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Supplier Diversity

WSSC rewards diverse suppliers with “the A-team mentality”

“We make sure minority businesses not only get contracts, but get paid for work well done,” says the small, local and minority business enterprise director


When setting goals for procurement spending with diverse suppliers, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC, Laurel, MD) targets not just its contract awards but, more importantly, its payments, says small, local and minority business enterprise (SLMBE) director Towanda Livingston.

“That is where the rubber meets the road: making sure minority businesses not only get contracts, but are paid for work well done,” says Livingston. She has been director of the SLMBE office at WSSC since November 2006.

In June 2007, WSSC set a goal of a 26 percent spend with diverse suppliers, and Livingston says it has exceeded that mark every year. For fiscal year 2012, WSSC’s $102.3 million in payments to minority-owned businesses (MBEs) accounted for 28 percent of its total contract outlays, Livingston reports. That spending level is up dramatically from the $42 million in MBE contract payments on record when Livingston came aboard in 2006.

WSSC is a quasi-public water and wastewater utility with a network of nearly 5,600 miles of fresh water pipeline and more than 5,400 miles of sewer pipeline. It serves Maryland’s Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. WSSC started its supplier diversity program more than three decades ago to increase the number of women and minority-owned businesses doing contract work with the commission.

In 2001, WSSC started the Small Local Business Enterprise (SLBE) program, designed to boost its contracting with small businesses in the two counties it serves. Livingston took charge of both the MBE program and the SLBE program when she arrived at WSSC. “I determined that for these programs to be successful and be ingrained in the way we do business, it must incorporate advocacy, compliance, outreach and development of suppliers.”

Livingston reports that payments to contractors in the SLBE program have grown too, from less than $100,000 in 2006 to $23.1 million in 2012.

How WSSC assists suppliers
Supplier education and mentoring are important elements of the supplier diversity program at WSSC. “We have regular workshops to educate firms about how to bid on and win contracts at the commission, and give them the tools to grow their businesses,” Livingston says.

In May, WSSC hosted an event called Money Matters. Livingston describes it as a combination workshop, trade show and matchmaking event, organized to educate business owners about access to capital and insurance and bonding sources. Monthly training sessions teach business owners about the WSSC bid solicitation process, and each quarter the commission holds a “how to do business” conference, which often draws more than 200 attendees, Livingston says.

WSSC has its own web-based centralized bidder registration (CBR) portal where businesses interested in doing business with WSSC can register their firms. WSSC contract needs above $5,000 are advertised on the CBR system, and nearly 5,000 firms are now registered. “The biggest benefit is that it sends email alerts to registered companies when we’re soliciting for goods or services that meet their business profile,” Livingston says.

NFF: “outstanding” network services
NFF, Inc (Washington, DC), a certified MBE, has provided design, implementation, management and monitoring services for WSSC’s local and wide area networks since 2009.

“We provide network management, data center services and security architecture services for WSSC,” says CEO Hess Fatemi, who started the business in 1996.

NFF has supported local government agencies since its founding. “We’ve designed and implemented networks for the DC government’s Unified Communications Center E911 services at their call center,” says Fatemi. Other clients include the DC Metropolitan Police Department, the offices of the DC CTO and CFO, the University of the District of Columbia and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Livingston notes that NFF’s work was already highly regarded in the DC area when WSSC made its first contact with the firm. Nevertheless, when NFF replied to his first WSSC RFP, “the firm wasn’t successful on the first go-round,” Livingston says. “But afterward they got feedback at a debriefing from our procurement office, which I always encourage firms to do.”

NFF was successful in its next bid, and Livingston says all reports indicate his company is doing outstanding work. “The feedback from our internal stakeholders is that their work is of the highest quality,” Livingston says. ‘That’s exactly what we need here at the commission. We’re not looking for amateurs. We’re looking for people who have the A-team mentality.”

Requirements for doing business
The MBE program requires certification from either the Maryland Department of Transportation, Prince George’s County Supplier Diversity Division, the District of Columbia’s Local Small Business Enterprise Agency, the Maryland and District of Columbia Minority Supplier Development Council, or the Women Presidents Educational Organization, the regional arm of WBENC. The SLBE program requires certification by WSSC’s SLMBE office. Each interested company submits an application and financial information to Livingston’s office for approval.

In keeping with its priority on payments to suppliers, WSSC upgraded its compliance system to keep better tabs on whether its prime contractors are paying the subs. “The crux of our compliance system is that the subcontractors have to validate that they’ve been paid,” Livingston explains.

Livingston lists a host of reasons that WSSC sees value in working with a diverse base of supplier companies. “Diversity boosts competition, decreases costs, helps build jobs and brings new businesses to our area,” she says. “It also reflects the community in which we serve, which helps to build trust in the commission as a world-class provider of wastewater services.”


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