Nabers Makes the Case for Public-Private Partnerships
Growing up in a small, West Texas town outside of Brownwood, Mary Scott Nabers literally grew up with a foot in both the public and private sectors. Her father was Mayor of the town and was also the publisher of five weekly newspapers. She married at the age of 19 and convinced her husband to apply with her to attend law school at Baylor University.
“We both passed the exam, but then we had a baby, and couldn’t afford for both of us to attend law school,” Nabers recalls. She landed a teaching job at Baylor, expecting to attend law school once her husband graduated.
“Someone convinced him to run for the Texas legislature right out of law school. So, at age 26, he began what would turn out to be a 14-year public service stint,” Nabers said, laughing. “In Texas, that job paid $600 per month. We couldn’t live off of that, so I became an entrepreneur.”
A self-prescribed political junkie, Nabers continued to keep one foot in politics even while she expanded her entrepreneurial ventures. She earned her Masters of Business Administration from the University of Texas. Nabers acquired and led to success two media firms. She served as the Commissioner representing Business at the Texas Employment Commission and founded The Texas Business Council. Nabers served on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s regulatory agency for the oil and gas industry.
When she founded Strategic Partnerships, Inc. (SPI) of Austin, in 1995, it seemed a natural progression of her life’s work. SPI is a public affairs firm that specializes in procurement consulting, market research, government affairs and public-private partnerships (P3s). Nabers’ husband died in 2010, and she coped with that loss by working even harder.
She published Collaboration Nation – How Public-Private Ventures are Revolutionizing the Business of Government in 2012. The book explores the growing trend of P3s in government and describes a number of best practices for successful projects, as well as the importance of both parties respecting each other’s cultural differences. Recognizing the need to expand to a broader national and international client base, Nabers co-founded the Gemini Global Group (G3) with partner Ben Barnes in 2011. G3 is a Washington, D.C.–based firm that works with national and international clients on business development, P3s, and other types of government objectives.
Texas Contractor recently met with Nabers to discuss her companies’ services and the benefits P3s have to offer Texas and the nation.
How is SPI uniquely qualified to help clients form and navigate successful public-private partnerships?
Almost all of our consultants came from the executive ranks of government. We are a large group, so we have decades of experience working in every state, jurisdiction and industry sector. Our consultants are former agency directors, city managers, county judges, CFOs, facilities managers for universities, and representatives from almost every segment of government. That allows us to provide lots of expertise when our clients compete for contracts. We provide advice that most would never have considered. The fact that we have people who have been in those jobs in the past means they have a lot to add in those strategy sessions. Additionally, we analyze budgets at every level of government so we can tell our clients about upcoming opportunities long before they are officially announced.
What other sectors does SPI cater to, and what benefit is that to construction companies?
In addition to our construction clients, we have all kinds of other clients as well – engineering, technology, project management, etc. Sometimes we are able to foster very creative partnerships. For example, public officials letting road projects want to know about new technology, trends, and innovative initiatives that might be available. We are able to advise and offer all kinds of bells and whistles that could go into a road.
What sort of unique opportunities does SPI offer smaller contractors?
About two years ago, we started our Fast Track program, a 90-day program that specifically targets smaller companies. We get them registered and certified with all jurisdictions, get them involved with cooperative purchasing programs, introduce them to the HUB (Historically Underutilized Business) coordinators in government, and bring them to networking events where they have the opportunity to meet prime contractors. Basically, it’s a way to provide them – in only 90 days – with the education, contacts and opportunities it would normally take them two years to build on their own. We also introduce them to new opportunities they may not be aware of, such as Startups in Residence, a 16-week program that fosters collaboration between cities and small firms.
You have a new book coming out in January – Inside the Infrastructure Revolution. Public-Private Partnerships and the Rebuilding of America: The What, When and How. What prompted you to write it?
Our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, and government simply cannot afford to rebuild it without private investment. Most of America’s roads and railroads were initially built with private investment, but no one anticipated the costs for upkeep. P3s often get a bad rap because of toll roads, but there are all kinds of P3s that don’t involve toll roads. Many cities and counties, and even states, don’t have the funding to maintain or expand roads, so public officials look at numerous types of alternative funding options. Those types of engagements are called public-private partnerships also.
What are some creative ways P3s can be used to build infrastructure other than roads?
The simplest example I often use is how the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport years ago carved out a piece of land in the middle of the airport campus and built a Hyatt hotel. It is a great example of a public-private partnership. The hotel is in a wonderful location, and the city gets revenue from everyone who stays in that hotel forever. Some cities are partnering with colleges to reinvigorate downtown areas and provide classroom and residence space for students by including retail space in college buildings. Cities are using P3s to build courthouses. A new desalinization plant or new water treatment plant will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Cities can’t come up with that kind of money or pass a bond to fund those types of projects, so they must look for alternative funding sources. That is often some combination of public funding as well as private investment and creative partnerships.
Although Hurricane Harvey was a horrible tragedy, how can P3s be useful tools in the rebuilding/recovery efforts?
Initially, the projections were $200 to $240 billion in federal money for rebuilding in Texas, but the state won’t get that much. The elected officials want to future-proof the construction, which means they are trying to make it where we won’t suffer this kind of damage in the future if we have another storm. We aren’t going to get enough federal money to do the rebuilding that is required, so expect to see a few visionary leaders step up in the coming months and say we’re going to joint venture and bring in some private capital.
What are some other growth areas you see for Texas construction?
Literally billions of dollars will be spent in the near future on all types of public projects related to ports. The American Association of Port Authorities estimates ports and private-sector partners will spend $154.8 billion over the next five years on seaport infrastructure repair, expansion and upgrades.
What is a program that other highway departments are doing that you would like to see TxDOT emulate?
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) Rapid Bridge Replacement project is arguably one of the nation’s most successful infrastructure P3s. PennDOT partnered with a consortium of private-sector firms to replace 558 aging and unsafe bridges in the state. The program, which began in mid-2015, completed its 200th bridge replacement in January 2016. It promises to complete an additional 200 bridges in 2017, and 100 more in 2018.
You keep pretty busy between running the two companies, speaking engagements and writing. What do you enjoy doing in your down time?
The business is still fun and challenging. I like to travel and spend time with friends and family. I am also a partner and mentor at the Capital Factory, which is an incubator here in Austin for startup technology firms.