Breaking into new markets isn’t easy, but it can be done if you have a long-term, coordinated plan of attack.
Following 30 years as an Army Engineer officer, I went to work as a market leader for architecture and engineering firm Mead & Hunt. My mission was to build a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program from scratch.
While on the surface the skills I’d gained over a long military career were not immediately applicable to my new role, I found myself approaching this challenge as I would a military mission. Therefore, my first step would be a mission analysis – determining how success was defined within this context. Next, I assessed the target client opportunities, our firm’s capabilities and our competitors’ capabilities, otherwise known as intelligence preparation of the battlefield. Finally, I identified any potential teaming partners: I assessed and gathered friendly forces. In order to successfully break into a new market, we often find ourselves using our previous experience and skills in new and nuanced ways. Surviving in unfamiliar terrain requires a high level of adaptation.
- Mission analysis – what does success look like? When I joined Mead & Hunt in 2010, the federal program was primarily focused on work for the Air National Guard and Army National Guard. Although the firm had won an architecture-engineering indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract with the Chicago District USACE in the 1990s, they’d only received five small task orders from this contract and decided not to pursue the recompete in 1998.
After reviewing this history and the firm’s capabilities, my boss and I agreed to shift the focus to design-build opportunities for a few key facility types, as well as design opportunities where our airfield, dam, and flood control design expertise would really be valuable. With these new objectives in mind, any new contract with a USACE District would equal success.
Taking stock of where we’ve been and what we had to offer as a firm, and re-evaluating where we wanted to go moving forward, were vital pieces of our plan to break into the USACE market.
- Intelligence preparation of a competitive market. Intelligence preparation in the military involves evaluating the enemy, environment, and terrain. In a business context, it involves evaluating the opportunities and the competition. USACE is organized into a headquarters, nine divisions, 44 districts, and two centers. The geographically-organized districts are where the vast majority of architecture, engineering, and construction contracting happens.
I decided to focus on the districts where Mead & Hunt had offices, and those where I had an existing business relationship. This initially narrowed my focus to 12 districts. Within those 12 districts, I identified five A-E IDIQ opportunities and three design-build opportunities in five key district markets. Additionally, working with my boss and other market leaders at the company, we evaluated the competition in these five markets. USACE puts a very high premium on experience working directly for them, and each district has their favorite AEC contractors.
Our analysis quickly determined that we did not have the capability to go head-to-head with the competition. We needed to team with the competition to win, and either be a subconsultant on a design-build or small-business A-E team, or a joint venture partner on a large business A-E team. The intelligence preparation we completed allowed us to understand the strategies it would take to attain success.
- Gathering friendly forces. Seventy percent of my focus quickly shifted to finding the right teaming partners. This required teaming partners who:
- Had the resume needed to win one of the opportunities discussed above
- Needed Mead & Hunt’s resumes, project portfolio, or relationships to compete successfully for a USACE contract.
- Once identified, I put as much effort into winning a slot as a subconsultant or JV partner as I would a major contract pursuit. I did everything in my capability to highlight Mead & Hunt’s value to the pursuit, using my personal knowledge of the USACE district and key district personnel, Mead & Hunt’s key resumes and projects, and my ability to arrange meetings with the district. Three years of effort solidified our teaming relationships with six large and two small business A-Es, and two design-builders. Friendly forces in hand, we were now poised to break into the USACE market.
- Make yourself known. In addition to wooing teaming partners, I aggressively marketed Mead & Hunt to our 12 USACE target districts. These efforts included meetings and capabilities presentations, very active involvement in several Society of American Military Engineers posts associated with these districts, writing dozens of professional blogs and several professional articles for The Military Engineer magazine, and sending copies of these to my USACE contacts. I made sure the name “Mead & Hunt” would not be met with “Who’s that?” in the market we were vying to break into.
- Pick your targets and go for it. Based on the results of our mission analysis, intelligence preparation, and gathering friendly forces, we chose to focus on 10 key pursuits in the first three years. After two years, we’d experienced five losses, one near miss (short-listed but not selected), and no wins other than as a sub on a large business A-E contract. I was feeling very discouraged. However, our efforts focused on solidifying teaming relationships were about to pay off.
In year three, we won a significant design-build project with a well-liked contractor at Fort Polk. A few months later, our marketing efforts led to the Tulsa District USACE requesting Mead & Hunt by name for an airfield design and a separate hydro feasibility study. Because we had no contract with Tulsa District, Tulsa asked Mason & Hangar, one of their existing A-Es, if they would team with us. Our past few years of teaming effort paid off: we already had a solid relationship with Mason & Hanger, so they were happy to work with us on these task orders. Our work with them then led to Mason & Hanger asking us to form a joint venture with them for their recompete on the Tulsa A-E IDIQ, which we subsequently won.
Throughout our joint venture with Mason & Hangar, we have executed 11 task orders for Tulsa. This experience directly helped us win our second USACE A-E IDIQ with Louisville District. Though the results could not be seen immediately, I had to trust in the process I’d started. Ultimately, these tactics were successful.
- Once you’ve won it, keep it. So now we are on a roll. We’ve won the opportunity, everything is great, and we can relax, right? Not quite – winning the contract is only half the battle. Working for USACE can be just as challenging as winning the contract in the first place. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has many requirements for its contractors and consultants, and your firm’s ability to navigate these requirements has great influence, both on the Corps’ perception of you, and on your ability to be awarded task orders and additional A-E IDIQs. Among these requirements: stringent safety programs, anti-terrorism/force protection and operations security training, small business utilization and reporting, cyber security, and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs requirements including affirmative action and equal employment opportunity reporting. Additionally, the Corps expects its consultants to carefully document requests for information and project decisions, and to use DrChecks for the design and study submittal and review process.
Keeping track of each of these requirements, and navigating them successfully, is no small feat. The period after winning a contract is not a time to get complacent. Our work as subconsultants on USACE task orders, as well as our work on other non-Corps federal projects, prepared us for many of these requirements. However, actually working for USACE as a prime consultant still required a very steep learning curve. Of all the factors for success, safety and execution are by far the most important. Serious safety issues will get a consultant fired, and the quality of the consultant’s work outweighs everything else.
Breaking into a new market like USACE consulting required extensive time and effort. Through applying skills and experiences gained in different roles and different markets, I was able to successfully build Mead & Hunt’s USACE program from the ground up. Breaking into a new market can be done. Once you get there, don’t forget who you are as a firm – avoid complacency, continue performing at a high level, and maintain high standards for quality and safety. The success of obtaining a new market is not just a matter of breaking in but staying there, and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships for years to come.
Miro Kurka, P.E., PMP, F. SAME is vice president and group leader for Mead & Hunt’s Water Resources Group. As a group leader his goal is to achieve a sustainable, growing and profitable business offering a quality product and aligning his group’s goals and objectives to support the corporate mission and vision. A retired U.S. Army officer, he managed the Corps of Engineers’ program in Tulsa, Portland, and Afghanistan for 30 years, bridging gaps, overcoming obstacles, and tackling large challenges. He loves traveling and meeting people. He can be reached at email@example.com.