Rumor has it that small business is going to be the engine that will deliver us from this economic mess.
Rumor also has it that lots of military vets live here.
This column brings together both rumors with a story about Arthur Salus, a small businessman and disabled vet (cracked his leg during parachute training) who scored big with a government contract.
His company, Duluth Travel, is the prime contractor for the Department of Veterans Affairs. That means Salus handles the travel needs of 100,000 V.A. employees, patients and family members. It also means his company’s annual revenue skyrocketed to $80 million, from $8 million. That’s a pretty steep climb from when he started the business in 1993 by borrowing $5,000 on his credit card.
While the road to government contracts had plenty of bumps for Salus, now 60, he thinks others will find a smoother path. And he thinks more small business owners should try to tap into this pipeline, especially during these tough times.
“The government pays. It won’t be going out of business,” he said.
Small businesses are supposed to get a 23 percent share of federal contracts. Disabled vets are supposed to get a 3 percent share.
For the V.A. only, which gives out about $12 billion in contracts, vets are supposed to get 8 percent, with service-disabled vets getting another 3 percent.
Before getting involved with the government, Salus was worried about the future of his business, as he watched thousands of other travel agencies close shop during the past decade. The growth of online reservation systems and the loss of commissions from airlines contributed to their demise.
To survive, Salus started climbing into the world of government contracts in 2003, only to discover that some of the government’s stated goals for small businesses and disabled vets were not being met.
“I sent 35 letters to all sorts of government agencies and only got four responses,” he said, adding they were all negative.
A smooth-talking salesman by trade (he sold cars at one point in his career), Salus decided to get to work. He even testified before Congress about how government agencies were not following federal rules.
Over the past few years, Salus said, the situation has improved, although slowly.
Since he did not have previous experience with the government, he could not win a prime contract. He had to hook up with a big travel company and become its subcontractor about six years ago. After doing that for a few years and gaining experience, Salus then bid on a prime contract in 2007.
While waiting for the verdict on which company would become the V.A.’s main travel agency for five years, Salus didn’t twiddle his thumbs in Gwinnett. He traveled to Washington several times, walking the halls of Congress and the V.A. to schmooze with any politician or bureaucrat he could corner.
He won the contract, attributing his success to networking and persistence.
“Face to face is very important. I was pleading my case. If I can do it, you can do it,” Salus said. “The only person that tells me ‘no’ is my wife. … ‘No’ to me means ‘maybe’.”
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