By Michael F. Carmichael
March 17, 2011
Every small business has to start somewhere. For Manisha Dotson, CEO of Milwaukee-based Nisha Industries, a building maintenance and security firm with 40-plus employees, it was cleaning bathrooms.
She had worked for Wisconsin Gas for 30 years. “I knew that by starting out so young I would be able to do ’30-and-out’ and be too young for Social Security. But I still wanted to work, to keep paying into Social Security. So, I started a janitorial business with my children who were 9, 10 and 13 at the time. We started picking up trash, vacuuming, mopping floors and cleaning rest rooms.”
Her break came when she acquired a large multi-year contract with a Wisconsin company to clean 10 construction trailers. Initially her company was a franchisee but after landing her big contract Dotson went off on her own. She became certified as a minority-owned enterprise, a woman-owned enterprise and finally entered, and was approved for, the U.S. Small Business Administration 8(a) Business Development Program.
Designed to help small, disadvantaged businesses compete in the market place, the 8(a) Program offers a broad scope of assistance to firms that are owned and controlled at least 51 percent by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. According to the SBA, the program allows entrepreneurs who are otherwise considered disadvantaged to gain access to the economic mainstream of American society. One aspect of the program in particular helps thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs gain a foothold in government contracting.
Participants in the 8(a) Program can receive sole-source contracts, up to a ceiling of $4 million for goods and services and $6.5 million for manufacturing. While Dotson hasn’t taken advantage of this particular aspect of the program, 8(a) firms are also able to form joint ventures and teams to bid on contracts. This enhances their ability to perform larger prime contracts.
Getting 8(a) certification is a thorough and lengthy process, explains Dotson, but well worth it. “You have to provide financials, you have to show past tax records. They ask past and present customers for performance evaluations so that they know what level of service you provided them.”
Interviewed during an appearance at a local job fair, Dotson said it was going “extremely well. “We not only train our own employees but we provide training and services for other agencies,” Dotson says. “We provide drug screening and background checks for them. Our training programs are located in some Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board offices. Most agencies don’t have time to train, so that’s an integral part of our mission.”
“When you train your people,” Dotson explains, “they better understand your needs, the needs of your clients, the need for commitment.”
Dotson says that training is one secret to her success. “The state doesn’t require training in order that people get licensed in fields such as private security. When I first started in the security business I ended up with so many unqualified individuals who didn’t have a clue about writing reports, surveillance, patrolling. They didn’t have CPR, which we require of all our officers along with the AED [Automated External Defibrillator- the device that uses paddle-shaped devices to shock a heart back into action in cases of life threatening cardiac arrhythmias, which lead to cardiac arrest] certificate. As added value for our clients, all of our officers carry credentials in life-saving techniques. That’s what sets my company aside from others,” she says proudly.
Dotson also acts as a mentor to other nascent entrepreneurs. As a winner of the Wisconsin state SBA office Emerging Business Small Business Person of the Year for 2010, that seems only natural. “I have spoken at Emerging Business Enterprise conferences to talk with people about starting businesses. About how important it is to be listed in a directory as a certified company. I’m chosen by many prime contractors because I’m listed in a directory. It’s sort of like a free advertisement.”
Dotson says “The law requires now that the prime contractors give certified subcontractors between 18 and 20 percent of large contracts with municipalities such as the city or county, so they’re looking for certified, committed companies to join in with them to help them fulfill those contracts.”
Even in these days of often severely reduced government services, there are still opportunities for SBA 8(a)-certified contractors such as Nisha Industries. “I had had experience with private entities filing bankruptcy on me and I didn’t like that,” Dotson says. “Government purchasing people recognized that if you took the time to get certification you were a responsible company.”
Even though the SBA provides a number of financing options of particular interest to minority and disadvantaged companies, Dotson explains, “My company is built on sweat equity. My company has been in business 11 years and I make sure that each contract is able to take care of the level of service that we need to provide. I put my profits back into my company.”
One of Dotson’s growth areas is The Milwaukee Rangers a private security firm. It’s actually modeled on the Texas Rangers, she says. “I looked up what a Texas Ranger was,” she laughs. “They were a very powerful team that was committed to protecting their territory. They weren’t paid like marshals or sheriffs, but were volunteers who took care of the territory that the pioneers lived in.”
Dotson points out that “Since 9/11, security has been high on the list.” And, it’s growing. When Dotson is asked if she’s hiring more Rangers, she replies enthusiastically “Yes, I am!”
She has her sights set for the Rangers to serve the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). But she has to add additional capabilities to be considered. “You have to exist in five different states and you have to cover five different functions, such as surveillance and detective work, before you can get a GSA schedule [equivalent to a ‘bid list’].”
She’s on her way, with certification by Chicago’s Transit Authority and plans to add a Rangers detachment in Texas.