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Keeping Uncle Sam shipshape

Carole Metour may live and work in St. Petersburg, but her headaches come from all over the country.

Metour hears about it when snow piles up at the Air Force hospital in Minot, N.D. She gets complaints if leaky plumbing isn't fixed promptly in the federal courthouse in San Diego. And when the master keys were lost at the Calexico, Calif., border station last summer, Metour was the one who flew out to make sure the locks got changed and the employee responsible for the fiasco was fired.

Those were all problems Metour solved as chief executive of PM Services Co., which contracts to maintain government and military facilities nationwide.

"Most stuff I can handle over the phone," Metour said. "But if it's a real big issue that can affect our performance or might bite us legally, I need to be there."

Metour, 60, and her partner, Nico Martherus, formed PM Services' predecessor company 12 years ago in California to bid on mechanical maintenance contracts for government properties.

They both had worked for a California hospital company, Metour in marketing and Martherus as an engineer in charge of the hospital chain's physical plant. Eager to work for themselves, they saw a niche going after contracts to care for everything from massive heating plants to pest control at government buildings.

Their first job, won in 1987, was to maintain the equipment in seven cafeterias at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in California. "We made money on our first contract," said Metour of the job, which ended in 1992. "Price is what's going to win the contract, but you also have to price it so you don't lose money."

In 1997, PM Services made $2.2-million from seven contracts. In 1998, eight contracts brought in $3.2-million in revenues.

PM Services has 60 employees, only four of whom work out of the company's modest corporate headquarters on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue; the rest work at the contract sites. Among PM Services' jobs are contracts to maintain military housing in New Orleans; boilers at the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Conn.; and two 1-million-square-foot office buildings in Washington, D.C.

"We've survived by never taking high salaries for ourselves and keeping overhead low," said Metour, who only recently hired a controller to take over payroll and accounting duties. "If you ask for 25 percent profit margin in a government bid, you're not going to get the job. But if you ask for what they consider a reasonable profit _ 6 to 15 percent _ they won't give you any problem."

Metour said that over the past few years the bidding process for government contracts has evolved beyond a simple price war. Metour works with a consultant based in Atlanta who previously had worked with a competitor to develop technical proposals. These bids outline the company's staffing plans, costs, overhead and profit for the specific job. The government uses the proposals to develop a short list of potential contractors, then gives companies another chance to make their best and final price offer.

"Then it boils down to a bidding war," Metour said. "But if you have a reasonable price and a good reputation, the government will go with you."

Metour said that under a straight bidding process, her company was winning only about one of 20 bids. With the government relying more on technical proposals and a company's past performance, however, PM Services is getting one of four contracts on which it bids.

"It's not a cheap process, so you pick and choose the projects you go for," said Metour, adding that her company is awaiting word on four outstanding bids. "And you know that you won't win them all." Preparing a bid, from research to site visit to final documents, averages about $2,500 in consultant's costs, and may go higher if the government requests numerous changes.

While Metour said there has been no advantage to being a woman-owned business in competing for government projects, PM Services is eligible for small-business set-asides. Under this program, a certain percentage of all government contracts are earmarked for companies with annual revenues of less than $20-million.

One threat to these set-asides is a strategy by some government agencies to sign a single contract with a large company, which in turn subcontracts parts of the work to smaller businesses. Metour said she recently turned down a chance to subcontract to maintain military housing in Groton, Conn., through a bigger competitor.

"They were asking us to lower our price so they could put more money in their pocket, so I backed out," Metour said. "I'm not going to prostitute myself. I'll just move on to something else."

PM Services relocated from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg in 1994, choosing Florida for its low cost of living and easy accessibility through the Tampa airport. Metour said the fax, computer and Internet have made it possible for her company to operate in Florida, even though it has no business in the state. Government agencies and military bases make their solicitation packages available on the Web, and Metour spends hours surfing Web sites for potential contracts.

But most of Metour's time is spent overseeing existing contracts _ keeping in touch with project managers at each site by fax, phone or e-mail and making sure all the paperwork is in order. At least once a quarter she visits each site.

"I do a little quality control and meet face-to-face with the government contact at the site to let them know we're involved," Metour said. "They need to know our door is always open."

Gary Breeds, manager of two federal buildings in Washington, that contract with PM Services, said Metour's company has been proactive, enthusiastic and professional. The Washington contract, which pays $100,000 a month, covers maintenance and repairs of the buildings, which house the Voice of America and the Department of Education.

"They've been exceptional so far," said Breeds of the contract that began about four months ago. "When their level of performance is so high, we'd like to see them get other contracts up here."

Lt.j.g. Avonna Arnett, the Navy's point person in New Orleans, also praises PM Services' work. The company maintains the base's 284 housing units, a contract that pays about $500,000 a year.

"They're very responsive, handling everything from refrigerators that need repairing to stopped-up sinks," Arnett said.

Metour, who has graduate degrees in social work and public administration, said a stint running a crisis hot line in Los Angeles was the best preparation for her current position.

"You have to know how to respond quickly to a crisis," Metour said. "And when the bathroom is leaking in the courthouse in San Diego, it's a crisis. Especially if it's a federal judge's bathroom."

Coast-to-coast maintenance

PM Services Company in St. Petersburg has maintenance contracts for the following government properties:

+ Border station, Calexico, Calif.

+ Border station, Otay Mesa, Calif.

+ Edward Schwartz federal building and Jacob Weinberger Courthouse in San Diego

+ Hospital at the Minot, N.D., Air Force base

+ Boilers at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn.

+ Naval military housing in New Orleans

+ Cohen-Switzer buildings in Washington, D.C.

+ Boiler maintenance contracts with General Services Administration in several Midwestern states.