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Air Force contracting event links local businesses with military opportunities

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

MIRAMAR BEACH — Mike Horsley, CEO of Panama City-based Horsley Construction Group, came to the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa earlier this week looking for opportunity. And he wasn't alone.

Horsley was one of 650 people who attended the annual Air Force Contracting Summit, either virtually or in person at the Miramar Beach resort. The event, one of a number produced each year by the Defense Leadership Forum, a public service organization, links military officials, elected officials and others with businesses interested in obtaining military contracts.

Charles Sills, the Defense Leadership Forum's director of the events, said a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses have the capabilities for handling military contracts but don't necessarily know how to get those contracts.

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"They have tickets to the game," Sills said, "but they can't find the stadium entrance."  

Horsley's construction business currently is focused on private and commercial work, but he came to the contracting summit for the first time this week hoping to find inroads into military construction.

Mike Horsley, CEO of Horsley Construction Group in Panama City, speaks Monday during the Air Force Contracting Summit at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. Horsley is moving into the world of military contracting.

"It's good to grow into it," Horsley said of his interest in getting that kind of work.

"We're surrounded by bases," he continued.

Horsley noted that Tyndall Air Force Base, in his own backyard, is undergoing a massive rebuilding after being leveled by Hurricane Michael in 2018. Other bases, including Eglin Air Force Base in Valparaiso and Naval Air Station Pensacola, also are in the neighborhood.

For the moment, Horsley said he is working toward getting some work at Tyndall, for which military construction dollars already have been allocated, potentially assuring his company of significant and secure work.

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"Tyndall has already been funded," he said. "You know they're not going to take it away."

On Monday, the first day of the two-day summit that wrapped up at lunchtime Tuesday, Horsley was one of a number of contractors who made brief pitches to conference attendees. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many of the people who attend did so digitally, but the Sandestin Hilton ballrooms still were crowded with more than 60 exhibitors like Horsley Construction Group, all hoping to attract some business.

Horsley told the summit attendees that he was looking both for people to mentor and for people to mentor him as he moved into military contracting. Overall, he said his reason for attending the summit was "to meet people like yourselves."

Ryan Francis, business development executive with Carr, Riggs & Ingram CPAs and Advisors, was among the people attending this week's Air Force Contracting Summit at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. CRI, which has offices in Niceville and Miramar Beach, in addition to other locations, helps military contractors navigate what often can be a confusing process.

Also attending the summit was Matthew Garry, president and CEO of Rapidbuilt, a Texas-based manufacturer of hurricane-proof steel buildings that can withstand winds of up to 170 mph.

Rapidbuilt was among the more conspicuous exhibitors at the summit, having erected a somewhat scaled-down but still imposing version of its building — some of which are now at Tyndall — in a prominent place in the exhibit area.

"It's certainly raising our product profile," Garry said as he sat under the roof of his exhibit as summit attendees walked by.

Garry has been involved in military contracting for years, but said he and Rapidbuilt "still are discovering connections and opportunities."

Construction contractors weren't the only businesses looking to make connections at the summit. As just one example, the accounting firm Carr, Riggs & Ingram, CPAs and Advisors — headquartered in Alabama but with local offices in Miramar Beach and Niceville — was on hand to offer its services to businesses that have or are looking for, military contracts.

Ryan Francis, a business development executive with the firm, said their work is focused on companies that need help with submitting bids, with federal audits, and with other aspects of navigating the world of military contracting.

"Folks definitely need the help," Francis said.

Like Horsley, Francis noted the significant military presence in Northwest Florida, and said a lot of the firm's business comes from this area.

According to Francis, many potential military contractors are focusing on what they see as immediate issues and not necessarily about the ongoing handling of a contract.

"They're thinking, 'How am I going to get a contract?' " Francis said. "They're not thinking 'We need the infrastructure (to properly sustain the contract).' "

He said it's a lesson that some contractors learn later rather than sooner.

"We certainly have people who call us when the horse is out of the barn," he said.

Matthew Garry, president and CEO of Rapidbuilt, stands under a scaled-down version of his hurricane-proof building during the Air Force Contracting Summit at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Gollf Resort & Spa. Rapidbuilt was among 60 exhibitors at the summit.

As part of the summit, attendees got to hear from military officials with direct knowledge of what contracts are available, how the future contracting environment might look and in some cases, the urgency of the work.

For example, Col. Ryan Colburn, director of the U.S. Space Force's Spectrum Warfare Division, told his Monday audience that there is a growing focus on getting new capabilities to military personnel faster. Today, fielding those new capabilities needs to be done in a 3- to 5-year time frame, he said, a speed that will require "good risk-taking, smart risk-taking."

As a concrete example of the urgency of the work in the space domain, Colburn said that within the past several months one Russian satellite was discovered to be in close pursuit of a U.S. "national security" satellite. A second Russian satellite, Colburn said "released an object in what appeared to be a test of an on-orbit weapon."  

But perhaps the most sobering bit of wisdom shared with contractors and potential contractors came from David G. Smith, director of Plant 42, an Air Force production and flight test facility in California. Many of the aircraft developed initially at Plant 42 eventually will come to Eglin for testing and evaluation, Smith noted.

Initially, Smith sounded a hopeful note for some of the smaller contractors and potential contractors in the room. Acknowledging the dominant role of the "big three" in military aviation contracting — Virginia-based Northrup Grumman, Chicago-headquartered Boeing and Maryland-based Lockheed Martin — Smith told his digital and in-person audience that those contractors often need subcontractors to handle parts of their large contracts.

"The integration of subcontractors is absolutely essential to what we do," Smith said.

But he added that in the execution of contracts, it's dangerous to give military personnel anything less than they need.

"Every time we reduce capability ... that's paid for in the blood of young Americans," Smith said.