Bridging the Gap Between the Private Sector & Department of Veterans Affairs
February 07, 2022
In this episode of Government Health Insights, which discusses the benefits of the private sector collaborating with the Department of Veterans Affairs and government agencies, Dr. David Shulkin, formerly the ninth secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Ron Dreskin, Partner in EisnerAmper’s Health Care Services Group, speak with BJ Kraemer, Managing Principal, MCFA Global. MCFA Global is a service disabled veteran owned small business that works with the Department of Veterans Affairs focused on planning strategy, project management and construction management work. BJ discusses how he got involved in the space, including how he obtained his first VA contract, advice for his colleagues trying to partner with the government, and more.
BJK: There's a long story and a short story, so I'll try to keep it pretty tight. But I obviously, because we're a service disabled veteran owned small business, I am a veteran. And how I got in the industry, our business does planning strategy, program management and construction management work. My last assignment on active duty, I did four years operational army and then did grad school and then I landed in an assignment with the Corps of Engineers building what essentially was a $1.5 billion research and development campus at Aberdeen Proving Ground. That opened my eyes to the entire civilian side and commercial side that supports military construction projects. There I met Michael Fuhrman, MCFA. They were an innovative and creative boutique consultancy helping with planning, logistics, program management, and actually some pretty innovative real estate concepts that the DoD was working through.
BJK:So I was immediately attracted to the company, got off active duty in 2010, did a short stint in private sector, swinging the bat on my own in real estate development and then joined CFA in 2012. Fast forward to 2018, I bought the majority ownership of the company. So I own 51%, which allowed us to become a service disabled veteran owned small business. So that's the short story of how I ended up in the industry and then serving the VA, that was really the adjacent possible. So I was a Corps of Engineers officer. I understood the military construction process. Sometimes you start to convince yourself if you understand how one federal government entity does construction, you think you know how all of them do. So you get excited. We saw the VA as the adjacent possible. Huge agency, lots of people, lots of facilities and lots of money around how they're executing and managing those facilities.
RD: I was just going to ask you your partner, Michael Fuhrman, does he have a similar background as you?
BJK:He actually doesn't. He is a urban planner by trade and he went back and forth between military installation work and oil and gas platforms down in the Gulf. And yet you wonder what do military installations and oil and gas platforms have in common. It's really, really expensive operating costs. So where Michael and I overlap was in innovation and creativity and bringing best practices on how do you reduce total cost of operations and reduce total cost of ownership for these large scale facilities and campuses. And that really is what led us to the VA because at the end of the day, I think it's all about stewardship of taxpayer dollars. And if we can be bringing really good best practices to these agencies and really advising leadership teams on how to take risks and push against the bureaucracy to more effectively steward their missions and the taxpayer dollars that they're trusted with.
RD:What was your experience like when you obtained your first VA contract?
BJK:So it's funny. You can do brainstorming sessions. You can whiteboard the hell out of how you're going to attack these. You can track RFPs. But I actually just got back from a conference that three years ago, Society of American Military Engineers small business conference, three years ago it was down in New Orleans and the VA had partnered up with SAME to be a part of this conference. An old boss ran into me. He is now a GS-14 running planning and facilities and engineering for the VA. So November, I'm pretty sure it was November of '19. November of '19, we run into each other. He's talking about everything he's trying to do, get his hands around. He's trying to hire people. He's got a master plan but it's not worth a damn because it's a bunch of pretty pictures but no executable project. And I said, "I think we could help you." He's like, "I think you're exactly who we need." And here we are in Hatfield, New Jersey, he's out in Long Beach, California. He's like, "Well, how do I get to you?"
Mind you, we're not a service disabled veteran owned small business yet, but I say, "We have Corps of Engineers contracts and you could probably get to us because they'll give up capacity." So again, as a small business, you're trying to navigate the bureaucracy, help your client get to a turnkey solution. He goes to his contracting folks. Six months later, he's like, "I'm getting pushback." I'm like, "What do you mean you're getting pushback? We're already a competed contract. We're the skillset you need and I'm not even going to charge because we're trying to get in the VA." I wasn't even going to charge any travel. So we were withholding any overhead. We just wanted to get the project experience and help somebody so we got a proof of concept. He goes back to work, runs through another contracting barrier.
And one of the big lessons and takeaways is finding a public champion that is all about trying to figure out who is who and what are the skill sets they need because they have a lot of work on their end. It's just not easy to get to the resources they need. But long story short, we do end up getting our service disabled status and he was able to do a limited competition, I think it was three or five service disabled veteran owned small businesses, competed for it. It was price competitive, and because we withheld our travel costs, we ended up being price competitive and obviously were the skillset and the resumes that he needed. And the project went swimmingly. But one of the big hurdles is the contracting process can be so exhausting on both sides, that by the time you win the project, either the people that were going to be on the project ave moved on or on the client side, they just run out of steam and they throw their hands up.
