Menominee Indian Finds Key to Success in Contracting

Every entrepreneur has an inspiration they draw on to make a business journey -- whether that journey is geographical, psychological, or both.

Jonathan Wilber is the CEO of Master Key Consulting and his journey brought him from the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin to the suburbs of the nation's capital.


John Wilber runs Master Key, a Bethesda, Md., IT consulting firm that benefits from government contracts. (Courtesy of Master Key)

Wilber says he's always been an entrepreneur at heart. One of his biggest influences was his mother, a school teacher who instilled in her 10 children the importance of education, inspiration and encouragement. He also looked to his father, who ran his own logging company.

"I saw my dad work hard -- always -- and when he died at age 58 in 1993 I wrestled with whether that's what I wanted," said Wilber. "But I soon realized that he loved what he did and so it became an easy choice," to start a business.

Wilber started a firm that sold and serviced heavy-duty trucks like semis. That venture went well until the economy soured in Wisconsin in the mid- to late-1990s. The business was shuttered in 1999 and out of its pieces Wilber built a truck leasing company, which also experienced difficulties.

In between startups, Wilber, who is the eighth of 10 siblings, worked for his tribe as a human resources director, as an administrator at the Menominee tribe's substance abuse treatment center and as a finance manager and information technology instructor at the tribal college and for the tribal government.

He started Master Key, now based in Bethesda, Md., in December 2000 when he learned that the Justice Department was going to roll out a new grants management system. "We knew a little bit about what it felt like to be the recipient of federal grant services," from working on the reservation, Wilber said.

Master Key bid on and won a subcontract worth $40,000 to assist with training materials. "We used that as a stepping stone," said Wilber, who moved his wife and four-year-old daughter from Wisconsin to Rockville, Md., after winning the contract.

Rockville proved a bit too busy for the Wilbers, who relocated to nearby Boyds, Md., with a population of about 2,000 versus Rockville's 60,000.

Over time, Wilber increased his $40,000 piece of the federal contracting pie to more than $100 million. His company has contracts with offices in Portland, Ore., a new commercial practice in St. Louis that boasts clients such as Anheuser-Busch, Ritz-Carlton and Elsevier Science, and also with hospitals, schools and American Indian causes. The company brings in about $25 million in annual revenue. Wilber plans to expand to become a national company operating in 50 states.

Wilber became intrigued with the idea of federal government contracts -- a significant departure from his earlier startups -- during the 2000 presidential election campaign.

"We were bombarded with candidates promising changes," said Wilber. "We were federal grant recipients in our jobs at the tribe and I was intrigued by the message of President Bush and what he said about small business. I wanted to see what was out there for small businesses and discovered that we knew something about grants and what it feels like to work for the government."

Moving from Wisconsin to Washington "was a big step," but Wilber said he felt he had learned from the challenges at his previous start-ups, one of which failed because of a large accounts receivable backlog. The backlog "crushed us," he said. "We didn't have enough working capital to buy our supplies." In its early days, Master Key braced itself for a similar situation. "Until our cash flow caught up there were many weeks that we didn't get paid," Wilber said, adding that his family sold a lot of things to pay the bills.

Master Key, which originally was run only by Wilber with help from his wife Yvette, now has 140 employees -- including two of Wilber's siblings. One of the company's largest contracts is with the National Institutes of Health, a surprise to Wilber who said he hadn't expected to serve that agency. "We did a lot of homework looking at what agencies were buying," but many of those targeted agencies didn't end up being clients, he said.

He credits his firm's growth to its workforce. "Never be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you," he advises, adding that entrepreneurs must overcome the fear of failure, have a willingness to sacrifice and a commitment to treating people the right way. "I can't believe I come from one of the poorest counties and now I'm head of a company that employs everyone from former school bus drivers to university presidents," Wilber said.

Master Key holds an employee retreat on Veterans' Day each year where employees and management discuss the company and why they like working for it. Wilber reviews the responses and works to find ways to incorporate what he calls those "key principles" into the fabric of the company.

The company applied for and received an 8(a) certification in 2002. Master Key beat an incumbent contractor to win its first competitive federal contract, an 8(a) award. After losing its only contract to Master Key, the other company had to shut down. "That was a great lesson for us to learn early on," said Wilber.

Master Key's 8(a) status will expire in 2011 and while "a lot of companies at this stage would be in panic mode...we've never relied on that status to get us work," he said. "I'm most proud that we're on the ground and the customer doesn't even realize that we're 8(a) certified."

Wilber says federal contracting is really about offering the government as many services as possible so it can buy from you. He advises companies not to shy away from being the prime contractor. "Some businesses can function as a subcontractor for years because they're afraid of the process, but use that fear as a motivator and don't be afraid of hard work and to sit in the driver's seat," he said.

Like many small firms entering the contracting business, "we wanted to work with Lockheed Martin and SAIC and we never got any work from them," said Wilber. "I soon learned that they're looking at what can they offer us. We recently won a contract with [the Department of Justice] ...and now those companies are saying 'Please join our team.'"

While business is growing at a steady clip, the nation's current economic downturn is forcing the company to be more frugal. Wilber said Master Key has had to eliminate some positions, sublease space in corporate offices and is preparing for the expense of credit lines to increase while their availability likely decreases.

"We just have to plan for it impacting us and hope it doesn't," he said.

By Sharon McLoone |  October 28, 2008; 2:13 PM ET Gov't Contracting , Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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Coming from the Same Reservation as my Cousin Jon and growing up where Jobs are hard to find and povert isn't, I have to express how proud I am of my cousin and what he has accomplished. He is an inspiration to me.

If you grew up like we did back on the Menominee Reservation, You would realize just what an accomplishment this is for Jon. In an area where drug use and alcoholism play a major part in the lives of a lot of our fellow Tribal Members, Jon and his brothers and sisters had such excellent role models in thier Mother Sylvia and thier Father Dave Wilber and they did not follow the path to no where like many others have.

Believe me, Coming from one of the poorest Counties/Reservations to get where Jon is now is a testament to his hard work and education and his Family. Way to go Cousin Jon and much continued success..

Posted by: menom87114 | October 29, 2008 1:01 PM

I love stories like this. What an inspiration.

Posted by: UniqueMyPostID1 | October 30, 2008 12:48 PM

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