WASHINGTON – Small business owner William Block Jr. spends most of his days running from job to job, installing and servicing elevators in the Hagerstown area for his two-employee company, Landmark Elevator Inc.
His schedule leaves little time to negotiate with local governments for new contracts, and what time he does have usually falls after bureaucrats’ working hours.
But Block and state officials hope to end that game of phone tag with a new online procurement system that gives vendors access to a database of contracts they can bid on at any time of day or night.
Since its inception in March, eMaryland Marketplace has posted more than $100 million of procurement requests and saved government buyers $100 per order, on average. More than 60 state and local government agencies now advertise on the site and more than 1,200 vendors have paid the base fee of $150 to subscribe to the service.
“It’s the future of procurement,” said Block, who joined the list of eMaryland Marketplace vendors in September.
“You can check it at your own convenience,” he said. “There’s no leaving voicemails and waiting for someone to call you back.”
Before the service, winning a government contract in Maryland meant sending a salesmen to search for contract opportunities, followed by the lengthy process of back-and-forth phone calls and mailings. With eMaryland, vendors can scan the lists of government needs and bid on them any time of day.
The convenience of 24-hour bidding appears to have hooked busy vendors: Most make offers on the site between 5 and 10 p.m., long after regular business hours, said Mark Krysiak, project manager for eMaryland Marketplace.
Besides saving vendors time, the system has saved governments money. Anne Arundel County reported the most savings, reducing costs by $12,700 on 27 bids in its first month on the site, said Dave Humphrey, a spokesman with the Department of General Services. The department runs the site.
In addition to Anne Arundel and state government agencies, Baltimore City and Calvert and Howard county governments also advertise on the site. Talbot County is about to join the list.
The site has won several awards for its approach. Unlike similar programs in other states, for example, Maryland’s program is paid for entirely through subscription fees.
And for small businesses that cannot afford an Internet connection, the Department of General Services plans to help out with recycled department computers. About 20 computers will be hooked up by early next year in government buildings throughout the state, and staff will be on hand to answer questions. General Services Secretary Peta Richkus said she hopes to help eliminate the digital divide between businesses by offering the technology for free.
But subscribing to the service and winning a contract are two different things: Block has not won any business from eMaryland since signing up.
“It’s probably not super helpful right now,” he said.
But he and others believe that as more governments around the state join up, and put more of their annual $8 billion in purchases on the site, business will pick up.
Salisbury-based Hammerman Associates Inc. subscribed to the service three months ago and is still waiting for a bid invitation for its database software and technical support services, said sales manager Barbara Lafferty. But, like Block, she remains confident that the service will eventually pay off.
“I’m disappointed, but we were told in advance that they were trying to get more and more people to use the service, and that things would pick up hopefully in the future,” she said.
Good for government — but not so good for small, local vendors — is the fact that eMaryland Marketplace also opens up contract competition to businesses nationwide.
“Everyone else is finding out about them (the contracts), too,” said Sharon Easton, president of Westminster’s Aerospace Sales Industries, Inc. “It makes it tougher to win the business.”
In the eight months that Easton’s company has subscribed to the site, it has yet to win a bid. But, like Block and Lafferty, she is optimistic that business on the Internet will become more fruitful.
“It sounded like a wonderful opportunity, and that is why we got involved with it,” Lafferty said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what happens in the future as more and more people come on board.”