A little-known fact: the public procurement industry in Oregon actually has some of the top talent in the nation.
At last week's National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP) conference, the Oregon Public Purchasing Association and the Columbia Chapter of NIGP both won national recognitions. The other two winners were based in Idaho and Florida. Also, Bobbi Matthews, director of administrative services at the Port of Portland and a past president of the NIGP (2012), was recognized with the NIGP's highest lifetime achievement award for service to the profession and her agency.
"I just got back from the NIGP forum, a big national public purchasing association, and it was amazing to me when I go there to talk to people from around the country, and you recognize the uniqueness of cooperation that goes across public agencies here in our area," said Brian Smith, the purchasing manager at Multnomah County, who also sits on the advisory board of the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs (OAME).
"There's an amazing group of national talent here in our local area, and that's something not a lot of people outside the industry recognize," Smith told the Business Tribune.
We conducted an exclusive interview with Smith about the ins and outs of Multnomah County's procurement industry.
BT: How has the procurement business changed over the past 10 years, since the Recession?
BS: "Multnomah County tends to buy lots more services, for example, than cities or ports or those kinds of things. For Multnomah County, the largest portion of our business is health and human services stuff — dollar-wise and volume-wise, that's where most of our business is. That said, we have a specific MWESB (Minority- or Women-owned or Emerging Small Business) outreach program and we have had a number of very visible, large capital projects in the last couple of years.
"In terms of how it has changed, I think since the Recession as things have gotten better it's been getting harder — particularly in the last couple of years — to find vendors who want to bid on public work. Our numbers of bidders have gone down simply because everybody's working. That kind of ripples down from the labor force through who's available through state-certified firms, to what firms are actually available to bid on our work — and it's not just one part of the industry, it's throughout the whole."
BT: What's a really cool project you're working to bring online soon?
BS: "We did the Sellwood bridge, and now we've got the downtown courthouse replacement and the health department headquarters, and all of those are in the $200-300 million range. They're significant enough we chose to use the CM/GC (construction manager/general contractor) delivery method on them, and they had really well-developed outreach plans. We did specific outreach to certified (MWESB) firms and hosted several sessions for each of those projects. We were specifically trying to cultivate interest among certified firms — for Sellwood it (the goal) was 20 percent, and we met that, and it's the same 20 percent for the courthouse and health department headquarters."
BT: Tell me about the diversity and inclusion programs now in place: are they making a significant difference for the MWESB contractors?
BS: "I have a supervisor and a staff person who are dedicated to doing MWESB outreach and our goal — and this is the whole purpose of having a specific program — is that we assure that the County provides adequate opportunities for certified contractors and subcontractors to participate and compete for business opportunities for our contracts, so it's really about trying to develop the relationships and setting up the opportunities so they can compete. That's why doing things like specific outreach events for particularly large projects where there are opportunities to develop is really important.
"When we did the Sellwood Bridge ... we had an eye toward developing a firm's capacity so that they could have some success on Sellwood and turn around and be more competitive when it came time to bid out the Columbia River Crossing (which was still on the table at the time of planning)."
BT: Is Oregon ahead or behind other states in this area?
BS: "We're ahead in terms of my experience. I've talked to both folks who are on the contractor side but work in more national markets in terms of what I hear them say and how the Oregon experience is unique. We tend to be a lot more cooperative here and I think that's something that I certainly experience from the practitioner point of view. There are a few pockets of it around the U.S., but I think what's going on here is very unique.
"Right now, one of the things just getting off the ground, Metro is taking a leadership position. We're very supportive and are going to be working with them looking at labor force issues, the issue of trying to get more people — particularly women and minorities — into the trades. That's a regional problem we all have, not one agency. I think public agencies recognize that when we're asking vendors to provide a certain percentage of women and minorities and apprenticeships and journeymen and all of that. If they aren't there, they aren't there, and those are the kinds of discussions we have when we're setting goals with our suppliers. Metro has stepped up to lead that effort, but has participation from all the big agencies in the area."
BT: You are an advisory board member at OAME. How does that experience tie in to what you do in your paid career?
BS: "That's a great place to be hearing some of this: it's an interesting mix of public and private folks, all of whom are interested in issues of diversity in the workforce and ultimately economic development. It's a great opportunity to sit down with folks who aren't just public purchasing professionals, but represent a number of different perspectives from business and education communities and to people who are working in this space to get a sense of what they're seeing.
"There was an interesting side conversation at a recent one, and one of the things that everybody was complaining about was how the downside of everybody working is that it makes a short labor supply when we need more workers and more firms to do our projects. The question was asked of some larger construction firms, hey guys look in your crystal ball, when is the economy going to go down? To people having those kinds of discussions, nobody knows, but to get different perspectives on what's going on out there from the people who are in the front lines, it's a great place to be."
BT: What's the most challenging part of your job?
BS: "A core function of my job is to make sure we have a responsible, transparent and accountable public procurement system. That's important for the agency and ultimately for taxpayers, and what it takes to do that is, I'd say right now there are two efforts: one is the retirement of the Baby Boomers has hit us hard and not just Multnomah County, I think that every agency and a lot of businesses are feeling that. It's been very difficult to keep really good staffing levels so we can keep our standards the way we have. That's become more difficult over the last couple of years.
"The other piece is while we're doing that, the County is undergoing an ERP implementation (enterprise software) and that is an incredible workload on top of what we're already doing. For example, I've had several of my staff who are now not working on their regular jobs, they're working on the ERP project — this is the core system that runs our finance, HR budget, it's what underpins and supports all the procurement and contracting functions to the County."
BT: What's your favorite part about your job?
BS: "It's being a real part of the county's work that impacts real lives, and when I get to see that, it's tremendously rewarding. As a purchasing manager, I tend to be involved in all kinds of things, so it's been really satisfying to be involved in a number of projects and being able to advise and support on things like the homeless system and the efforts that have been going on the last couple years jointly between the city and county.
"There's looking at being able to do things that are better stewardship for public funds. I have been doing a lot of work creating a surplus system for the County. People usually think of procurement as the front end, the buying stuff, but really, it's about stewardship of public funds.
"A lot of that is buying stuff, but there's the issue of what happens to it. The County has multiple waste streams. One thing we found out is it's weird one-offs: we just sold a boathouse here a month back. The sheriff's office needed a new boathouse. We had the old one, we were faced with: how do you get rid of a boathouse? Have a demolition company come in and haul it away and put it in a landfill. It was going to be about $12,000 having it demolished. We were able to sell it through auction, we sold it for about $3,000, so not only were we able to avoid the cost of having to dispose of it, somebody else was able to use it."
BT: How do building booms and the economy's ups and downs affect what government agencies handle?
BS: "Right now, we've got a lot of transportation projects happening that are hitting us here, and that's our current scramble today. As a manager, I've tried to develop staff who can move between doing an ODOT procurement and also do a big procurement for disabilities or other human services programs. They're different kinds of things, but people in our industry can tend to be very specialist and we've found over time that being more of a generalist is a real asset in terms for my shop to be able to accommodate workloads. Right now, we're pulling people who do human services contracts into doing some of the transportation work. Over the past year or two, we've had a situation with large human services — the SUN School system was probably the single largest procurement we did, we pulled in almost everybody on that. So, being flexible and balancing the workload that way."
By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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