On Sept. 4, the finalists for this year’s Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards were announced and WashingtonExec is bringing you its annual series with the nominees.
The winners will be unveiled on Nov. 13 at The Ritz Carlton in Tysons Corner by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and the Professional Services Council. With more than 1,000 business and public sector leaders attending the event, our series will keep you up-to-date about all the finalists for this year — who they are, what they do and why they are worthy of winning.
Our first interview is with Julian Setian, CEO of SOS International (SOSi). Setian is nominated for “Executive of the Year” in the $75 million to $300 million category.
WashingtonExec: How would you describe your business strategy over the past 3-5 years, and what is your organization’s plan for growth over the next 3-5 years?
Julian Setian: Our business strategy during the past 3-5 years has been to “double-down” on areas typically viewed as being risky by the rest of the GovCon community. Our logistics and base operation business in Iraq is the best example.
While conventional wisdom in the rest of the community has been to undervalue and shy away from businesses that were heavily invested in the “war theaters,” we continued to view those areas as highly fertile ground for new business, and increased energy and investment on supporting the U.S. State Department and U.S. defense manufacturers that continue to operate in the region. What has played well for us is that we are 100 percent privately-owned and self-financed, so having a strong balance sheet and not having to answer to an outside board have given us the flexibility to be bold and highly competitive when we need to be. The result has been that our business in Iraq has more than doubled in size since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, and that has given us the base to invest in other areas of the market that are bound to rebound eventually.
Our plan for growth over the next 3-5 years is two-pronged: to focus more heavily on capturing business in the foreign military sales market for growth and profitability, while shifting the focus of our intelligence business away from largely tactical, Army-centric operations to strategic operations supporting SIGINT, GEOINT, MASINT, etc. conducted by the Air Force and intelligence community. There are more than enough opportunities to build a sustainable and profitable business during the next five years; the keys are to remain viable while the market sorts itself out and to carefully pick and choose your spots without feeling pressured to pursue bad opportunities out of desperation.
WashingtonExec: How has your business been able to grow as the federal market contracts?
Julian Setian: The key to our success has always been to maintain a diverse business portfolio and to remain flexible and pragmatic — never overly parochial. As U.S. defense spending decreased, we stepped up efforts to capture foreign defense market — mostly through the foreign military sales system, but also, increasingly, in the direct commercial sales market. Our observation is the increase in foreign military spending is tied directly to the contraction of U.S. defense spending. The perception that the U.S. is looking to limit large-scale commitments overseas during the next decade has fueled foreign investment.
WashingtonExec: What is the fastest growing component of your business?
Julian Setian: The two fastest growing areas of our business are advanced GEOINT and MASINT technology services and long-range logistics and sustainment support.
WashingtonExec: What was your organization’s largest accomplishment in the last 12-18 months?
Julian Setian: Our largest accomplishment during the past 12-18 months has been the award and successful execution of a U.S. Air Force contract to perform all of the initial construction and infrastructure repairs in Iraq in support of the Iraq F-16 program. Our team has been rebuilding runways, aircraft hangars, an air traffic control tower and a range of other facilities in a dangerous area, under the most difficult of circumstances, and we continue to execute ahead of schedule and under-budget.
WashingtonExec: Given the current state of the federal contracting market, how has your organization’s marketing approach to customers, employees and future customers changed?
Julian Setian: Our organization’s marketing has become more targeted and deliberate. We gear spending to specific opportunities, and our general corporate marketing is aimed at ensuring the rest of the community knows SOSi is not only here to stay, but that we intend to widen our footprint even further in the coming years.
WashingtonExec: What are the largest challenges that you predict your business will face in the next five years?
Julian Setian: The biggest challenge in the next five years remains the most obvious … decreased U.S. spending and price pressure in the U.S. GovCon market. Regardless of strategy, that is a reality that everyone in our industry has to contend with.
WashingtonExec: How does your organization maintain engagement with all levels of employees?
Julian Setian: We believe that employee engagement is a cornerstone of our success. The most critical information pertaining to both threats and opportunities live at the pointiest end of the spear — that is, with our employees who interact daily with customers and suppliers. Nearly every major company success can be traced back to a single lead, expertise or tidbit of information provided by an employee in the field. Nothing happens without the input and involvement of our field staff. Our general approach is to maintain as flat a decision-making structure as we possibly can, and to encourage and incentivize managers to “press the flesh” with our employees as frequently as possible. I, for one, make a point of visiting as many of our worksites as possible on at least a quarterly basis, and that sets an example for others to follow.
WashingtonExec: Have millennials entering the workforce changed your corporate policies? If so, how?