DS:BJ, we really appreciate your honesty about that. Do you think it needs to be that complicated? Do you think that there should be an accelerated or simplified process to do federal contracting? If so, can you identify where you think it could be simplified?
BJK:So the Federal Acquisition Regulation, every page of that exists because somebody screwed something up somewhere. So you have this biblical size machine that manages procurement. And everything is with the intent of stewardship and competition and making sure that the taxpayers don't get ripped off. But what ends up happening is there's so much waste or there's so much frustration in that process that, some people say you have to be nuts. You're doing business with one arm tied behind your back. So they're all are a bunch of simplified acquisition processes. You've got GSA schedules, you've got some sole source, but nobody is on the same page. And not that we want to get into tax policy, but it's similar to the tax policy. It's created a cottage industry of its own, just managing the bureaucratic pieces.
I'm a small business. I've got people hit me every day trying to manage different parts and pieces to make sure I'm tied out and I have my I's dotted and my T's crossed. So there's a lot of churn and a lot of waste in that process. It's all in the name of fair and reasonable competition, but it ends up being a bunch of waste. And I won't say fraud, waste and abuse, but it just allows for too much treading water while you're trying to get to solutions.
RD:What would you give your colleagues trying to get into the government sector in terms of selling their services? What advice would you give them?
BJK: I'll use us as a live case study. You have to partner with people that bring something to the table. And if somebody is doing business with the federal government and you're not yet, find a reputable company that's doing business with the federal government in an area that you want to be doing. So this is a case study in process, but what I saw in Eisneramper was extremely capable healthcare consulting. You understood healthcare operations, you understood healthcare leadership, you personally Ron, I know have run CEO and COO roles. So you understand what those organization leaders are dealing with. We understand the facility side, the programming side, and for better or worse, we understand that you have to bang your head against the wall and deal with the bureaucracy and we have a specialty there.
So going back to the whole thing about stewardship, my entire goal is to be a mechanism to bring the right resources to bear for leadership teams at these healthcare campuses. We can help them with the strategy planning and facilities and construction side, but you help us with the operational understanding and give us the capability to really identify what those leaders know. So I think joint ventures, small business mentor proteges bringing together synergistic capabilities, synergistic entities to break into that world. And the truth is, there's no easy business out there. The federal government does bring some level of complexity and it can be a very long sales cycle, business development cycle, but once you're in and once you're qualified and you're actually doing the work, that's when the fun can begin again. And you just have to be able to navigate that competitive and business development cycle.
RD:Thank you. David, any final thoughts?
DS:I think those are great perspectives that you're sharing. And overall, in terms of your satisfaction of being able to, once you're in there working in the Department of Veteran Affairs, is this something that you're committed to staying in this area for the foreseeable future?
BJK:Without a doubt. Like I said, reducing total cost of operations and stewardship of taxpayer dollars. So I started out, I'm a veteran. I come from a family of military. Giving back and ensuring that healthcare outcomes, to me, the mission of the VA is maximizing healthcare outcomes for our veterans. One day, I may be or a former soldier of mine may be dependent on those healthcare operations. So I'm definitely committed to it. There's other areas of the VA that I'm committed to. I know the VA has a mission of of solving veterans' homelessness. And I think the more efficient and effective we can be with the taxpayer dollars for the missions that they're being funded for, maybe they're savings that are created that can then go be executing and fixing the homeless mission. So I am very committed to it, so much so we've launched a nonprofit that's committed to unlocking the future for veterans around veteran homelessness and around transitioning veterans.
Because I think, not to get on a soapbox, but a lot of veterans that are transitioning out. I think they just need their next mission and I think that we can provide that. And if we're doing work like working for the VA or working for some of our infrastructure agencies, these are important components to our national economy, our national security. So I'm trying to give veterans really their next act, their next career and their next mission.
DS:So important. Thank you, BJ. It doesn't surprise me. I used to always say, when I would travel secretary and I would be in an area after public or after a natural disaster like a hurricane, and you would see people on the road giving out food or giving out water, helping people, they would almost always be veterans. So that idea of continuing to serve the next mission, I think is so right on. Doesn't surprise me you're in there doing that. So thank you again for everything. Thanks for being at guest with us today on the EisnerAmper podcast.
Transcribed by Rev.com