Interview with DoD’s Small Business Director

Operation Small Business: An interview with the Pentagon’s small-business director

By J. D. Harrison October 27, 2014

Andre Gudger has heard the argument many times that, as he puts it, “small businesses don’t build planes and ships and nuclear weapons.”

It’s his job — or at least part of it — to change that perception.

A Maryland native, Gudger has been the director of the Defense Department’s Office of Small Business Programs since 2011. During the three years prior to his arrival, the share of the agency’s contracts awarded to small companies had shrunk every year. Moreover, in the more than three decades since federal small-business contracting goals had been put in place, the agency had never once accomplished them.

In the three years since, even amid budgetary constraints, small-business participation in Defense Department projects has expanded each year. In fact, this past year, the agency for the first time eclipsed not only its small-business goal, but also the federal government’s target, awarding roughly 23.4 percent of defense contracting dollars, representing about $53 billion, to small employers.

“We’re starting to click on all cylinders,” Gudger said.

In an interview, Gudger shared some insight into the inner workings of his office, how small businesses play into the broader picture of national security, and his thoughts on ways lawmakers can help ensure that those small firms play an even larger role moving forward. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Harrison: How did you land in this position at the Pentagon?

Gudger: I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I tried to put myself on that track early in my career. I worked at a small defense contracting firm for NavAir [the Naval Air Systems Command] at [Naval Air Station Patuxent River] in Maryland, where I was working on a major weapons system that I didn’t understand at first. From what I could see, I was just crunching numbers and algorithms for these smart scientists. Once I finally got the opportunity to see what my work went into, and I could see the big picture, I fell in love with it, and I fell in love with national security.

I later spent stints at several large companies, and those experiences prepared me to start my own business back in the early 2000s, which was the best experience in my life. It got me ready for this position by teaching me how to lead people, what it meant to develop talent, all while still delivering a capability for the customer.

Harrison: When you arrived, what were the most pressing challenges and what were your priorities?

Gudger: I came in looking to increase opportunities not merely for one industry or socioeconomic category, but for all small businesses. I knew from my industry experience that if small companies are given real access to officials at the Pentagon, if those doors are opened, that the industry will respond. It was really about showing others that small businesses are relevant and that they can be an important part of the fabric of our industrial base.

Harrison: How has that message been received by other parts of the Pentagon?

Gudger: It’s been a very warm reception from day one. I think we all realize that, if you want to get things done and create jobs, especially right now, when we’re in a downward spiral in terms of federal spending, you turn to companies that have shown they can be smart about how they spend money, companies that have found ways to do more with less. Often, those are small businesses.

Harrison: We hear that a lot in Washington, but frankly, there’s plenty of skepticism about whether prioritizing small businesses is purely political or a strategy that delivers results. What do you think? Why stump for small businesses?

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