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 next interview is with Audacious Inquiry LLC (Ai) Managing Partner Christopher Brandt. The company is nominated for “Contractor of the Year” in the less than $25 million category.
WashingtonExec: How would you describe your business strategy during the past 3-5 years, and what is your organization’s plan for growth over the next 3-5 years? How has your business been able to grow as the federal market contracts?
Christopher Brandt: The healthcare industry is in the midst of a technology revolution, driven by national and local legislation and demands by patients and providers that an aging system catch up to the technological standards we’ve all come to expect. Ai has been poised to help drive the health information policy and technology evolution, leading directly to our rapid growth. One of Ai’s differentiators is our unique perspective of health IT as both policy experts and software engineers, enabling our team to collaborate and innovate with stakeholders to produce technical solutions that solve the problems the industry is facing, and in turn, enabling better and more efficient healthcare outcomes.
In the interest of enabling continued growth, we are careful not to lose focus on the work and opportunities provided by our current customers and partners. This approach has organically led to new opportunities, and we believe that this will continue to allow us to expand in a sustainable fashion.
For example, HHS/ONC, the national policymaker in the health information technology industry, is a key customer that expanded its relationship with Ai over several years. ONC has continued to significantly expand the relationship since, and our partnership includes ONC-sponsored, Ai-led efforts to conduct market research and develop strategy briefings on special topics in health information exchange. This project has provided Ai with a unique national platform for showcasing our understanding of the technical and other practical challenges with implementing HIEs.
Ai also became one of only four businesses awarded a slot on a bulk purchasing agreement with ONC, through which it’s Offices of Standards and Interoperability and the Chief Privacy Officer will procure services for years to come.
Our expanding relationship as policy advisors and technology consultants to the federal government is the fastest-growing segment of our business in recent years, contributing to 287 percent growth from 2011 to 2013.
WashingtonExec: What is the fastest growing component of your business?
Christopher Brandt: Our expanding relationship as policy advisors and technology consultants to the federal government is the fastest-growing segment of our business in recent years, contributing to 287 percent growth from 2011 to 2013. As we’ve strengthened our policy and technology team, we’ve also continued to grow our business at the state level. The company’s growth has been fueled by successful execution on health information exchange initiatives, which by nature touch many key stakeholders in healthcare. We expect our growth trend to continue as a function of continued execution and through the visibility of our work.
WashingtonExec: What was your organization’s largest accomplishment in the last 12-18 months?
Christopher Brandt: In early 2013, Ai entered into our first licensing agreement, for our Encounter Notification Service (ENS) product. ENS promotes healthcare quality improvement, efficiency and coordination by notifying healthcare providers when their patients have a healthcare encounter like being admitted or discharged from a hospital.
As of August 2014, Ai’s ENS is facilitating care coordination for more than five million people in four states and in the District of Columbia.
WashingtonExec: Given the current state of the federal contracting market, how has your organization’s marketing approach to customers, employees and future customers changed?
Christopher Brandt: Healthcare is dramatically changing, and our positive reputation as a change agent continues to propel us forward. As an emerging business in healthcare, it is very clear to us that our customers are counting on us to continue to innovate, as well as to execute.
WashingtonExec: What are the largest challenges that you predict your business will face in the next five years?
Christopher Brandt: In the next five years, we will be challenged to transition from relying on a tight-knit team of superstars to a larger team without sacrificing our company culture. We have invested significantly in an overhaul of our processes and policies to ensure repeatability and quality. We’ve increased training and guidance for our management team and are working on strengthening our software and IT infrastructure, as well as our recruiting processes, to enable us to continue to continue to grow our team in a stable and productive environment.
WashingtonExec: Have millennials entering the workforce changed your corporate policies? If so, how?
Christopher Brandt: Ai is composed significantly of millennials, and accordingly, millennials have had a big influence on our organizational culture. We’ve always maintained a flat organizational structure and communication is fluid and very open across the company; we use IM, video-chat, email and our company Intranet as communication tools, but we still think it’s critical to come together in person to share ideas. Project execution at Ai requires collaboration across disciplines, which leads to creative solutions, and we do anything we can to facilitate that.
