WashingtonExec Annual GovCon Awards Interview Series: PAE CEO John Heller

John Heller, PAE

John Heller, CEO, PAE

WashingtonExec Annual Greater Washington GovCon Awards Finalist Series

The clock is ticking. With just a few weeks away from the “Oscars of the Government Contracting Community,” the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and the Professional Services Council will both share the winners of the 13th annual Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards.

As we count down to the grand event at The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, WashingtonExec is interviewing “Executive of the Year” and “Contractor of the Year” finalists about how they’re setting their businesses apart in the government contracting arena and how they’re attracting a new generation of workers to implement their mission.

PAE’s CEO John Heller spoke with WashingtonExec; the Arlington, Va.-based company is a finalist for the “Contractor of the Year” award for those valued at more than $300 million.

WashingtonExec: What is your organization’s plan for growth during the next three to five years?

John Heller: We plan to keep our focus on what we have done successfully for 60 years, which is to provide enduring operations and missions support to the essential missions of the U.S. government and its partners. We believe that by focusing on our core and prioritizing service delivery and performance, we will continue to steadily grow in our marketspace.

Don’t sit in your office. Get out in the field. Take as many jobs as you can to work at the customer and project level, so you have extensive understanding of how services are delivered and how best to support your customer.

WashingtonExec: How has your business been able to grow as the federal market contracts?

John Heller: PAE’s focus has always been on supporting the foreign policy objectives of the United States, in times of war and times of peace. This broad and enduring mission has allowed us to maintain and grow our level of support across government agencies, even as the U.S. engagement overseas has drawn down.

WashingtonExec: What was your organization’s largest accomplishment in the last 12-18 months?

John Heller: We were honored to be chosen and proud to support the USAID in the establishment and operation of Ebola Treatment Units in Liberia. A video describing the challenges of that mission can be seen here.

WashingtonExec: Given today’s government contracting marketplace, how has your organization’s approach to customers, employees and future customers changed?

John Heller: We do what we have always done – maintain open lines of communication, support the customer’s mission as if it was our own and anticipate needs. By doing these three things (and doing them well), we gain our customers’ trust and can cater our services and structure to what they will need in the future.

WashingtonExec: What are the largest challenges that you predict your business will face in the next five years?

John Heller: The pace of challenges for our customers has increased tremendously and that translates to challenges for our business. Three years ago, we would have predicted an entirely different set of threats and priorities than those that are facing our government today. The U.S. government has to respond quickly, and we in turn will maintain our agility and capability to respond quickly and effectively, wherever and whenever our customers need assistance.

WashingtonExec: We have seen many large, M&A transitions this year, do you anticipate this will continue in the future?

John Heller: Yes. I anticipate continued consolidation of service companies (or divested service segments of other companies).

WashingtonExec: Have millennials entering the workforce changed your company’s strategic plans or corporate policies? If so, how?

John Heller: Our corporate policies are designed to ensure compliance with all regulations, and the integrity of our business operations. Compliance and integrity shape the foundation of our business, and they have remained our focus for 60 years, so no – those do not change with the entrance of the millennial generation. However, because PAE has always been an international company, our policies and procedures have been shaped to accommodate a wide range of employee demographics. We are an incredibly diverse team operating in more than 60 countries, and our millennial employees tend to be attracted to us for that reason. However, we do try to stay ahead of the curve to ensure we’re an attractive employer and hire/retain the best of the best. We engage future generations of employees through dynamic internship programs; we offer leadership development opportunities via formal classroom settings and informal rotational positions on an ongoing basis.

WashingtonExec: How is your business involved in the community?

John Heller: Due to our geographic footprint, PAE employees are involved in myriad worthy causes across the globe, which is something we encourage and are proud to share. PAE has supported several signature sponsorships that meet our philanthropic objectives. They are: Boulder Crest Retreat for Wounded Warriors, based out of Bluemont, Va.; the American Heart Association, which I was proud to support as Heart Walk chairman last year; and the American Red Cross.

WashingtonExec: What would you say are the top one or two leadership qualities necessary to be a great leader?

John Heller: Passion for the missions your company supports and the ability to think strategically and make timely decisions under pressure.

WashingtonExec: If we were to speak directly to your leadership team, what would they say is your management style?

John Heller: Strategy-focused.

WashingtonExec: How would your team describe your leadership qualities?

John Heller: When I first came to PAE, my priorities were to learn, listen, observe and travel to the programs across the world to gain a better understanding of where we were and where we could go. My leadership team knows that while I take time to create and consider a strategy, once it is made, I ensure that we define and assign performance targets and am aggressive in their implementation.

WashingtonExec: What is the No. 1 business book that had the largest impact on your life or professional development?

John Heller: Neither of these are business books per se, but have both had an impact on my career in business: The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham and The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The latter was written 2,000 years ago when Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor and in the field with his armies. I still read it all the time and find new lessons from it.

WashingtonExec: What advice do you have for aspiring leaders in the government contracting industry?

John Heller: Don’t sit in your office. Get out in the field. Take as many jobs as you can to work at the customer and project level, so you have extensive understanding of how services are delivered and how best to support your customer. In doing so, you’ll have the foundation to be a much more capable leader as you rise to executive levels within a company.

WashingtonExec: What was your first job?

John Heller: I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and accepted my commission in the Army. My first job was as a maintenance officer in Western Germany. After transitioning from the Army to a civilian career, I first attended the Katz School of Business at University of Pittsburgh full-time and upon graduation was hired by Deloitte Consulting.

WashingtonExec: Overall, how did that experience shape your career?

John Heller: My service in the military gave me an appreciation for our customers’ missions, and my chosen major of Business Strategy at Pitt gave me the tools and opportunity to develop a skill and focus that I have applied to every subsequent job.

WashingtonExec: How has your organization changed over the past year and what makes you optimistic about winning GovCon Awards in your category this year?

John Heller: PAE kicked off 2014 with a focus on improving our internal infrastructure to prepare for growth. We set goals for ourselves and pursued them aggressively while also maintaining an enviable growth rate. However, what we consider our most important achievement in 2014 would be rapidly mobilizing support – with a new customer and new type of contract – to support the USG response to the ebola crisis in West Africa. Our team members on the ground were the true heroes of course, but I was very proud of how all levels of management were involved in shaping the bid and supporting that team. We showed true teamwork when it was needed and worked quickly to support a dire customer need. This was a perfect demonstration of the type of work that shaped PAE’s reputation 60 years ago, which we are proud to continue today.

Related: PSC and Fairfax Chamber Announces Finalists for 13th Annual GovCon Awards, PAE acquired A-T Solutions in May 2015


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