They sat at tiny bistro tables, just the two of them.
They talked about what they do. They exchanged phone numbers.
And they were in a room with hundreds of others, all doing the same thing.
About 450 small business owners, including many from area suburbs, gathered Wednesday in Rosemont for Business Matchmaking, a type of speed-dating event for small companies seeking contracts with state and federal government agencies, including the U.S. Defense Department, Commerce Department, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Others included Argonne National Laboratory in DuPage County, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, and Navistar Inc. of Warrenville.
Local small companies offered office equipment, building supplies, educators and trainers, computer equipment, manufacturers, metal fabricators, transportation and warehousing. Some offered everyday services, while others provided emergency or niche specialties.
"For an industry that doesn't exist, you cannot do enough marketing," said Dane G. Willman, owner of 3W Enterprises LLC and Mobile Sandbagging in Carpentersville. Willman created a machine that will quickly fill sandbags on site for military use or floods.
Willman was among the businessman from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Texas, California and Florida who had just 15 minutes for each meeting. While the time was short, it provided a quick exchange of materials and business cards.
The Business Matchmaking event, produced by SMA Global of Los Angeles, Calif., has major-league sponsors, including HP and American Airlines that paid for the event held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. The organization has been matching small businesses, especially minority-, women- and veteran-owned firms, with government agencies for the last six years. The small-business owners participated for free.
"We help them with their elevator pitches, references and how they can use their 15 minutes at each meeting," said Producer Diane Kegley.
Kellie Burke, who runs Lincolnshire-based Legend + White Animal Health Inc., said her day was spent making contacts for her company, which opened in March. The business focuses on supplying food and equipment for animals used in research as well as relocating pets after natural disasters.
"This gets us in front of people who actually do the purchasing," Burke said.
Robert Johnson, Fermi's procurement administrator, said he had 14 appointments scheduled throughout the day that included businesses from South Elgin, Geneva, Itasca, Bloomingdale, Mundelein and Yorkville. He was seeking companies that could provide specialty gloves, safety glasses and clothing, among other one-year contracts.
"It's been productive," Johnson said. "They basically want to know how they can get on our bid list and how they can do business with Fermi."
Besides the face-to-face meetings, the daylong event provided informational speakers, including Michelle Dolberry, who handles small business services for American Express Open in New York. She encouraged small business owners to work together, even if they're competitors.
"You should join forces with one or more businesses in order to win contracts," she said.