SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The two chatted amiably across the table; he was earnest, she was interested.
Laura Gloss knew what she wanted. She was looking for a small business that could make precision parts for her $2 billion company’s aerospace division.
Will Rood owns B&B Precise Products Inc., a high-end contract machine shop in Benton that employs 40 and does work in sectors including defense, commercial aerospace, oil and gas, energy and semiconductors.
It was a match made in South Portland — one of many happening Wednesday.
More than 385 small-business people attended the Department of Defense Northeast Region Council’s matchmaking event, organized by the offices of Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and the Maine Procurement Technical Assistance Center. About 150 of those small-business people were from Maine.
The matchmaking on Wednesday was part of a three-day conference. It featured roughly 100 officials from federal agencies and prime contractors — big companies such as General Dynamics, Burns & McDonnell Inc., Teradyne and Raytheon.
Federal agencies and contractors working on U.S. government contracts are supposed to make good-faith efforts to have varying percentages of work done by small businesses.
“Uncle Sam has quotas they expect us to meet,” said Joseph Brem, Gloss’ colleague from Moog Inc.
For companies such as Rood’s, the matchmaking event was a target-rich environment. Instead of working for days, weeks or even months to track down the right person to talk to at a prime contractor or agency, small businesses had an opportunity to spend a day meeting with them in 10-minute sessions.
Rood attended a similar event in 2006 and had a Vermont-based aerospace customer about four months later.
“It was the face-to-face connection, being able to give our elevator speech about what we do,” said Rood.
In today’s global economy, entrepreneurs in Maine are proving the truth in the assertion that high-skill companies can be based anywhere, with customers across the country and world. But it’s equally true that old-fashioned business customs such as a handshake and personal meeting are critical.
CB Smith employs 35 people in Caribou at Virtual Managed Solutions. Employees, most of them ATX workers who were laid off, remotely access and service computer systems across the country, working on the telecom infrastructure put into place by FairPoint and GWI.
Smith came to the South Portland conference hoping to break into government work. His company is a veteran-owned business, a small business and is “HUBZone Certified” — all things that federal agencies find desirable. On Wednesday, he met with the Department of Homeland Security, the Treasury Department and SAIC, a giant science, technology and engineering company.
“An event like this lets us walk up, look someone in the eye and get to know them on a personal level,” said Smith.
Getting into government work, either directly or as a subcontractor, can be important for a number of reasons.
“You want to have customers with money to spend,” said Ed Dahl, regional manager of the Maine Procurement Technical Assistance Center, a federally funded nonprofit group that helps small businesses access the government market.
The federal government spends more than half a trillion dollars a year on goods and services, Dahl said, and 23 percent of that is directed to small business. And long-term government contracts tend to mitigate bumps in the economy, smoothing out the ups and downs, said Bob Ziegelaar, a board member of Old Town-based Sewall.
Another benefit of these types of contracts is that they bring new money to the state: It’s not just Maine companies spending money on other Maine companies.
Ziegelaar met with representatives from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery as well as from the Army Corps of Engineers. Sewall employs about 145 people, mostly in Old Town, and is a leader in high-tech aerial photos and all the back-office support needed to process them.
“I’d be very surprised if we didn’t have any business out of this conference within a year,” said Ziegelaar.
Philip Lander worked for Sargent Corp. for years, then was deployed with the Air National Guard after the Sept. 11 attacks for 3½ years. When he returned, he decided to start his own business, Atlantic Defense Co. of Bangor, in 2005, as a Certified Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business. Today the firm employs about 25 people.
Working with other Maine businesses such as Cianbro, Sargent, Lane Construction, Milton Industries and others, Atlantic Defense has worked on a number of projects, including some significant ones at the Togus VA Medical Center. Lander would like to increase his government work.
Years ago, construction companies had a good market in paper mill work and at air bases such as Loring in Aroostook County. But that work has dwindled. Small firms like his must take advantage of opportunities such as the networking event to build other sources of business, said Lander. Today, he said, the lack of jobs means Maine exports its children and grandchildren.
“I would like to export knowledge,” he said.