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National Veterans Small Business Conference and Expo

Location: Detroit, MI

Good afternoon. I'm honored to be here. Tom Leney, thanks for that kind introduction, and thank you for your work on behalf of all Veteran-owned small businesses. Let me also acknowledge:

Governor Rick Snyder. Thank you for your hospitality in welcoming us to Michigan and for sharing your insights about its future;

My thanks to all our Veterans service organizations for their support, among them The American Legion, AMVETS, Blinded Veterans Association, Disabled American Veterans, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars;

We brought an unprecedented number of procurement decision makers here to connect with you. In addition to nearly 600 VA staff, led by our Chief of Staff, John Gingrich, and VA's key decision makers, more than 40 other departments and agencies have over 200 key leaders on the ground here;

Special thanks to our Department of Defense (DoD) colleagues, Director Andre Gudger, DoD Office of Small Business Programs, Generals Mike Terry, U. S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, and Margaret Burcham, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for their support of this Detroit hiring and small business initiative;

VA's Detroit Task Force: Mike Finegan, Pam Reeves, Kim Graves, Dave Leonard, and the real heavy lifters--Mike Walcoff, Brent Thelen, Ginny Creasman, Terri Tocco, Crystal Lindsay, and Jennifer Deakin. Mike, thanks for leading us on this project; and to the Task Force members, thanks for bringing this large initiative together so well;

Let me also acknowledge Tom Moe, State Veterans Director for Ohio. Tom is a Vietnam Veteran who spent five years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. Tom, thanks for being here today;

Fellow Veterans; other VA colleagues; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for being here. This training exposition is for you, but your being here makes the conference. We are here in Motor City, U.S.A., to find Veterans work and help them succeed in business. That's the mission this week, plain and simple. Detroit's long and storied history as an industrial powerhouse for American innovation makes it an appropriate venue to train, teach, coach, and mentor Veterans and Veteran business owners on how to increase their competitive edge to become the future leaders in American business.

We have a lot to accomplish this week. We are here to help you get as much done as is possible. Stretch yourselves. Get maximum value out of the investment you've already made to attend this training exposition. Ordinarily, it might take two or three, maybe even four, separate conferences to achieve what we have laid out here in Detroit 2012. We are maximizing the return on your investment of time and money to be here. We advocate for you, so let's get the most out of this extraordinary opportunity. Let's put our advocacy to work, quickly. I want to have Veterans employed and small business contracts rolling before the end of summer. We're ready, are you?

We need you to be good, agile, strong, and smart; and we need to do everything to help you grow. It takes toughness to be a small business owner right now. I think it's always challenging for small businesses, but right now anxieties are running high. Yet now is the time for bold, prudent, risk takers to get a jump.

Small businesses are the connective tissues--part muscle, part sinew--in American business. They are grown and built by men and women who see possibility, vision; who seek opportunity, just the chance to compete; and, who fight through adversity, toughness, to deliver their dreams. More than ever, we need this entrepreneurial spirit to spark and flash, not dwindle and die. Small businesses spring from big dreams, and they lead to even bigger dreams. This is important to you. This is important to the country. Aren't we the folks who won the wars for this Nation? Well, the Nation needs us now to win this one against a lethargic economy.

President Obama reminds us all that "Our freedom endures because of the men and women in uniform who defend it … We must serve them as well as they served us." He, then, provided VA the means by which to deliver on that premise.

In 2009, the VA budget totaled $99.8 billion. The President's 2013 budget request, currently before the Congress, is for $140.3 billion--a 40 percent increase over the most difficult years since the Great Depression. Most everything was on the brink of collapse, but we are here today. We fought through fear and confusion and uncertainty; we know the meaning of tough; and, determination is more than a word.

Few private-sector businesses, and even fewer federal departments, have sustained the kind of budget growth that VA has received, thanks to the President's leadership, his personal commitment to honoring Veterans, and his sense of obligation to us all. And Congress has stepped up. But we're a long ways from being back to where we need to be with the economy. And, as I just indicated, you have a role to play.

So, how are we doing? In 2007, only 10 percent of VA's procurement dollars went to Veteran-owned small businesses. This was not a mark anyone was particularly proud of, so with leadership intervention at all levels, and a 2008 Veterans First buying initiative, that percentage has steadily increased over time.

