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Vietnamese immigrant and Air Force vet builds success in engineering services
May 2007. Mathew Pavelek. NAVOBA

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Go with the flow
Paul Smallwood, owner, founder and president of FlowSense Building Services Group, is a strong advocate of promoting veteran-owned businesses and works to ensure the playing field is level when it comes to doing business with the government.

Smallwood was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. in 1974. After high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served eight years as an electronics technician for Tactical Air Command at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Austin, Texas, working on fighter aircraft. During this time he also taught electronics to new recruits and left the military with the rank of staff sergeant (E-6). Smallwood also holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois.

In 2001, he was laid off from his civilian job. Dissatisfaction with corporate America ultimately led to the decision to start his own business. “After 18 years of working in a corporate environment in various capacities, I decided to set my own destiny and set sail toward the entrepreneurial path,” Smallwood said. “Also, having a wife and three kids to support was a strong motivational factor.”

FlowSense, based in Maple Grove, Minn., boasted annual revenues in excess of $2 million in 2006 and has five full-time employees. During his first three years in business (2001-2004), Smallwood said the majority of his clientele were contacts with whom he’d established personal and business relationships with during his corporate days at Siemens-Westinghouse, McQuay International and Honeywell International.

“FlowSense was still a one-employee enterprise and we provided mainly system engineering services to a handful of clients like Honeywell, 3M, and other small-to mid-size companies,” Smallwood said. “After achieving 8(a) certification in late 2004, I refocused my energy on building relationships with the federal government and military agencies while still serving the existing
clients in the private sector.”

It took Smallwood a few years to build credentials and a strong résumé, but his patience and diligence was rewarded. In 2006, 75 percent of FlowSense sales consisted of government contracts and with the remaining 25 percent coming from the private sector.

Smallwood discussed how his military service shaped his business mindset. “I learned early on about teamwork and leadership skills as well as the strong discipline instilled by the military to work well under pressure.”

Smallwood’s most noteworthy business accomplishments include: being selected by the Minnesota Minority Supplier Development Council (MMSDC) as Supplier of the Year in 2004, named Business Leader of the Year in 2005 by the St. Paul Minneapolis Business Journal, and recently honored as one of the Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) client businesses that have won multiple government contracts during 2005 and 2006, and being nominated by a federal agency client for SBA Prime Contractor of the Year in 2007.

Smallwood also traveled back to his homeland, Vietnam, to conduct Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Assessments with the State of Minnesota in 2004, and was selected as one of several small businesses to travel with Gov. Tim Pawlenty on a trade mission to
China in 2005. Last, FlowSense realized an incredible 1000 percent increase in sales in just 12 months.

His most memorable success was a design-build project FlowSense completed for the Navy in 2006. The challenge was to design a two-ton walk-in oven and install it three decks down inside the U.S.S Emory S. Land, a submarine tender. “We ended up building the unit in split design and shipped it from Minnesota to Norfolk, Rome, and ultimately, Sardinia,” he said. “We then flew over to Sardinia with a crew to install and commission the unit successfully.”

Smallwood credits his commercial success to his “never-give-up” mindset.

“Do not take no for an answer and never give up even when situations appear to be in dire straits,” Smallwood said. “I look for opportunities whenever I reach any given obstacle.”

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