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Small business honoree isn't staying very small

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    by Adolfo Pesquera, Express-News Business Writer

    Balwinder Dhillon finds it easier to describe how his software and computer design company grows than to explain the projects it puts together.

    Almost 70 percent of his business comes from government agencies, and most of that is on security-sensitive work for the U.S. Defense Department. After scanning his memory for something safe to discuss, Dhillon cheerfully offers that one of his teams just wrote online training programs on hygiene and pest control for soldiers in Iraq.

    Dhillon, president and chief executive officer of Amer Technology Inc., may be discreet about the work, but he stepped into the limelight in May when the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized him as the San Antonio district's Small Business Person of the Year.

    Pamela Sapia, business development supervisor with the San Antonio SBA office, said Amer Technology earned the award based on a review of its balance sheets over the past three years. The agency looks at sales volume, employee growth, territory expansion, staying power and the use of innovation to overcome obstacles.

    Since its inception in 1995, the company has grown to 250 full-time employees in a dozen cities. It maintains a network of 750 consultants nationwide — mostly computer science engineers who staff projects as they become available. There are 45 employees in San Antonio, and Dhillon expects to hire another 15 to 20 in October.

    Amer Technology posted revenue of $24 million in 2005 but Dhillon said that number will be substantially higher this year because the company has so many projects in the pipeline.

    Dhillon's affinity for military projects hardly started in the United States. He is a Sikh from the state of Punjab, India, and he began his career as an electrical engineer for the country's Central Public Works Department. Terrorists were entering Punjab from Pakistan in the 1980s to carry out violence intended to create tension between Sikhs and Hindus, Dhillon said.

    A 170-kilometer fence was constructed, and it was Dhillon's job to illuminate it with floodlights that were erected every 50 meters.

    "I was with the Border Observatory Posts from the start until I came here four years later," Dhillon said.

    Amer Technology, listed as on the Internet, is a certified federal government contractor that fits in well with San Antonio's military community. Dhillon first found work in San Antonio as a contractor doing computer programming and database administration at Randolph Air Force Base.

    He began as a one-man operation working out of his garage, but the workload grew and Dhillon thought about hiring people and giving his operation a name. "Amer" is his father's first name; it means everlasting.

    Dhillon leased a three-room office. By 2000, he needed three more rooms. In 2003, he needed three more. In 2005, he bought his own building and now has 16,000 square feet.

    Dhillon recruits specialists leaving the military. Jack Jensen, leader of the team that put together those pest control lessons, was a Russian linguist in Berlin. Before joining Amer Technology, Jensen designed computer software for the Electronic Security Command at Lackland Air Force Base.

    The company has aggressively cultivated relationships with big federal contractors with strong connections in Washington. But when Jensen was asked whether clients have heard about Amer Technology upon first contact, he conceded, "No."

    "We're small," Jensen said. "But being in San Antonio, our rates are lower, and we like to think we're more innovative."

    William Hill is among the Washington Beltway experts who work with Dhillon. Hill is a consultant to a U.S. subsidiary of Montreal-based CGI-AMS, a worldwide provider of information technology services. As a subcontractor to CGI Federal, Amer Technology helps implement portions of the new Medicare prescription drug program for seniors.

    Hill describes himself as a "middleware architect." He sees to it that the computers at the Social Security Administration, the Office of Personnel Management and the Railroad Retirement Board can communicate with each other.

    "Amer Tech's role is they provide the resources," Hill said. "They help put together the tech support team. They also have a business development group. They search for RFPs (requests for proposals) the government puts out. That's what they bring to the table; they have a lot of experience going out and bidding on these."

    Amer Technology is one year into the contract, but one of CGI Federal's roles is to help audit payouts to insurance companies. Hill expects that will keep Amer Technology involved another five years.

    Despite a relatively small full-time staff, Dhillon aggressively takes on new work. He typically puts his staff in key positions on a project, then surrounds those people with independent contractors. That guarantees a quality product, Hill said.

    It's common for Dhillon to buddy up with a big company such as CGI or Lockheed Martin to get a foot in the door.

    "Sometimes the project size is so huge and the customer is more comfortable if you team up with a large company," Dhillon said. "It gives them confidence and it gets us in so we can prove ourselves. The next time, perhaps we can go in by ourselves."
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