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WisBusiness.com: ‘Wisconsin in Washington’ event aims to bring home business

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Nearly four dozen executives from Wisconsin companies will be in Washington today and Wednesday, meeting with legislators, their staffs and key agencies in an effort to drum up business and create jobs.

“Last year we had 25-30 firms participate, but this year the number is closer to 40” current and would-be contractors, said Aina Vilumsons, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Procurement Institute.

Her group is co-hosting the "Wisconsin in Washington" event with the biotech advocacy group BioForward.

“There is definitely more interest in going after federal dollars this year,” noted Vilumsons, who said her group has helped Badger State companies win several billion dollars in contracts over the past five years.

That effort, she said, has meant 6,000 jobs for state residents.

Vilumsons said Wisconsin companies sell more than $4 billion in goods and services to federal agencies annually.

The Oshkosh Corp., which makes heavy vehicles primarily for the military, brings home the lion's share of business. In fiscal year 2008, its sales were over $1.8 billion.

Next in line was GE, which had $253 million in federal sales for that period, she said.

Since 9/11, WPI's knowledge of how things are done in Washington has become “a lot more intimate,” she said.

“We can share our relationships with companies and help them get things done because we’ve already done the homework,” she said.

Moreover, she said her organization can teach businesses how to get involved in the early development and decision-making of the all-important funding process, she added.

“Wisconsin in Washington helps teach contractors how to participate in the development and prioritization of federal funding, not just the chasing of opportunities as they become public,” she said.

Vilumsons said participants will have the opportunity to meet with nearly a dozen agencies, including the Department of Defense, General Services Agency, Military Cancer Institute, NASA, FDA and Department of Homeland Security, Veterans Administration and Department of Energy.

“This is a good opportunity for businesses that want to move up the ladder in terms of finding opportunities for more work, dollars and contracts,” she said.

New this year, she said, is a two-track emphasis. One group is the traditional construction/manufacturing sector, while the other is focusing on biotechnology.

Another change from previous years is the event is more focused on direct business opportunities and less on policy.

Richard Deschauer, director of contracts for Milwaukee’s DRS Power & Control Technologies, said he's going to Washington for two reasons.

“We are a large business, and we are always trying to help out and mentor small companies,” said Deschauer, whose firm does 90 percent of its work with the Navy, making equipment for both submarines and surface ships.

“At the same time, this is a good chance to meet with the Wisconsin (congressional) delegation and talk about different opportunities here in our state,” he said.

Kim Olson, the Madison-based director of government and industrial sales for Spectrum Brands/Rayovac, has participated in these trips for nearly a decade.

“I go for a number of reasons,” said Olson, who noted her company has contracts with the Veterans Administration, General Services Administration and the Army’s research and development arm.

“One is that there is a new administration, so there are acquisition, legislation and policy changes. It’s always good to understand the way the bell rings and understand best practices.

“We’ll also be talking to the DOE (Department of Energy) about stimulus funding, so perhaps we’ll be going after that,” she said. “We’ll be meeting with other agencies as well.

“And while I’m out there, I always do a lot of networking with others in the state,” she added. “That’s a good way to find potential partnerships in Wisconsin.”

For “newbies,” she said the event “is a great way to get your feet wet and understand what federal contracting is all about and go after federal grants.”

On the biotech side, Brian Curry – CEO of the Milwaukee-based Physiogenix pharmaceutical company – hopes to gain access to senators and representatives and inform them about the importance of the life science industry in Wisconsin.

“This is different than a ‘Town Hall’ meeting,” said Curry, who has attended other "Wisconsin in Washington" events. “We can get in front of them with our issues when they are in a government mode.”

During his first conference, he learned “how procurement works and how you sell into the government.

“They don’t just buy tanks. They buy pencils and computers and software. They are a client, and you have to make buying from you as easy as possible.

“That’s laid down really well as these gatherings,” added Curry, whose firm has sold research models to the federal government.

In addition, he's to meet with agency officials who make funding decisions affecting the biotech industry.

“We’ve received more than $5 million in R&D funding over the past five years. That’s a big part of our growing company, so we want to keep in touch with the individuals who are in charge of those funding decisions.”

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