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Lorna Nicholson Featured

10:36am EDT March 28, 2003
The Bid Sheet may be a nonprofit venture, but it is, nonetheless, intended to pay dividends to contractors who use it. The intended beneficiaries, mostly minority and women contractors, often have limited resources for tracking down business opportunities, yet they are the ones who most need help in getting a toehold with prime and general contractors.

Many are behind the curve when it comes to being connected to the Internet and e-mail capabilities, so a paper document like the Bid Sheet, sent by mail or fax, is often the most effective way to disseminate contract information.

"In Southwestern Pennsylvania, the contracting business is very competitive and complex, and even more so for small businesses, in particular, minority and women business owners in the building, construction, professional and service industries," says Lorna Nicholson, president of Contract Management Services and founder of the Bid Sheet.

Nicholson launched the Bid Sheet in 1997 to help minority and women subcontractors get on track with projects going out for bid. She bootstrapped the effort, sent it out by mail and fax to minority contractors and built a list of 3,000 subscribers.

The Bid Sheet serves as a clearinghouse for bids that are within the reach of small contractors. It is designed to disseminate information about available contracts between $50,000 and $500,000 in value.

Now, with the help of a $5,000 grant from the PNC Foundation, Nicholson has spun the Bid Sheet out as a nonprofit. She is hoping to expand its reach and, by extension, the reach of subcontractors who often find it difficult to land work with prime contractors.

Smart Business sat down with Nicholson to talk about the Bid Sheet and how it serves it clients.

What gap in the contracting process does the Bid Sheet attempt to close?

It is the only local publication of bids and contract notices targeted exclusively to small and mid-sized businesses in the building, construction, professional and service industries.

It is categorized by trades and services in a comprehensive, accurate and easy-to-understand format. It enables and encourages quick turnaround response from small businesses while allowing for sufficient lead time to solicit, prepare and submit bid responses to upcoming bids and proposals from the majority/privately owned companies, prime contractors, government agencies and other major sources.

Why are minority contractors at a disadvantage when it comes to securing contracts?

Bids and contract information are not distributed effectively nor in a timely manner to encourage or allow small businesses to solicit and respond successfully to bid requests.

Legal bids and contract notices must be and are advertised in three local Pittsburgh newspapers but on varying days, depending on the paper.

Most small businesses are intimidated by large projects. Some reasons are the capital needed, bonding and insurance requirements, manpower and start-up cost necessary to even begin the project. As such, rarely do they try to bid on any of these projects listed in the larger publications.

The sheer size of these projects makes it extremely difficult for most small businesses to bid on them, especially as prime or subcontractors in the trades and services.

Some large projects out for bid are snatched up early on by larger prime construction contractors because they subscribe to, are members of or might learn of upcoming project information from local publications that carry an array and abundance of major bids and contract notices. The cost to subscribe, however, can be enormously expensive for the average small business.

How does the PNC Foundation grant help to overcome these problems?

We can make sure that (more of the contractors) are contacted. Small contractors need information. They're out in the field, they make a choice every day to be in their office looking for bids or on the job.

So this enables them to be on the job and have (bid) information come to them every Friday morning before noon. We want to make the Bid Sheet simpler and easier to access by the region's small business owners, via weekly faxes, e-mail, Web links and telephone.

We are developing a working relationship with Kinko stores to have the Bid Sheet printed at each of its 12 locations throughout the region for pickup by businesses we currently mail to.

Does the Bid Sheet benefit anyone else?

What is nice about this is that it serves the general contractor who is looking for minority and women contractors. They can give us a call, they can send us their bids instead of making calls, maybe trying to reach a subcontractor who is not available or has changed his number, maybe even is out of business.

They put the information on the Bid Sheet and they'll get the calls from the subcontractors.

You said tone of the obstacles for some minority contractors is the lack of a connection to modern communications technology. That's bound to change, so how are you planning to keep pace with the Bid Sheet?

We have an e-mail address, and we're looking at getting a Web site. Contractors will be able to pull a bid and tap into it. A lot of our contractors are not on the Web yet. They've got faxes and minimum e-mail, that's all. We're linked to the Web through the Small Business Development Centers at Pitt, Duquesne and Seton Hill. How to reach: The Bid Sheet can be contacted by e-mail at bidsheet.cms@verizon.net and is linked to the following Web sites: Duquesne University, www.duq.edu/sbdc; Seton Hill University, www.e-magnify.com/news.asp; University of Pittsburgh SBDC, www.sbdc.pitt.edu