evaluations. Somewhere, if you’re seeing an executive in the Army, you are potentially touching small business. And so those are types of things that Better Buying Power brought. It just pulled together those requirements that were already there, and we got that command emphasis.
Army AL&T: That command emphasis comes across in things like the annual reviews that you were just mentioning?
Marks: Exactly. For example, even for major weapon systems, I’ve got a seat at the table for small business. So as we’re going through acquisition strategies, small business is a part of that. Even though it was required, that wasn’t always the case. And so Ms. Shyu expects me or somebody from my office to be in the room when they’re talking about those strategies. That’s both on the weapon systems side and the services side.
That has permeated throughout our Army to those commands I told you about, the heads of contracting authorities. So our requiring activities, who actually have the mission, have the funding that is budgeted for them and have to come up with the requirements to support their mission. That triad, if you will, works together to ensure that the field is diversified and that our industrial base is diversified in order to meet our mission needs.
Army AL&T: Partnerships are a big part of working in and with small businesses. For the businesses themselves, how is the Army fostering effective partnerships?
Marks: Better Buying Power says they want us to do more outreach, number one, with our industry partners. It used to be that we would be very secretive about upcoming requirements. Today, we hold advance planning briefs with industry throughout the Army with our commands. You’ve got industry in the room, you’ve got the government in the room, and we’re sharing that we might need X coming up in the next five years. So that helps them with their planning. And that’s shared with all of industry—small, mid-tier and large.
That’s how we try to formulate those partnerships. Our PEOs, our program executive offices, that work for Ms. Shyu, they’re all into the outreach business. Our main commands, too, hold these planning briefs that industry comes to. Inside the Army itself, it’s a total team effort, you know. And teams can get complicated at times, but everybody understands that it’s about mission support to the warfighters, and we try to pull the best teams together to get there. That would include the small business capabilities that we can find that will assist us, both in services and weapon systems, to do that job that the secretary and the chief [Army chief of staff] direct our commanders to do.
Army AL&T: You have particular expertise in the government’s acquisition of services. Do small businesses have a particular role to play in providing services to the government, as opposed to providing a physical product?
Marks: There is not a thing that we do in the Army that a small business does not touch. Say we need a linguist todeploy to support our forces in Afghanistan. A lot of those linguists come from small businesses, up to the scientist that helps work on a research and development project with the (U.S. Army) Research, Development and Engineering Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground (Maryland). In terms of services, the Army spend with small business is about 81 percent on services versus 19 percent on products. (See Figure 1.) Small business plays such a big role in services that sometimes we can’t find enough of them.
Army AL&T: One of the things that the commands seem to be very accustomed to doing is measuring their success in the amount of dollars spent. How do you measure success with small business?
Marks: Well, the true measure of success is when requiring activities, our commands, want to keep them on their team. That’s really the true measure of success, the capabilities that they brought to the table.
Army AL&T: How would you rate the information systems support to the Army’s small business effort? Is the Army, first, doing enough to make it easier for small business to qualify and compete? And, second, is the Army making it easy enough for program managers to track those small businesses and their performance?
Marks: We’ve created some in-house things here. We have a website that small businesses can go to—any business, but in particular our small businesses. They can search for every small business specialist that we have employed by the Army, by command, on that list. So if you’re looking for the AMC small business advocate, it pulls up the contact information for Nancy Small (director of the small business office at AMC) and her folks, or somebody down at the Army Contracting Command, or the Mission and Installation Contracting Command in San Antonio.
We also have on that website a step-by-step guide on how to do business with us. And we include an acquisition forecast that our commands put together, which we update throughout the year, because things change in what the out-years look like based on mission requirements. And we work with CIO (the Army chief information officer)/G-6 to try to get the right information support systems in place.
When we get those forecasts—all posted by those five major commands—businesses can go there, click and see what’s hot on the shopping list for AMC. I will tell you, we’ve got commanders in the field today, like Gen. Via at AMC and Lt. Gen. Bostick at USACE, that really believe in small businesses and want to see them succeed. As long as small businesses can bring the right capability to the table to support those mission requirements, they have an opportunity to compete.
Army AL&T: Can you give us some examples, if necessary without naming them, of small businesses that have succeeded as the result of working with the Army Office of Small Business Programs?
Marks: What comes to mind, even before I came here, is the mentor-protégé program. That’s been around for several years. To date, we’ve had 80 small businesses that have graduated from that program and have gone on to be successful. The mentor-protégé program pairs a large business with a small business in order for that large business to help enhance the capabilities of that small business.
One of the mentor programs took a small company and helped them be very successful with overseas deployment processing of their people, which, number one, reduced some of the dollars on the contract. Number two, it provided a forward deployment center in Dubai, which aided the buildup in Afghanistan.
So, today, we’ve got about 21 mentor-protégé agreements that are in place that are working very well between the partners.
Army AL&T: Lots of Army Acquisition Workforce members may think, “This is an Army-level program; nothing I can do.” But is that true? How can the individual members of the Army Acquisition Workforce help in working with small businesses? The program executive offices? The Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology?
Marks: The Army’s about chain of command. So, on the green-suit side, we always talked to the term “commander,” and I wore the green suit. And commanders are responsible, right? On the civilian side, Ms. Shyu, who owns the PEOs, the program executive offices that are responsible for the design, the research and development of those products that our warfighters need: She is on board. She is the number one fan of our small businesses. On the green-suit side of the house, down through the secretary to the chief, the commanders with the stars, they, too, have given direction and guidance that small business is an integral part of the industrial base.
We need to ensure that we’re diversifying that portfolio of contractors when we’re spending those dollars in support of mission requirements. I’ve been to every one of those major commands in my six months, and they’re all on board. Again, it’s not about a giveaway. It’s about looking at what that mission requirement is, and how, when we get ready to put that team together, we have the right players on the team in order to be successful.
For more information on Army small business programs, including the mentor-protégé program and other opportunities for small businesses as well as information for government small business offices, go to the website of Marks’ office at http://www.sellingtoarmy.info/.
This article was originally published in the January – March 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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