Julian Setian: Millennials’ entry into the workforce hasn’t changed our corporate policies so much, but they have played to our strength of being a company with a strong reputation for ingenuity and entrepreneurialism. I generally find that millennials have a tendency to expect too much too fast. They haven’t been in the workforce long enough to know the hardships brought on by economic austerity, and, in our industry, their perceptions have been shaped by the fact that almost anyone could have ridden the bow wave to success during the past 10 years. That said, young people who are hungry and interested in learning and doing more tend to thrive at SOSi.
WashingtonExec: How is your business involved in the community?
Julian Setian: SOSi has always been a visible and active participant in the community. We are corporate members of most of the large industry associations, such as the Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association (AFCEA), National Military Intelligence Association (NMIA), Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) and National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA); during the years, we have supported several of the veterans’ organizations, to include the Wounded Warrior Project and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA); and we encourage our executives to sit on the boards of several of these organizations.
WashingtonExec: What would you say are the top one or two leadership qualities necessary to be a great leader?
Julian Setian: In my opinion, a great leader leads by example and from the front. That means, making sure that everyone in the organization knows that he/she would never ask anyone to do something that he/she is unwilling to do him/herself.
Empathy is the second most important quality a great leader can and should have, in my opinion. The ability to see and experience things through the eyes of others in the organization, and to change one’s register and adapt one’s communication style to the needs of employees at all levels of the organization, is critical. It is important to remain accessible, down-to-earth and approachable, even while setting and maintaining high performance standards.
WashingtonExec: If we were to speak directly to your leadership team, what would they say is your management style?
Julian Setian: My leadership team would probably describe me as being highly demanding, hands-on and detail-oriented, but approachable and fair. They would probably describe me as results-oriented and impatient at times, but forgiving, provided an individual’s motivations and integrity are pure.
WashingtonExec: How would your team describe your leadership qualities?
Julian Setian: My team would probably describe me as someone who leads from the front, rolls up his sleeves and gets into the details. They would also describe me as being highly competitive and unafraid of risk. They would also probably describe me as someone who has a tendency toward micro-management, but who takes the time to understand and get after problems when they arise. Those who know me well, and who have been with the company for a long time, would probably say that I encourage and espouse others to assume greater leadership responsibility, but they first have to earn my trust.
WashingtonExec: What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
Julian Setian: I have essentially held the same position in the company founded by my mother for the past 15-plus years and have been principally responsible for driving and managing the company’s growth over that timeframe. The big turning point in my career was the 2002 award of a subcontract by Bersoff Technology Group Inc. (BTG) — later acquired by the Titan Corporation, which was also later acquired by L3 Communications — to supply cleared linguists to support combat, intelligence and reconstruction operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia as part of the “Global War on Terror.” What began as a request for “a couple of cleared personnel” turned into a windfall of business that gave us the experience and resources to rapidly grow and diversify our business.
WashingtonExec: What is the No. 1 book (business or other) that you gift to individuals?
Julian Setian: The One Thing by Gary Keller.
WashingtonExec: What advice do you have for aspiring leaders in the government contracting industry?
Julian Setian: My one piece of advice for aspiring leaders in the GovCon industry is to recognize that every contract comes to an end, so make successful program/project management a function of business development, never rest on your laurels and continuously look for ways to parlay, grow and diversify your current business. Also, never confuse operational effectiveness with business effectiveness. Managing a contract or program successfully does not automatically guarantee the successful growth or continuation of that contract or program.
WashingtonExec: What was your first job?
Julian Setian: My first job was scooping ice cream.
WashingtonExec: Overall, how did that experience shape your career?
Julian Setian: I can’t say that my first job taught me anything extraordinary, but it did teach me the value of earning a paycheck.
WashingtonExec: What three pieces of advice would you give your kids?
Julian Setian: If I had kids, I would tell them that nothing comes easy or is guaranteed; that they have to earn trust, respect and success regardless of what they choose to do in life. I would tell them that nothing can replace one’s verbal commitment; that magic happens to those known for rock solid integrity and reliability. Lastly, I would tell them that the underdogs are the ones who eventually move mountains, that one should never take his/her own success for granted and one should never underestimate his/her own potential.
WashingtonExec: How has your organization changed over the past year, and what makes you optimistic about winning GovCon Awards in your category this year?
Julian Setian: I have never been more optimistic about our business. Over the past year, SOSi has become better organized, more competitive and much more stable and professional than it has ever been. We have honed our internal policies and procedures, upgraded our internal infrastructure, hired the best executive team we have ever had and taken tangible and measurable steps to better integrate our back office operations to accommodate an even greater surge in business. So, while we have always been competitive, during the past year, we have made huge strides in professionalizing and further democratizing our organization.
I am optimistic about winning the award in our category this year, because we are among the very few GovCon businesses that has proven its ability to successfully operate, manage and grow a business before the sharp increase in U.S. government spending in 2002, during the course of the 10-plus years of war-time spending and after the sharp drop in post-war spending. All of this points to our ability to adapt to changing market dynamics, regardless of the business circumstances.