WashingtonExec Annual GovCon Awards Interview Series: Haystax CEO Bill Van Vleet

Bill , Haystax

Bill Van Vleet, Haystax Technology

WashingtonExec Annual Greater Washington GovCon Awards Finalist Series

The clock is ticking. With just a few days 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.

WashingtonExec spoke with Haystax Technology CEO Bill Van Vleet, who is up for Executive of the Year; Haystax Technology is also up for Contractor of the Year. Both are in the categories for companies valued between $75 million to $300 million.

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

Bill Van Vleet: Our vision for the future is clear; we want Haystax to become the next-generation mid-cap technology leader providing analytics and cybersecurity solutions. This positions our company in growth markets by solving critical and enduring problems for our government and the nation as a whole.

Our growth strategy includes organic growth of about 15 to 20 percent per year, complemented with strategic acquisitions. Both will be necessary in order to become a mid-sized company – a company of $300 million to $500 million in revenues and between 3,000 and 5,000 employees. Our timeframe for achieving this growth is during the next three to five years.

We are set on accomplishing this vision while maintaining a unified business strategy, which means continuing to focus on cybersecurity and analytics. In achieving this vision for Haystax, we believe we will be able to create value for three equally important populations: customers and their missions, employees and shareholders.

Many government contractors in the technology space are shedding their professional services business units, maintaining that people are expensive and provide a lower return on investment. I take a different approach. I believe that without outstanding people to provide superior services, you’re not providing full value to your customer. The people of Haystax NetCentrics are excellent at what they do, and this has been borne out by the important federal contracts they have been winning.

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

Bill Van Vleet: Haystax Technology acquired NetCentrics, a leader in cybersecurity and network management solutions for defense and federal customers. The deal enabled us to provide immediate scale to create a single company capable of driving greater innovation in big data analytics, cloud computing, real-time threat assessment, cybersecurity and IT enterprise management for defense, intelligence and commercial markets.

This acquisition has contributed to Haystax’s tremendous year-over-year growth, increasing revenue by more than 450 percent between 2013 and 2014. In doing so, the company has moved up in scale – from a small to medium-sized business. The acquisition also transformed the business through the expansion of capabilities, customers and markets, infrastructure, and talent.

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

Bill Van Vleet: With the many changes occurring in government today, we see an opportunity for the emergence of a new climate that values the qualities of agility, innovation and mission-focus. We believe that in order to succeed in such an environment, our company needs very well-run businesses, a capacity to execute and deliver on promises, and an ability to create opportunities for people.

We’re aiming for a mid-cap designation because we want to combine the speed, agility and innovation of a small company with the endurance and breadth of a larger one. While most large companies tend to be slow and risk-adverse, and small companies have endurance and talent depth susceptibilities, we are aiming to capture the best characteristics of each. We intend to make Haystax innovate, with quickness, agility, depth and breadth – a piece of the marketplace we believe is vanishing.

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

Bill Van Vleet: One of the biggest challenges of leading a rapidly growing company is maintaining a focus on the people doing the work. I take seriously the phrase, “People are our greatest strength,” and you have to be just as mindful of this as you must be in closing deals. The NetCentrics acquisition is a particularly good example of a focus on people, as NetCentrics provides services rather than just products or solutions. When we added NetCentrics, we expanded our headcount by more than five times, going from 60 to 350 employees. That’s a significant expansion in people.

Many government contractors in the technology space are shedding their professional services business units, maintaining that people are expensive and provide a lower return on investment. I take a different approach. I believe that without outstanding people to provide superior services, you’re not providing full value to your customer. The people of Haystax NetCentrics are excellent at what they do, and this has been borne out by the important federal contracts they have been winning. The personnel we provide the government have extensive experience in cybersecurity operations, including numerous certifications and knowledge of government network operations. It’s important to me to keep those people and reward them for the total value they bring to the business.

WashingtonExec: How does your organization maintain engagement with all levels of employees? Have millennials entering the workforce changed your company’s strategic plans or corporate policies? If so, how?

Bill Van Vleet: We enjoy a company culture that is focused on agility, innovation and customer service within a corporate family environment. Using our “Innovate on Purpose” methodology, which incorporates proven tools and experienced innovation staff, we accelerate the generation and development of ideas to reduce costs, improve productivity and efficiency and achieve exceptionally high customer satisfaction. Each program team has a dedicated SharePoint site to track innovation submissions and program status.

Haystax takes care of its employees so they can focus on our customers. When a young employee had cancer, Haystax created a leave donation program to allow him to focus on his treatments, which lasted more than two years; the program remains as his legacy. Employees who celebrate births or marriages receive a handwritten card and a check for $500.

Development of our staff is a priority – Haystax spent more than $100,000 on training and tuition in 2014. Haystax offers a Leadership Development Program focused on developing high-performing employees as successors into key positions. The company also supports a program called “Wiser Wednesdays,” which trains employees how to be better managers and “Lunch and Learn” seminars to learn about emerging technologies. Haystax also offers a company sponsored Toastmasters on site, a monthly healthy newsletter, a “Haystax store” to buy branded gear and a $50 gift certificate for every new hire.

As employees deliver excellent customer services, managers reward and publish those acts of service excellence and bonuses are awarded those employees. The Haystax culture contributes to our success and our high customer satisfaction are the proof.

