Government Business Is Now There For The Taking

March 30, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — A few companies in West Michigan are prime contractors to the Federal government, but many more companies here have the potential to be suppliers or subcontractors to those "primes," according to Pamela Poort, an expert in the government procurement process.

Unique Truck Equipment Inc. is both.

Based on South Division in Grand Rapids, Unique Truck had over $2 million in sales last year, and roughly 45 percent of that business involved government orders, either directly or indirectly.

Founded in 1993 by Dick Stillwell, Unique Truck sells specialized equipment and tools typically used in maintenance and repair of trucks and buses, especially fleet operations. Its products are sold all over the U.S. through its catalog and Web site.

"We work with what's called 'the primes,'" said Ryan DeWard, vice president of sales at Unique Truck and one of the company owners.

One of those "primes" is British aeronautics giant BAE Systems, a global company with 97,500 employees worldwide and 2007 sales in excess of 15.7 billion pounds, or $31.4 billion. BAE Systems is a prime contractor to the U.S. government and claims to be the sixth largest U.S. defense contractor. It is now contending for a $15 billion contract to design and produce 160,000 ground combat vehicles for the U.S. military, and also is trying to interest the military in a mine-resistant vehicle designed for towing disabled combat vehicles.

DeWard said BAE Systems "will call us and say, 'Hey, we're building a new shop,' and then order new shop equipment. We've done a couple locations for them." Those were equipment orders for vehicle assembly facilities in Pennsylvania and in Southeast Michigan.

But DeWard noted that Unique Truck also has been working directly with the federal government. It actually has been a government supplier for some time, starting before DeWard joined the company five years ago.

"We've got our CAGE code," he said, referring to the Commercial and Government Entity federal identification code assigned to each approved supplier/contractor.

Unique Truck doesn't carry mud flaps for truckers; it specializes in sophisticated and expensive equipment such as powerful lifting machinery and electronic diagnostic machines for testing truck engines. One of its largest single orders was placed last year by the Wisconsin National Guard for a $90,000 lift capable of raising an 80-ton vehicle so mechanics can work underneath it.

The company also provides all kinds of truck/bus mechanic tools and even a few proprietary products of its own, which are manufactured locally. The proprietary products include safety equipment, such as a retractable ladder that can be permanently mounted on a truck trailer and a device for lifting and holding tires while being removed or mounted on a truck or bus.

Sales to the federal government are increasing for Unique Truck, said DeWard. "Last year was a big increase over 2006."

One product the U.S. Army has been buying directly from Unique Truck is its swing-down step, which is installed on a flatbed trailer to provide safe and easy access to the truck bed on any kind of terrain. A manufacturer that supplies flatbed trailers to the Army is also ordering the step. That business resulted from a visit Unique Truck representatives made to the U.S. Army's TACOM Life Cycle Management Command in Warren, Mich. TACOM does research and development involving heavy military vehicles, among other things.

Unique Truck is a good example of a successful government contractor because DeWard "does due diligence," according to Pamela Poort of the Muskegon Area First Procurement Technical Assistance Center.

Even with his prior experience dealing with the government, DeWard attended the class offered by PTAC, and said he found Poort and her assistant, Sheila Polacco, to be a "very valuable resource when we have questions about how the contracting works" with the federal government.

"She said, 'Consider us another unpaid staff person,'" recalled DeWard. So he does — Poort joked that DeWard "called me five times a day."

In addition to the classes for companies that would like to obtain government orders, the Muskegon Area First PTAC office also does "a lot of research" on what is happening in the world of government procurement, "and they can send us that information quite quickly," said DeWard.

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