Formula for success — State website connects businesses with projects

A new website will help connect Louisiana businesses — large, small, owned by minorities, women or veterans — to potential contracts involving billions worth of industrial and coastal restoration projects.

Since 2010, chemical, petrochemical and energy companies have announced plans for more than $165 billion in new Louisiana plants or expansions. Roughly $65 billion of the megaprojects have been permitted, are in the engineering and design phase, under construction or have already been built. No one knows how much of that work has gone to Louisiana businesses. Whatever the amount, Louisiana Economic Development officials believe it could be more and that Louisiana Business Connection is the avenue to achieve that.

“Previous to now, what? We had to push the Yellow Pages across to them (megaprojects) and say, ‘Please shop with our local companies that can be service providers,'” Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson said.

It’s one thing to suggest that a petrochemical company — even one getting millions in incentives and tax cuts for a project — ask its prime contractor or contractors to use Louisiana companies and vendors. It’s another to give the primes a web portal that automatically generates a list of qualified firms that can fill their needs. may be the first such portal in the United States, Pierson said, and may eventually serve as the template other states follow.

Michael Hecht, CEO of GNO Inc., said the website also could help grow the regional economy in another way: by increasing local companies’ participation in the billions of dollars of restoration projects included in the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s master plan.

“What we are trying to do is improve upon the post-(Hurricane) Katrina experience, where despite tens of billions of dollars of investment, only a small fraction went to local firms,” Hecht said.

The vast majority of that money went to out-of-state and even foreign companies, he said.

On, small businesses create a profile that shows their abilities, insurance coverage, safety ratings, certifications and other information needed to match the firms with prime contractors. Contractors create a profile that describes the specific requirements of the projects the small businesses may fit. Once the contractor’s profile is complete, the website instantly generates a list of small businesses tailored to the project’s needs. The primes can review the matches, contact them immediately or save the list for later.

Louisiana Business Connection was inspired by Louisiana Job Connection, a free online platform that connects job seekers with employment opportunities. The program matches applicant skills with company needs. Companies participating on Louisiana Job Connection may extend their current profile to Louisiana Business Connection.

LED, the U.S. Department of Energy, regional economic development partners and local companies piloted Louisiana Business Connection in 2016 and early 2017. They picked southwest Louisiana for the pilot because billions are being invested in new industrial projects.

R.B. Smith, vice president, workforce development, for the Southwest Louisiana Alliance for Economic Development, said the matchmaking program helps prime contractors by vetting small businesses. The small businesses can avoid working through a prime’s procurement process, a thicket many small firms have difficulty navigating.

The program went live statewide two weeks ago. So far, more than 50 prime contractors and about 500 small business vendors have filled out profiles.

Chief of Minds, a Baton Rouge-based human resources consulting firm, is one of them.

CEO Lakeisha Robichaux’s company has been in business for three years and pursuing work as a government- or private-project subcontractor for about half that time.

It’s important for small businesses to be thorough in listing the services they provide and their qualifications, including all the certifications secured through LED and other agencies, Robichaux said.

The federal government’s annual goal is to award 23 percent of all contracting dollars to small businesses, with smaller percentages for different qualifying groups. The certifications may help a small company gain some work.

For example, Robichaux’s firm has certifications for the Hudson Initiative, LED’s Small and Emerging Business Development Program, woman-owned, minority-owned, and disadvantaged business enterprises. The company is pursing the Small Business Administration’s 8a certification. All of the \ programs are designed to help small businesses compete for federal and state contracts.

Robichaux said Louisiana Business Connection could help firms like hers with some of the challenges involved in subcontracting.

It can be difficult for a small firm to find the entry point for a project. Some aren’t put out for bid. Others require knowledge of a specific portal. Small companies also struggle to get appointments with decision makers or to compete against larger firms who may have resources to market themselves all day, every day.

Having one portal that ties all the knots together, where small firms can get their names in front prime contractors, and the primes can connect to companies like hers is exciting, Robichaux said.

“We haven’t gotten any (contracts) yet, but the program just launched,” Robichaux said. “The potential is there.”

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