Everybody talks about small business, especially around election time. The image that’s conjured up is usually that of the mom-and-pop convenience store or a catering company that’s run out of someone’s kitchen.
But small businesses can also be pretty exotic, as Republican U.S. Senate candidate George Allen demonstrated today with a visit to First Line Technology, a Chantilly firm with an innovative line of products for first responders and the military.
Allen gamely donned one of the company’s products, a PhaseCore cooling vest, designed to enable soldiers, firefighters and others to better withstand extreme heat. It uses non-toxic substances to absorb body heat, thereby cooling the wearer’s trunk.
Allen appeared taken with the vest and wore it for the remainder of his visit, seeming reluctant to give it back.
All is not cool at First Line, though. Company president and co-founder Amit Kapoor told Allen that the uncertainty created by pending federal spending cuts is causing the 10-employee firm to rethink its plans to hire more people and extend the lease on its warehouse space.
“We are in flux,” Kapoor said. “We need to hire 10 more people but it’s kind of hard to do right now.”
The problem is sequestration — the draconian budget cuts that are set to take effective in January. With their funding in question, government agencies have slowed their purchasing to a crawl, leaving firms like First Line frozen in place.
Nationwide, 2.14 million American jobs could be lost if the Budget Control Actâ€™s sequestration mandate takes effect on January 2, 2013. That is the date that budget cuts of $1.2 trillion become effective unless Congress and the administration agree on a solution.
A recent study estimated that Virginia would lose more than 200,000 jobs but Allen noted that figure doesn’t include the losses the state will face if small companies like Kapoor’s are unable to add more workers or keep the ones they have.
Kapoor explained that from the time a contract is awarded by a federal agency until the time the agency receives the funding it needs to complete the purchase, contractors are in limbo. If they gear up to produce the products, they may be stuck with a surplus if the funding falls through. If they wait, they risk losing good employees and being unable to complete the order in a timely manner.
Kapoor and co-founder Randy Sakowitz, both 2002 George Washington University graduates, said they already face obstacles in Fairfax because they are essentially a manufacturing business, a rarity in an area that principally produces services. It’s hard to find and retain welders, mechanics and other skilled help and the uncertain funding makes it more difficult, they told Allen.
Allen called it “absurd” to operate the government in such a stop-and-start manner. “This whole deal is an exercise in lack of accountability,” he complained.
Allen and his Democratic opponent, Tim Kaine, routinely blame each other for the budget crisis even though neither was in office at the time the sequestration measure was passed.
Moving away from politics and back to intriguing inventions, Allen ogled the AmbuBus, a First Line bus conversion kit that in a couple of hours can convert a standard school bus into a mass casualty transport vehicle. The kits, which sell for about $40,000, are completely self-contained and can be shipped in crates to wherever they are needed.
To buy and permanently convert a bus costs about ten times as much, Kapoor said.
The AmbuBus kits are used in hurricane-prone states as well as for more mundane activities, such as 5k runs in the summer heat in the Hampton Roads area, he said.
From its Chantilly location, First Line says it has a 48-hour response time to get its life-saving equipment to just about anywhere on earth while being close enough to D.C. to provide emergency help there when needed.
Allen noted that the AmbuBus would have been ideal for the emergency conditions that surrounded the Pentagon and World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11.