WashingtonExec: How is your business involved in the community? (corporate citizenship)

Bill Van Vleet: At Haystax, we encourage employees to live out their core values to “do the right thing” and actively support the community where employees live and work. The company’s charity committee — affectionately called the Goodie Two Shoes — has created a robust program that provides monetary support at the individual or team level and an opportunity to showcase those passions using its Pinterest-type website. They organize charity events in all major geographic locations.

Haystax has made a large commitment to The V Foundation for Cancer Research, donating hundreds of hours of employees’ time to build software for internet applications that manage activities for the V Foundation’s ESPY Golf Classic in Los Angeles. The application allows charities such as the V Foundation to organize golf events, galas, reverse auctions, volunteers, corporate contacts and contributions, and everything else necessary to manage a world class event. According to a former Jimmy V director, Haystax’ contributions cut the organization’s planning time in half, and in some cases, up to 75 percent.

Haystax also supports Make-a-Wish Foundation, Wounded Warriors Project and Women’s Veterans Interactive, Shootout for Soldiers, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Insane Inflatable 5K in memory of a former employee Josh Leahy, SPCA, Avon 39 Walk to End Breast Cancer, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, March of Dimes, Hard Charge, Network for Good, Wreaths Across America, SHS After Prom, American Cancer Society, Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless and Friends of Wake County Guardian Holiday Gift Project.

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

Bill Van Vleet: At Haystax we say that leadership is about painting the vision, and engaging people in a way that is meaningful to customers and themselves. Our leaders serve our people so our people can serve our customers. The most important task our leaders have is continuing and enhancing the culture that has led to our success. They strive to develop the best, define new markets, technologies and opportunities where Haystax can provide valuable solutions to address unmet customer needs.

Our leadership development programs are based on the philosophy of “leaders teaching leaders” and include personal instruction in the fundamentals of program management, financial management and leadership, as well as one-on-one mentoring with high potential employees.

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

Bill Van Vleet: They would probably say I use a “West Coast” management style, which probably comes from leading a public company in Silicon Valley for 10 years. It places emphasis on growth through innovation, creativity and employee empowerment. A Silicon Valley approach is entrepreneurial in nature and more “bottoms up,” enabling good ideas to bubble up in the organization rather than providing strict direction from the top. It also uses a best athlete approach to hiring to attract the best and brightest candidates and find the right places in the organization to maximize their strengths and personal growth. The effect of this style creates a culture of inclusion and collaboration, leveraging diversity of perspectives and experiences, and promoting best practices throughout the organization.

WashingtonExec: What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?

Bill Van Vleet: One of the biggest turning points I had in my career was making the decision to leave The Boeing Company to lead a small, privately-owned research and development company. As a Fortune 50 company, Boeing has tremendous resources and opportunity to build experience. Making the leap from a large institution to a small company was like jumping off a cruise ship and into a row boat. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. It was a huge risk with greater opportunity in moving to a company that was smaller than the annual IR&D budgets I managed at Boeing. The move was one of the boldest and most rewarding in my career because every decision I made and action I took had an impact on the company.

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

Bill Van Vleet: Start with Why by Simon Sinek captures a critical principle in creating a great company. Most companies communicate what they do, but the best communicate why they do it. In defining your “why,” you start with your purpose, cause or belief – in essence, why the company exists. This common purpose serves as a unifying rallying point throughout the organization. I founded Haystax on the principle that everyone deserves safety and security. As a company, we protect what people value most and that includes protecting our nation, protecting cities and states from natural hazards, protecting citizens at major sports and entertainment events, protecting critical information networks, protecting children in schools and protecting individual identities.

WashingtonExec: What was your first job?

Bill Van Vleet: Other than mowing lawns and shoveling snow as a teen and summer jobs in high school and college, my first career job was as a co-op student at General Electric Medical Systems. In the co-op program, I alternated semesters working at GE and taking electrical engineering courses at Marquette University. I received different rotational assignments in each semester which provided an excellent perspective on all dimensions of company operations. This included one semester in analog hardware design (using relays!), digital electronic design on patient monitoring systems, a rotation in financial administration and my final rotation in software where I worked on the first CAT-scan prototype. (It was called digital fluoroscopy in those days). After that assignment I realized the tremendous power and potential of software-based systems and determined this was the direction in which I wanted to pursue a long-term career.

WashingtonExec: What three pieces of advice would you give your kids?

Bill Van Vleet:

  1. Find your purpose. There is a reason we are all here at this time and in this place. Our challenge in life is to discover our purpose, that unifying and driving force, on this journey. All you need to be really happy is within you – thoughtfulness, compassion, gratitude, and the ability to create and do something meaningful.
  2. Not everything useful I learned, was learned from college – I learned it from doing. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. They are some of the best teachers. Instead, learn to be OK with mistakes and learn to learn from them. Learn to shrug them off so they don’t affect confidence in who you really are. Commit to lifelong learning.
  3. Let love be your guide – Love family, friends, coworkers, strangers, your brothers and sisters in humanity. Love what you do. Most of all, love yourself. And always know, no matter what, I love you with my whole heart.

Related: WashingtonExec Annual GovCon Awards Interview Series: Accenture Federal Services CEO David Moskovitz


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