Meet Rick Biben, CEO, and Shawn Tallant, Vice President of Business Development and Strategy, at Gibbs & Cox, an independent engineering and design firm specializing in naval architecture and marine engineering, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. Through this two-for-one interview with WashingtonExec Biben and Tallant describe the modernization of the U.S. Naval fleet despite the the changing economic backdrop, as well as how Gibbs & Cox has continued to stay ahead of its industry curve for over 80 years. The company’s nonprofit involvement with the WWII museum in New Orleans, Louisiana was also discussed.
Fast Fact: Gibbs & Cox has designed over 45% of the entire U.S. Navy’s active in commission surface ship fleet.
WashingtonExec: Please tell us a little bit about your backgrounds.
Shawn Tallant: I attended the U.S. Naval Academy and then served 27 years with the Navy before transitioning to a senior management role with Raytheon’s Integrated Defense Systems, focusing on their Seapower Capabilities business area. This past April, I had the opportunity to join Gibbs and Cox where I’m excited to be a part of the company’s new growth and diversification strategy. Our vision is to be the maritime engineering and integration company of choice, providing expertise and quality solutions in maritime markets worldwide.
Rick Biben: I graduated with a degree in management from Bryant University and served in the Peace Corps. I spent nearly 19 years at Northrop Grumman before I moved on to executive positions at Anteon (now part of General Dynamics), CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation), and SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation). I joined Gibbs and Cox as Chief Executive in August of 2010. I fervently believe that this team provides the best solution for the Navy in many aspects of engineering programs in terms of value, total cost of ownership, and sustainability, and wanted to contribute my experience in the government services space to further this mission.
WashingtonExec: You mentioned diversification. What does this mean for the direction of Gibbs & Cox in the future?
Rick Biben: Gibbs and Cox has always been known as a leading marine engineering firm and the premier ship designer for naval ship combatants, and now we are adapting that expertise to offer an expanded portfolio of government services to meet the evolving challenges and needs of our naval and maritime defense customers. We are evolving from a “two pillar” company focused on new ship design and government services support, to a “four pillar” company by expanding into platform sustainability (life cycle extensions) and direct shipyard support.
Shawn Tallant: The face of maritime defense and warfare has changed significantly in recent years. Rather than commissioning new ships to expand its fleet, naval defense organizations are looking to modernize systems, capabilities and extend the life of its current ships. We have the expertise and experience necessary to help fulfill these needs –it’s a natural extension for us.
Rick Biben: As you can imagine, the nature of this industry trends towards large peaks and valleys in revenue based on when ships are being designed and commissioned. The peaks can’t be accelerated, but by expanding our engineering service portfolio and offering solutions to commercial customers, we can level the valleys and guarantee constant, meaningful work for our employees. We are providing engineering and design on commercial and government ships, areas we have targeted as being win-win for both sides. We are able to provide subject matter and area engineering talent, which allows the shipyards to more efficiently boost their capacity without having to worry about overstaffing.
In that regard, it’s to our advantage that Gibbs & Cox is a highly technical firm. Our customers find value not just in our engineering services, but also in the studies and reports we produce because we take pains to ensure they are actionable. The key is to have a deep understanding of the customer’s needs and their unique situation. I have spent a lot of my initial time at Gibbs & Cox meeting with our partners in the industry such as BAE Systems Ship Repair (Norfolk, Jacksonville, Mobile and San Diego), Bollinger, Colonna’s, Conrad, Fincantieri/Marinette, GD/Bath Iron Works, Huntington Ingalls (Newport News and Pascagoula), Signal International/Bender, Vigor Todd, Vancouver, and VT Halter. I have found considerable excitement with the result that we are now supporting them directly. In the past, we would support one or two shipyards at a time; today we are working with seven different shipyards.
WashingtonExec: With all your career experience, what do you believe has been your biggest accomplishment? What has been your biggest challenge?
Rick Biben: I really enjoy working with our people. I consider my greatest accomplishments times when I have gotten diverse groups of people to work together towards a common goal of success and achievement. I firmly believe that people will do their best when they feel part of the solution, part of a team working towards an objective – and that they each matter. My biggest challenges over the years has been getting folks to understand that very issue – building the team that wants to succeed and separating those who are not of a common mindset. Putting the right people in the right positions to succeed and empowering them – with my trust and assistance so that they too can grow.
Shawn Tallant: I’ve always lived by a mantra of God, Country & Family, where my greatest challenge has always been to find the quality time to be able to succeed in all three. While I believe my biggest accomplishment resides in my family’s growth – from a professional perspective, I’m proud to be able to say I served my country proudly for three decades in the U.S. Navy, and am now able to work in a profession dedicated to delivering the best maritime capability our nation can provide to our valiant sailors.
WashingtonExec: What is your view on today’s naval defense situation and what do you think is the best way to prepare for new threats?
Shawn Tallant: As a retired Navy Captain, I can say, even in today’s economic environment, the Navy is taking the appropriate steps to do what is right for our servicemen and national security. They have their priorities in order. First, in taking care of our sailors (and their families), and then leveraging the Department of Defense’s investment in new naval platforms, technologies and capabilities. The collective “win” here is whenever, wherever the next threat emerges, the US Navy will be prepared to respond with trained sailors on modern platforms with the latest technology. Gibbs & Cox has a proud 80 year legacy of as a trusted partner with the US Navy, and we are continuing in that vein as an industry thought leader by providing concepts, thoughts, and studies that assist the Navy in their decision process in support of our national defense.
Rick Biben: The Navy and the government as a whole – and industry – are being asked to do more for less, and we see our role as providing the engineering services and design work that supports that end. Recently, we have seen the rise of asymmetric threats with fast service craft in coastal waters. We are proud to be the design agent supporting the Lockheed Martin team for the Littoral Combat Ship, a ship that foreshadows where naval warfare may be going in the future—faster, more maneuverable, relatively inexpensive, and flexible ships, These ships are an outstanding platform to support and protect our country and our warfighters. We feel it is vital to constantly be reinvesting in the next technology advancements and improvements; new ideas and mentoring of our evolving critical resources; and our people.
WashingtonExec: Is Gibbs & Cox involved with non-profit groups or similar projects?
Rick Biben: Giving back is an important component of our company’s culture. Gibbs & Cox has been very active in supporting the upgrade modifications being made to the WWII Museum in New Orleans. We have donated many ship models to maritime museums across our country. We’re especially passionate about this project because of our company’s history. Over 5,400 ships were built to Gibbs & Cox designs during WWII and that was when the company implemented many features that are the foundation of modern cost-effective ship building. We are not a large company by any means, however, just over the last year we have supported at least a half-dozen non-profit groups with contributions of funding, time and in-kind contributions.
Shawn Tallant: We are also very proud of our cycling team’s award for highest fundraising effort by a “corporate challenge” team in support of the US Air Force Aid Society. We also had an employee place first in the US Coast Guard Foundation Cup sailboat race, which supported the US Coast Guard Foundation.