In fiscal year 2011, VA awarded almost $3.6 billion dollars to Veteran-owned small businesses--33.7 percent of our total procurement dollars, and exceeding our goal for that year of 33.5 percent. That's more than three times what we procured from small businesses in 2007, and almost tripling our VA goal of 12 percent.

Of those $3.6 billion dollars contracted to Veteran-owned small businesses in 2011, $3.2 billion went to service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses--over 18.2 percent of all our procurement dollars. This is more than every other federal agency combined, except for DoD, whose contracting budget dwarfs the rest of us. That's a significant turnaround for VA in just four years, and we intend to keep building that momentum. But as Babe Ruth used to say, "Yesterday's home runs don't win today's games."

Total percentages of procurement dollars for small businesses fell a few percentage points in 2011. But our performance was still nearly six times the government-wide goal of 3% for SDVOSB contracts. To ensure we deliver on our 2012 promises, I am holding all senior leaders responsible for the following:

Any contract not going to a Veteran-owned small business must be reviewed by a senior executive and concurred in by a senior contracting executive.

When the federal supply schedule is used for contracting, senior leaders must, again, review decisions prior to any award to other than a Veteran-owned small business.

All senior executive performance evaluations will include a small business performance metric.

For the first time, VA has established small business procurement goals all the way down to the lowest senior executive level that exercises procurement responsibilities; for instance, at a medical center or a regional office or a cemetery. Within overall departmental goals, senior executives are now accountable for specific goals.

Additionally, our prosthetics departments will be required to pursue small business options to the maximum extent possible.
We are going to achieve our established goals by 30 September 2012, and when we do, we'll look at raising our sights again, as we have since 2008. Procurement leaders are accountable.

Let me touch on verification and contracting compliance for a moment. I know this is an area of some tension. Look, we are not perfect here--yet. But we have implemented a new, comprehensive verification law on short notice. We went at it hard to get the standards right, fully prepared to adjust based on what we learned during implementation. Many of the insights for improvement came from you, and we continue to find ways to shorten the verification process. In the last year, average processing time has gone from over 130 days to about 60 days. And we've simplified re-verification for previously-verified companies that have not made any significant changes; waiting periods are down to as little as seven days. Tom Leney's folks have also created an on-line application system, expanded customer-service help desk hours, added on-demand status checks for applications, and posted determination letters on line.

Although much has been done, we have more to do. To reduce the number of firms that are denied access because they are not familiar with the process, or confused by regulatory requirements, we have established a verification education program--rolled out at this conference. I encourage you to visit the verification booths to see the new self-assessment tool and take advantage of the verification assistance briefs that have been designed to make the requirements easier to understand as you assess whether your business model meets them. And, we have established a program with VSOs and other volunteer agencies to provide counseling on verification and our simplified re-verification process.

Based on recent review of our policies in consultation with stakeholders, I have directed that we simplify the verification process immediately. Effective this week, we are moving from an annual to a biennial re-verification--every two years. Also, we have brought in a new team to energize our Contracting Verification Office--an all-Veteran leadership team.

To ensure we have improved our verification policies and processes, we have established a task force of senior executives, with procurement and requirements responsibilities, who will report directly to me on other necessary changes to streamline verification, including automation. Their report is due in 60 days.

Despite our initial difficulties, verification seeks one thing--protection of Veteran business owners seeking to contract with VA. That's it. Every contract that goes to a company that does not meet verification standards is lost business for legitimate Veteran business owners. We are not going to let that happen. That's why verification is right, but we must make it efficient and agile. We are not there yet. At the same time, we will continue to aggressively pursue those who falsely claim Veteran status or use their Veteran status to front for non-Veteran owned enterprises.

Another effort to root out performance fraud is our Subcontracting Compliance Review Program (SCRP). Well underway, after being established last year, SCRP ensures that small businesses are performing the required percentage of work set aside for them. Prime contractors will be held accountable in meeting their subcontracting targets with VOSB's and SDVOSB's and making good faith efforts to achieve the small business goals set forth in their contracts.

