ChallengeHER Success Story: Rosemary Swierk, President, Direct Steel and Construction

Rosemary Swierk, president of Direct Steel and Construction, said her ability to grow her Chicagoland business “fundamentally changed” as soon as she figured out how to better demonstrate the true value of her services to potential clients.

“It took a long time to learn this, but the value proposition I heard myself articulating was not how other people were hearing it,” Swierk said, recalling a critical lesson she now shares with other women entrepreneurs. “The most important thing is to know what your company does best and the value it provides your clients.”

In July, Swierk appeared on a ChallengeHER panel in Chicago with other women entrepreneurs about overcoming obstacles to advancing their business. It’s the third time Swierk has participated in a ChallengeHER panel and the fourth time she has attended a ChallengeHER workshop, which are organized by Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), the Small Business Administration and American Express. The events are designed to be a one-stop-shop for connecting women-owned businesses with organizations and other resources to pursue and compete for government contracts.

“Each year, the caliber of attendees continues to get stronger,” Swierk said, noting the combination of government representatives, procurement officers, SBA officials and WIPP members present. “It’s wonderful for business owners to have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with government entities doing the purchasing.”

Swierk said crafting a clear and strong profile—both in various government contracting systems and through personal connections—is critical to landing contracts. She recently advised a woman who stated her value proposition as “better, cheaper and faster” to think more deeply about how to differentiate her services.

“What is the painpoint you are solving that is different from your competition?” she asked.

For Swierk’s company, the answer is Direct Steel’s ability to tackle commercial, industrial, educational and office building projects from myriad perspectives—as a general contractor, construction manager and owner’s representative. Knowing from experience that clients will eventually struggle with at least one component of new construction—scope, budget, schedule or quality—her goal is to mitigate as much uncertainty as possible before any major steps are taken.

“Customers realize the value of that, and are bringing us in earlier and earlier,” she said.

Launched in 2004, her business survived the recession of 2008 when little was being built and earned its first government contract building a flight simulator building in Nevada, a project funded by the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009. That led to other government contracts, and now the company has a balance of public and private clients, including a $12 million contract with the Army Corps of Engineers made possible by 2016 regulation that created set-asides for women-owned businesses. While she has her own employees, she also uses sub-contractors in areas where she wins bids—and that is another key consideration business owners should make when evaluating contracts.

“You really have to think about your individual business and whether to go after government work or not,” Swierk said. “You have to consider what the government is buying or not buying. Does it make sense to be a prime or a sub?”

Those questions lead back to understanding the value of your company, she said. That is the main point she drives home with women she meets at ChallengeHER events.

“Customers pay to have a problem solved,” she said, “and you have to articulate why your company solves the problem better.”

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