Soma Investment LLC, like many small companies, is in danger of missing out on a piece of the stimulus pie.
Ismail Harun, president and chief executive of the Milwaukee company, said he wants Soma to break into public contracting work to take advantage of stimulus opportunities. But it will be difficult to compete in a new market against large firms that have been bidding for Wisconsin Department of Transportation jobs for years, he said.
Soma has done landscaping work with the city of Milwaukee, and it is trying to get some traffic-control work on WisDOT contracts, Harun said. But to succeed, the company will need to be certified as a minority-owned business with the state and build relationships with general contractors.
“There are a lot of bumps ahead of us that we need to go through,” Harun said. “The bigger competitors are the ones that have this experience and have done this job a million times.”
There’s pressure on new contractors to break into new markets to chase stimulus work, just as there is also pressure on established companies to protect their market shares. Edwards Engineering Consultants LLC, Milwaukee, was established in 1991 and has already created relationships with WisDOT and the city of Milwaukee through past projects, said Claude Williams Jr., owner and senior engineer.
The short-term goal of stimulus is to create jobs, Williams said, but the broader goal is to give companies such as Edwards Engineering an opportunity to grow and successfully compete for projects two years from now when the stimulus money is gone.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve,” he said.
Edwards already is seeing more competition for transportation design contracts from engineering companies that formerly stuck to subdivision work, he said.
“We expect to see a lot of competition (for stimulus),” he said, “not just from the firms we know, but a lot of other firms are beginning to move into the Milwaukee market.”
Harun and Williams were among more than 150 people who attended a Monday morning meeting in Milwaukee in which state and local governments outlined hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus projects and opportunities. Almost every member of the audience raised a hand when moderator Wallace White, president and CEO of W2Excel LLC, Milwaukee, asked who represented businesses looking for stimulus money.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act could create a lot of opportunities for business expansion if companies can win the contracts, said Steve Sletten, senior environmental scientist for Madison-based engineering firm PBS&J.
“It will be competitive,” he said. “I think what you have to hope for is that there’s a big enough pot of projects out there and you can get a small part of it. You just want a slice.”
Sletten, who was unemployed until PBS&J hired him recently, said there are many experienced engineers looking for jobs, so companies could grow quickly if they can start hiring.
“There’s a ton of talent,” he said. “It’s amazing. I often joked that if you had a war chest of funds you could pull together your own company.”
White, chairman of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Milwaukee, and Curtis Harris, executive director of the chamber, said companies will get stimulus money by breaking into new niches or getting certified to bid with different government agencies.
“You need social services, too,” White said, “but this is business.”