To survive and then grow their business during the pandemic, the leaders of The Gilchrist Law Firm, a veteran-owned, award-winning small business headquartered in Coral Gables, employed an action-oriented approach, a key aspect of the military culture. They drew upon their initial success buildin up a government contracting arm of their business, and they also sought the help of the experienced business consultants at Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center within the university’s College of Business.
To be sure, the firm had already started building up a government contracting business several years before the pandemic hit, with the help of FSBDC and Florida PTAC, The Procurement technical Assistance Center. It’s a good thing they did, because they now had the skills and expertise to navigate that world of government contracting. The U.S. Small Business Administration recognized the firm and its President, Jacquin “Quin” Gilchrist, as 2019 Small Business Prime Contractor of the Year and again during National Small Business Week in September 2020.
Yet, it looked very bleak for the firm during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when the federal government issued a moratorium on foreclosures. The firm’s largest contracts with the government in terms of revenue were for its foreclosure work.
“The year before we were killing it, we were doing all this foreclosure work in Florida, and picked up [a contract] in New York. And then we’re picking up all these BPAs, which are blanket purchase agreements,” said Gilchrist, who served in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. “Then the moratorium comes in, and holy moly, our foreclosure contract work came to a screeching halt.”
TIME TO PIVOT
But Gilchrist said the firm began focusing on other areas, and they began picking up contracts for title work, for appraisals, and a guardianship program through the VA. “We just started pivoting.”
Fast forward to now, and “the bottom line is we opened up with one agency and now we are working for six different government agencies working in 28 states and the District of Columbia,’’ added Colonel Retired Spencer L. Smith, Gilchrist Law Firm’s Director of Government Procurement. [Smith and Gilchrist are pictured above].
In order to pivot quickly and successfully, they were strategic. The new areas of focus were in areas where areas the firm had already started building relationships in and they knew they brought opportunity. They also had to be agile and have the right team in place, Smith said.
The pandemic directly affected about 40% of the operation, Smith said, but “we were able to hang on, and still go after other opportunities, and it was good to know that we could continue to employ people and bring additional people on to manage and operate additional contracts that we have won even during the pandemic.”
To help with that, Gilchrist Law Firm reached out to graduate students and gave them an opportunity to get real world experiences, build their confidence and expand those relationships before they enter into the real world.
The firm has employed FAMU School of Law students as interns for a couple of years, and this year they also received, through their relationship with FSBDC at FIU, an FIU MBA student who worked as a paid intern and helped with everything from government contracting research to marketing and business development.
The firm continues to get advice and guidance from FSBDC and PTAC consultants about many aspects of government contracting, and before the pandemic FSBDC and Florida PTAC, which is located in the same office as FSBDC at FIU, helped the firm receive certifications and build relationships within the world of contracting. “I’m just amazed at the involvement and the dedication that the office at FIU has as with our company — I mean it is whatever we need,” said Smith.
And when the pandemic hit, and information about COVID-19 relief for businesses was coming from many directions in bits and pieces and was difficult to decipher, it was FSBDC at FIU’s Regional Director Brian Van Hook himself who reached out and offered help with government assistance programs such as the Florida State Bridge Loan and the Paycheck Protection Program, Gilchrist said. The law firm received both Florida’s bridge loan fand the SBA’s PPP forgivable loan.
A final important element in this success story is the role that the military culture played in teaching and instilling the importance of a shared mission and teamwork, being action-oriented and being agile and flexible to react to whatever is thrown at you, in this case a global pandemic, said Gilchrist. “When you’re military, we have a culture that exudes everything that we do. We’re a team that is truly a team.”
There’s no slowing down. This year, the firm has submitted 42 more contracting proposals than they did last year because they expanded into more areas, Smith said.
The end of the year “is the time for us to complete our forecasting the best that we possibly can, and try to reach out to different companies and see if there’s any interest in joining us and pursuing opportunities, or possibly joining them for future opportunities. Everything that we are doing is all about expansion and strengthening what you currently have,” Smith said.
Two contracts that this veteran-owned firm won directly help veterans. One is to help military spouses obtain their licenses – such as for teachers, nurses and many other occupations – in their new city after a military relocation. It’s now a federal law that states must allow reciprocal licenses and Gilchrist Law Firm’s work is to ensure compliance.
Gilchrist and Smith are also very passionate about their work around guardianship through contracts with the Veterans Administration. ”We’re entrusted to get duly authorized guardians over our veterans that are incapacitated. Every time we win one of these things — and we even won a case up to the Nevada Supreme Court — it’s fantastic, it’s like a win-win story, everyone’s happy,” Gilchrist said. “You know, you go to sleep every night knowing that you’re making a real difference to our fellow veterans.”