Neva Gardner never expected to own a successful fence construction company let alone work directly with the U.S. government.
Yet, since 2004, the Idaho businesswoman has made major in-roads with Homeland Security and other agencies by strategically pursuing opportunities to compete, building a coast-to-coast reputation, and staying on top of regulatory shifts in the complex world of federal contracting.
Neva has twice served as a panelist at free ChallengerHER events in Boise, Idaho, to share her experience navigating a system that historically has fallen short of targets set for working with women contractors. The workshops organized by Women Impacting Public Policy, the Small Business Administration and American Express OPEN, are designed to be a one-stop-shop for connecting women-owned businesses with organizations and other resources to successfully pursue federal contracts.
In addition to launching as a woman-owned business to differentiate her company, Neva established a “set aside” as a service-disabled military veteran by joining the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program for socially or economically disadvantaged business owners.
Of her interactions with ChallengeHER participants, Neva said, “Several women asked me how I did this or that, and it encouraged them to follow through with things they already knew or it got them thinking, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ Everything I have, I had to work for. Just because I had a ‘set aside’ doesn’t mean I had people knocking down my door for a contract.”
Neva founded Purgatory Fence Company in 2004, remaking a previous fence business her husband, Gary Plumlee, had started under a different name. “I had built fences with a baby on my back, and then started to realize that maybe I better help in a bigger way.”
Neva started going after government jobs once she learned the highly technical process of successfully completing bids. As president and CEO, Neva has largely kept the company away from commercial and residential projects, opting instead for federal agencies that provide steady work and pay invoices in a timely fashion.
“We started with barbed wire and built fences for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “Then, we got into a lot of chain-fence and high-security projects for military installations.”
Getting approved for the General Services Administration’s 8(a) Schedule was a boon as there are not many fencing companies that carry that designation. But, as she has warned ChallengeHER participants, “Don’t ever put all your eggs in one basket. We never said we can only do 8(a) contracts. We still look out there on the Federal Business Opportunities website. We do market research.”
Another key to success has been keeping costs low and responding only to bids her company actually has the capacity to tackle, typically contracts of $500,000 or less that don’t merit hiring a project manager, Neva said. Purgatory’s primary employees are still Neva and her husband, and they prefer to hire subcontractors near the locations where they earn contracts rather than employ a full-time crew.
ChallengeHER events provide a venue for Neva to lend useful guidance to other women building a federal contracting enterprise. In addition to helping them understand how to start the process and market their businesses, she encourages them to be thoughtful about their trajectory—wisdom that she did not have the benefit of when she got into federal contracting.
“I had to figure it out on my own. I never had anybody teach me. I just did my research and moved forward,” Neva said. “We started the company with a credit card, and everything was borrowed. Now we’re a multi-million-dollar company. We live in a small rural market yet we travel all over the country doing jobs. You have to figure out who you want to be. You can still be small and do big dollars.”