Remote possibilities

Integrators know their chances of securing federal contracts are greatly enhanced by their proximity to the contracting authority. That's why they're almost all based in the Washington, D.C., area. But securing a federal contract is just Step One. Step Two is often opening a satellite office close to the contract operations.

How well that's done can prove the difference between whether a contract succeeds or fails, not to mention determine the fate of the field office and staff, regardless of how big the parent company is.

Many integrators find that remote offices are indispensable. For example, SRA International, a large provider of government information technology services, has about 25 field offices. "They keep us closer to the customers and that makes us more responsive," said Ernst Volgenau, SRA's chairman and chief executive officer.

Quite simply, "locating with your customer is good for business," added Dan Johnson, chief operating officer of Anteon, which has about 8,500 employees, about half of whom work outside the Fairfax, Va., headquarters. "If you're flying in and out, you're sort of temporary, and we don't want to be temporary," Johnson said. "We want to be a long-term partner."

Setting up a field office has other benefits, integrator officials said. Although the branch office's primary purpose is to support a program at a distant location, it can also help acquire new government customers, and earn critical support from the local congressional delegation.

SRA, for example, has had a 10-year service contract with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility near Seattle since 1998. Donna Wright, the shipyard's information resource manager, said that before officials hired SRA, they had not been able to bring together the staff needed to handle the organization's technical work.

With the company, "we were able to hire as we needed," she said. "They would move people out here or go out and hire someone [locally], so that's worked out well."

SRA's 15-person office is outside the shipyard's main gate. "The project manager is very much engaged; he meets with me once or twice a week, face to face," Wright said. "He's always interested in the support that's provided."

Remote employees shouldn't be out in the cold

Once officials make the decision to open a remote office, they must think about staffing it. Employees who work far from headquarters — whether they were hired in the satellite office's local area or sent from another site — should not feel isolated from the company's culture.

Staffing can be done locally, or personnel can be transferred from headquarters or another field office. SRA has done it both ways, Volgenau said. He said if company officials are considering hiring someone to lead a satellite office who hasn't worked for the company but has a good reputation, they will take a chance. "We're seldom disappointed, because we do a thorough job of reference-checking," he said.

Johnson, who has helped start a number of Anteon's field offices, estimated that he spends about half his time in the field. He visited more than 40 Anteon sites last year. He said integrating remote staff into the company's corporate culture is made more complex because Anteon is an acquirer, having bought eight companies in the past seven years. The company has teams at headquarters ready to fly to new sites to handle hiring issues, benefits, computers and e-mail systems. They even change the stationery and logos.

"People don't like change," Johnson said, whether it's the result of acquiring a company, moving headquarters staff to a remote office, or hiring workers in the field. "There's always a fear of things not being the way they used to be. When we acquire a company, our goal is to fully integrate it."

The same goal applies when opening an office far from headquarters, he said. It needs to be integrated into the Anteon corporate culture.

Costly new offices are not always optional

Officials at companies without deep pockets must be especially judicious, because opening branch offices is not cheap.

"Being a small business like we are, we just can't open offices where we feel that there's a need," said Kris Collo, president and CEO of MicroPact Engineering. "There's got to be a specific need in hand."

Once that need is identified, cost and staffing become the main concerns. Collo estimated that setting up a small regional office and equipping it with communications lines, copiers and workstations costs about $10,000, not including staff salaries, insurance and other personnel outlays. Despite the cost, smaller firms often must establish offices far from headquarters.

Gray Hawk Systems, founded in 1995, is a $70 million business with federal national security and counterintelligence contracts, which it handles from its Alexandria, Va., headquarters and offices in Dahlgren, Va., and Colorado Springs, Colo.

Cal Shintani, Gray Hawk's vice president of business development, said the company opened the Colorado Springs office after winning a national intelligence contract soon after Sept. 11, 2001. "After we helped them in the [Washington], D.C., area — that was the initial period of start-up — they wanted us to come out to Colorado Springs," he said.

Even with a contract in hand, Gray Hawk officials were cautious about opening a remote office. "We had folks go there on temporary duty to help find the right place," he said. Once a facility was located, company officials leased a small office and hired a local resident to get the site up and running.

Caution was also the operative word at MicroPact Engineering, which has about 70 employees and offices in Virginia Beach, Va.; San Antonio; and San Diego.

Collo said MicroPact officials needed to open a West Coast office when they won a contract with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems (Spawar) Center in San Diego. "The first thing we look at before opening anything is to make sure there's sustainability for an office and that there's room for growth," he said.

The San Diego area is home to many government agencies, he said. Because of that, "Spawar is definitely going to be an opportunity for us to grow," he said.

Meanwhile, the two-person MicroPact West Coast office is right across the street from Spawar, making responses fast. "When they need something, because it is for the naval ships that are [at sea], they need it really quickly," he said.

Collo's advice is echoed by Valerie Perlowitz, president of Reliable Integration Services Inc., which has offices in Charleston, W.Va., and Austin, Texas. RISI closed its Kansas City, Mo., site about two years ago when its local federal contract ended and no new work was forthcoming. Perlowitz said the experience taught her a valuable lesson about managing remote offices.

"We didn't spend enough time going out there," Perlowitz said.

Now she visits Austin and Charleston about every six weeks and informs the staff of company business on a daily basis. RISI also sponsors family picnics, dinners, bowling and other activities for the remote staff to show that the company cares about them, she said.

When RISI officials hold their regular all-hands satellite conference in the evening, the 10 staffers in Charleston have dinner together while the headquarters staff is also dining. "Everyone chats and there's interaction," she said.

Hubler is a freelance writer in Annandale, Va. He can be reached at d.hubler@verizon.net.

Maintaining focus

Sometimes even with the best intentions and a rock-solid, on-site professional staff, the owner of a computer services provider is forced to close a remote office. It happened a few years ago to Reliable Integration Services Inc. (RISI), an integrator based in Vienna, Va. Company officials shut the doors of the Kansas City, Mo., branch when its system migration contract with the Defense Department ended after a four-year run.

"You get really busy in the beginning," said Valerie Perlowitz, RISI's president. "Then you go into a steady phase" when virtually all the bumps have been ironed out and servicing the contract becomes almost routine. That's a critical point, she said, because "the work becomes less exciting and it's very difficult to keep people engaged."

As the contract work dwindled, the number of employees declined from about a dozen to one. "You begin to see the writing on the wall," Perlowitz said. "The contract is winding down, things are getting a little slow, turnover starts getting higher. That's when you start realizing that you need to shut it down."

With fewer workers, RISI officials' ability to parlay the DOD work into new contracts weakened, she said. "When you don't have significant mass, you're not able to do that," Perlowitz said. "We'd lost the momentum. There really wasn't a whole lot for us to do at that time, so we felt it was better not to make any further investment there."

Looking back, she said, she learned from the closure. Perlowitz said that she and the headquarters staff did not pay sufficient attention to the Kansas City office. "They needed to be touched a little bit more," she said.

In addition, RISI officials didn't take advantage of interactive technology, such as videoconferencing, to make the Kansas City office an integral part of the company. "They missed a lot of the interaction that we now provide," Perlowitz said. "Those were the two big lessons [we] learned."

— David Hubler

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