Small business success story: Contractor GCJ graduates from the LLNS Mentor/Protégé Program

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Ginger Sepulveda, president of Stockton-based GCJ Incorporated, felt that her company was ready to compete for larger subcontracts at LLNL after five years in the mentor-protégé program. 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has more than $1 billion in procurement needs each year, and employees may be surprised to hear that small businesses make up nearly 40% of that spending.

Under guidance from the National Nuclear Security Administration, LLNL’s Small Business Program Office develops annual socioeconomic goals and takes necessary measures to meet them. For such complex work, however, finding qualified small businesses that are ready for the Laboratory’s unique ecosystem can be a challenge.

That’s where the Lawrence Livermore National Security (LLNS) Mentor/Protégé program comes in. The program is designed to develop up-and-coming small businesses and prepare them to compete independently for contracts within the Department of Energy (DOE) complex. LLNS takes an active role in developing participating small businesses through close, long-term mentorship. An experienced technical mentor counsels and partners with the protégé company as it completes projects within a predefined scope. Protégés typically experience major benefits to their infrastructure, management practices and technical capabilities throughout the program.

Jon Benjamin, Small Business Program manager within the Supply Chain Management department, takes a bespoke approach to the mentor-protégé relationship. He makes sure to identify a clear Laboratory need, define the specific scope of work and a secure a mentor before finding the perfect small business for the opportunity.

“To ensure a successful pairing, we start with a potential mentor that has the willingness and capacity to develop a small business to perform an identified scope of work,” Benjamin said. “From there, we go out into the small business community to find the right fit, looking for a company that could benefit from our mentorship and grow into performing our identified scope."

Participating companies must have been in business for at least two years prior to applying for the mentor-protégé program and they must have been awarded at least one federal contract.

This valuable program has high visibility throughout DOE, and other DOE sites are often eager to hire the protégé once they have demonstrated success in the program.

While most businesses are nudged out of the nest when mentors feel they are ready to compete, others know for themselves when they are ready to graduate.

After five years in the program (2017-2022), Ginger Sepulveda, president of Stockton-based GCJ Inc., felt that her company was ready to compete for larger subcontracts at LLNL. A third-generation contractor, she grew her workforce from six to 20 employees under LLNL guidance, and her company’s revenue increased from about $2.5 million to about $12 million, including jobs both inside and outside of the Lab.

Sepulveda has earned recognition along the way. GCJ won the FY2019 Small Disadvantaged Business of the Year Award from DOE and was selected as one of Bechtel’s top supply chain contributors for 2018-2019.

“All of them are literally thanks to LLNS,” she said.

Women are few and far between in the construction sector. Already well into her career, Sepulveda says she knows only one female general contractor other than herself. But Sepulveda has construction in her blood. As a child, she watched her father, owner of Gowan Construction, perform countless home renovations. She worked for him in high school and then again in her 20s, including projects at LLNL. At the same time, she pursued a bachelor’s of science degree in business administration, which she says helped her both at Gowan and now at GCJ.

When her father encouraged her to start her own company, she decided to seek her general contractor’s license. Despite knowing many subcontractors through her father’s company, she soon found that some were reluctant to work with her, even after her father stepped in to get to the bottom of any hesitation.

Once she joined the mentor/protégé program, Sepulveda gained a level of credibility that turned things around.

“That’s why 8(a) exists and why the mentor-protégé program exists,” she said, referring to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program. “It’s just getting that foot in the door so you can earn their trust.”

With LLNL’s reputation for strict safety standards, institutions feel confident that she will bring that to their job sites.

“We don’t want to do things the easiest way - we want to do them the safest way,” she said.

Having graduated from the program, GCJ can now more easily market to other federal entities based on her experience at LLNL, and the company now has three projects at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

These days, the GCJ crew starts work at about 6:30 a.m., and Sepulveda arrives at LLNL at 8:15 a.m. after dropping off her children at school, working onsite into the evening. At Bldg. 166, GCJ is working on a renovation project that includes a new roof, ceiling, flooring, compressed air, piping and electrical. The project is bittersweet for Sepulveda because it is one of the company’s last jobs as part of the Mentor/Protégé program.

As employees prepared the space for a laboratory to be installed with only about three weeks left before inspections, she contemplated the program’s impact on her business and her life.

Sepulveda said she has enjoyed the helpful environment and a productive relationship with her mentor, John Schindler, who recently retired, and she feels that the doors the program opened for her have been indispensable to her company’s growth.

“It's been amazing,” she said. “I got opportunities in the Mentor/Protégé program that you just don’t get anywhere else.”

- Kimberly Moore