Many of our consultants work offsite full-time but we encourage them to come to the office on Fridays to encourage collaboration and innovation. We have monthly team meetings, called Ai30, to keep everyone in the loop on project accomplishments, business development wins, and company news. We also implemented the bi-monthly Ai Learning Network (ALNet) in 2013, which gives our team the opportunity to share our intellectual capital. We get together and educate each other about the business we do and the concepts we know, and in between sessions, we share ideas and resources on the ALNet website.
We organize social and wellness events throughout the year to bring the team and our families together. We have picnics, parties, happy hours, community service events, run races and attend baseball games. Our focus on maintaining and constantly improving our company culture has helped us retain employees and attract many new recruits through referrals from current employees. Our employees report that they love working here because they get to collaborate with teammates who are the top talent in the industry, and they feel like they are making significant contributions to the company and making a difference in the world with the work we do.
WashingtonExec: How is your business involved in the community?
Christopher Brandt: Ai is committed to giving back to the community, and in early 2011, Ai became the fifth Maryland business and one of the first technology firms nationally to earn a B Corporation certification for community benefit. As a “B corporation” Ai meets comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards, agrees to meet higher legal accountability standards than ordinary companies and use the “power of business” to solve social and environmental problems and to provide public benefit. Ai seeks to align its business strategy with a goal of service to the communities where it works.
I was recently selected by the Maryland chapter of the American Diabetes Association and the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) to participate in an initiative to engage top regional CEOs in the fight against diabetes in the workplace. As one of the six initial corporate leaders, I have made a commitment to serve as a role model and pledged to provide visible wellness leadership at Ai.
Accordingly, the company has made a significant push to expand our wellness program, which awards points to employees who practice healthy habits like exercise, good nutrition, and giving back to the community. The number of regular monthly participants has nearly doubled, and Ai’s culture of wellness and teamwork continues to grow. Ai team members are also involved in a number of civic and charitable organizations, and the company regularly schedules team community service and wellness events, such as cleaning up the grounds of Shepherds Clinic or a 5k run/walk to support the American Diabetes Association.
WashingtonExec: What would you say are the top one or two leadership qualities necessary to be a great leader?
Christopher Brandt: Compassion – I am not always the best at this, but it empathy and compassion are very important traits of a business leader.
WashingtonExec: If we were to speak directly to your leadership team, what would they say is your management style?
Christopher Brandt: Collaborative, I hope.
WashingtonExec: What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
Christopher Brandt: I left a good job with a large financial services company to start Ai. I was finishing business school and had a full ride from the company. The change of course involved moving into my parents’ basement, and it was probably more difficult than I would have anticipated when I made the decision. It was a humbling experience. It was again humbling, in 2008-2009, when our largest customer went bankrupt, and we struggled. This all being said, the path has been a great one overall, and I have learned tremendously in the 10 years since starting Ai.
WashingtonExec: What is the No. 1 book that you gift to individuals?
Christopher Brandt: I don’t gift any one book widely, but I can say that Good to Great by Jim Collins, where Collins dedicates a chapter to setting and achieving “big, hairy audacious goals,” played a role in inspiring the name of our company. To be sure, business partners rarely forget Ai’s name, and the brand has grown stronger as a result of the quality of the Ai team and our work.
WashingtonExec: What was your first job?
Christopher Brandt: I had a few great jobs early, as an intern and then just out of college. The office (and technology) jobs helped me to understand how organizations work, and they helped me to develop a useful toolset as a professional. However, among the most memorable first jobs was washing dishes at a suburban Italian food restaurant for part of a high school summer. I needed to have a job if I wanted to drive a car, which I badly did. Washing dishes was a difficult job for me, and it provided perspective, certainly, as my career has evolved.
WashingtonExec: What three pieces of advice would you give your kids?
Christopher Brandt: Treat others as you would expect others to treat you. It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. (T. Roosevelt) Give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day. (J. Wooden)