Sterling Phillips has done his share of hard, around-the-clock work.
With 15 years of experience in sales and marketing, decades more in government contracting, and stints as CEO of three different companies he helped turn around, Phillips is now enjoying putting his experience to work by taking a step back.
Since early 2015 when he sold his last business,Phillips has led a slower pace through his consulting company Fairfax Advisors LLC, which advises private equity firms interested in investing in the government contractor space.
“I decided it was just time for me to semi-retire,” he said. “Being a CEO of a government contractor, especially a public one, is sort of a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. Retirement has given me more time to spend with my grandkids and on the golf course.”
Phillips said he feels he has had two careers in his life.
“I joined IBM right out of college because the computer industry was in a high-growth mode and IBM was the leading company,” he said. “I spent 15 years in sales and marketing for large-scale IBM computer systems. When IBM decided to focus on the systems integration market, I had an opportunity to join their Federal Systems Division leading new business development. That launched a second career in government contracting, where I am still involved today.”
Phillips grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and studied psychology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In those days, students were advised to seek a broad liberal arts education because employers provided on-the-job training, he said. Phillips’ post-graduate training involved years of study sponsored by the companies he worked for. Those training programs have since disappeared, and he advises students today to think of college as career preparation.
“It lays an educational foundation as well as a reputational foundation that you’re going to build on the rest of your career,” Phillips said.
Students who plan to engage in serious careers need to go ahead and plan for graduate school, he added.
“The world has gotten a lot more competitive, so higher education both at the undergraduate and graduate level needs to be taken a lot more seriously,” he said.
His previous experience includes serving as CEO for two small, publicly traded government contractors during a period in which they had “fallen on hard times.”
Phillips came to USIS, which formerly provided background investigations to the federal government, in 2013. That company was later the subject of a federal investigation involving work performed before Phillips’ tenure.
Before he came to USIS, he was CEO, president and director of GTSI, which provided IT systems integration and services to federal, state and local governments.
“I was able to recruit strong leadership teams and private equity backing, and we successfully turned the businesses around,” he said. “In both cases, we saved hundreds of jobs and generated excellent returns for the shareholders, and along the way, we won awards for helping our government customers achieve their missions.”
Phillips’ first role as CEO, which he assumed in 2001, was at Hadron Inc., another company he said had “fallen on hard times.” He successfully led Hadron toward winning new business organically and recruiting a solid management team, moves that led to a profitable private equity partnership before the business was eventually sold.
Phillips said there are some common factors for companies that get into trouble and some fundamental ways to get back on track.
“There’s almost always an issue of focus and attention to fundamentals, especially as businesses are in decline or under legal or other attacks from the outside,” he said. “People tend to get distracted and lose focus and that doesn’t help.”
“Focus on the fundamentals of the business,” he said.
Pay attention to things like cash flow, managing expenses, and especially, the customer.
“Companies that get in trouble tend to be inwardly focused,” he said.
After selling USIS in 2015, he decided to switch gears and be involved part-time in consulting and board work.
“I formed my own company and am advising private equity firms seeking to acquire or invest in federal contractors,” he said.
His new role, he said, gives him more time and flexibility to pursue other interests like traveling, reading and family activities.
“We have 10 grandchildren around the country, so we enjoy traveling to visit them,” he said. “I’m also able to play more golf—not better golf, just more.”
Phillips said he does miss working daily with “the many great people” he encountered on a daily basis but also enjoys his new direction.
“One of my favorite pastimes is cooking, and I am the principal cook in our house,” he said. “Recently, I’ve been working on crab cakes. That’s one of our favorite dishes.”
Phillips said his goal is to stay involved in government contracting and assisting small and medium contractors in growing their businesses. He continues to serve on the board of advisers for the Northern Virginia Technology Council.