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The Prime/Sub Conundrum




Of all areas in contracting, the one often taken most for granted, yet of vital importance, is that of the prime contractor/subcontractor relationship. We all know how much the requirements, contractual specifications, terms and conditions, and funding on a prime contract flow down the supply chain, but this flowdown doesn’t just happen. Although some may argue it’s as easy as placing clauses into a subcontract, it more complex than that. Subcontracting can exponentially increase the complexity of whatever product or service is to be delivered to the ultimate customer. 

For all the attention placed on the customer and prime contract, all these same complex issues, and more, are placed on firms managing both ends of the subsequent subcontracting relationships at each successive tier. These firms may be competitors with each other in some respects, yet working for one another in other respects. Prime and subcontractors must develop tools and systems for tracking performance, compliance, and results—not only of themselves, but of each other. Creating these processes, systems, and documents defines their relationship and responsibilities. Determining the terms and conditions of what the prime needs—including what, how, where, and when—must be precisely articulated to ensure the sub delivers exactly what the prime customer asked for (as defined in the prime’s solicitation, the sub’s proposal, and subsequent (proper) communications). 

Within both federal and commercial contracting, competitive pressures and expectations continue to dramatically increase. In most cases, everyone has increasing alternatives to go elsewhere if needed to get their requirements met. The prime customer, as we know, is obligated to flow down certain expectations, and to manage the increased pressures “downhill.” Within federal contracting, increased oversight and review of the managing of subcontracts or purchasing has increased from the contracting office to the Defense Contract Management Agency.

As in all things, this comes down to people. While many of these activities lend themselves to automation, much also requires the ever-growing need for professionals with interpersonal skills—particularly relationship building. Hard and so-called “soft” skills (or competencies) such as contract management, pricing, written and verbal communication, knowledge of technology, research, finance, marketing, or general business acumen—as well as adaptability to change—are competencies no firm can short-change in the people that ensure this is done internally, or in representing itself to the outside business world.

Subcontracting, supply chain, or purchasing managers; buyers, contract specialists, pricing specialists, estimators, or category managers—whatever the title, they are interrelated within the same overall profession. Whether on the buying or selling side, the prime or the subcontractor, the top-tier or several layers down the supply chain, this is as important a relationship and imperative a technical expertise as ever there was in how our economy is driven. 

Within small businesses, it can be well argued that these activities are everyone’s responsibility. Whether it’s someone working in finance, information technology, law, or business development; even the CEO needs to understand and perform parts or all of these subcontract management functions.

So what are you waiting for? The business that you may help thrive or just survive may be your own. Good Luck!

Michael P. Fischetti

Executive Director

National Contract Management Association

NCMA invites you and your colleagues to attend SubCon Training Workshops—NCMA’s new training event for subcontracting professionals—March 30–31, 2017, in Dulles, VA; offering four workshops, each with six sessions to choose from. Participants can choose their own schedule or come for two full days of training and networking. Learn more at www.ncmahq.org/subcon17




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