We will regularly monitor contractors, across the board, for subcontractor compliance. Our reviews, thus far, show that the vast majority of VA contractors agree with our standards and are taking aggressive steps to comply with them. Again, for those who choose to ignore the rules, there will be consequences. We are committed to the integrity of our contracts and to best-serving our Nation's Veteran small business owners.

Another major initiative is our VA Mentor-Protégé Program, begun last year. We've expanded from 25 participating firms to 50, and we plan a further expansion through collaboration with the Small Business Administration (SBA).

In New Orleans last year, I talked to you about our Information Technology (IT) Strategic Sourcing initiative--T4--and ensuring Veteran businesses would be able to compete as part of T4. Of 15 major contracts, we reserved and awarded seven of them to Veteran-owned small businesses. To date, more than 60% of the task order dollars have gone to Veteran small businesses.

Last year, during our first hosting of this important training and small business exposition, we thought about expanding this venue into new ways of assisting more Veterans. Well, here we are in Detroit, in that new venue we envisioned. I encourage you to check out the other aspects of this Expo--the Veterans Hiring Fair and Open House.

The Hiring Fair is a great opportunity for firms of all sizes to hire Veterans; more than 24,000 federal and private-sector job openings across the country are available. We're conducting the Fair with great partners--from the First Lady's Joining Forces initiative, to the Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes program, and with private-sector companies as well as other governmental departments and agencies. This is about opportunity for Veterans as well as assisting them with resume preparation, interview techniques, and career coaching. But we didn't come here to interview Veterans; we came here to hire Veterans. So, let's get on with it.

Veterans make exceptional employees. Just this month, two independent studies came to the same conclusion. The Institute for Veterans and Military Studies (IVMF) at Syracuse University and The Center for a New American Strategy (CNAS) Both issued reports reinforcing what we already know. The Syracuse report finds that Veterans are focused on the mission, can motivate a team, identify and solve problems… Contribute positively to the bottom line … And have demonstrated the ability to function in dynamic environments. These are valuable qualifications for any organization--public, private, military, non-military. Now, more than anytime I can recall, the Nation and the Nation's businesses need these attributes. And firms hiring an unemployed Veteran will be eligible for significant tax credits, thanks to the President.

We're also conducting a Veterans Open House this year, providing the opportunity for Veterans and their families to find out about the full range of care, benefits, and resources available from VA, as well as from other federal, state, and community agencies. Veterans can enroll in VA healthcare, sign up for MyHEALTHeVET, and get their benefits and care questions answered by employees of VA and dozens of departments, agencies, and state and local organizations. If you have 20 or 30 minutes, visit the Hiring Fair and Open House, both of which are open through close of business tomorrow. You won't be disappointed.

The country needs your talents, drive, and leadership right now. Boosting the number of Veteran-owned small businesses raises the potential for more jobs for Veterans because Veterans hire Veterans. And that's another reason why we are committed to your success. You made the right decision to start your own businesses. VA will grow our skills, knowledge, and attributes as the Nation's Veterans' Advocate to better support you.

On the difficult days at VA, I'm reminded of an American who grew up in the rural part of our country. He received only about a year of formal education at the elementary level. His mother died when he was nine. In his early twenties, he bought a share of a small country store, but it struggled and he sold his share at a loss. Today, some might call it bankruptcy.

He decided to enter politics and ran for his state's General Assembly--and lost. So he joined the military, was promoted to captain, even fought in war before running again for elected office--and losing again. So, he took up the practice of law, and later ran for the U.S. Senate--and lost twice. At one point in his life, he was viciously attacked daily in the press and despised by half the country. But through it all, he never stopped learning, never stopped believing in himself, or about the important issues in life; and, he never stopped moving forward.

He signed his name Abraham Lincoln. When our country needed him, he provided leadership during the most catastrophic war in our Nation's history. He was the man with the vision to create VA's mission that continues to this very day--to care for those who have borne the battle. And that is why VA is here with you in Detroit--to ensure we are delivering on President Lincoln's promise as President Obama has directed. Good luck with your businesses. All your advocates are here. Veterans are looking for employment, and they have the skills you need. Let's go make good things happen.

God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform, and may God continue to bless this great country of ours.

Thank you.

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