Last month, WashingtonExec had the opportunity to meet and interview the new CEO of SRA International Bill Ballhaus, exactly three months to the day since he began his position in July.
Ballhaus discussed with WashingtonExec the importance and uniqueness of the famed SRA International company culture, his decision to take the job, as well as the emerging trend of public government contracting firms returning to a private setting.
Ballhaus also answered some personal questions regarding his career as an aerospace engineer, past mentors and the last book he read, about the battle of Gettysburg.
WashingtonExec: What made you want to become CEO of SRA International?
Bill Ballhaus: First, it was the high level of talent in the people at SRA. Second, I have spent my career supporting the U.S. government and the opportunity to do that broadly across civil, defense, health and Intel customers was very appealing. And, third, the culture of the company which is rooted in an ethic of honesty and service. SRA has a great reputation around the Beltway.
WashingtonExec: How did SRA International’s historic and famous company culture factor into your decision to join SRA International?
Bill Ballhaus: The SRA culture, and our core values of Honesty and Service, resonated with my personal DNA and my early days as an aerospace engineer. I grew up in the Space business in an environment where I was encouraged to focus first on solving our customers’ hard technical problems, and everything else would take care of itself after that. At SRA, our core values of Honesty and Service translate into doing the right things for our customers, treating our fellow employees with respect, and giving back to our communities. Our employees know from their very first day at SRA, if they are true to our core values, success will follow.
WashingtonExec: SRA is now owned by a private equity firm. You also have a background working for a private equity firm. What’s your view of the trend of private equity companies investing in federal services sector?
Bill Ballhaus: Right now is a great time to be in a private setting. There is a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace. There are certainly pressures on federal budgets and being in a private setting gives us the flexibility to not be short term results focused. We only have to focus on what’s right for our customers over the long run and everything else will fall into place. For example, we have much more flexibility to invest in our core capabilities such as leveraging IT for increased efficiency, agile system development, data analytics, and ERP to better serve our clients.
WashingtonExec: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Bill Ballhaus: I would characterize the best advice as quality mentoring I’ve received over the years. I’ve had two instrumental industry mentors in my career. Steve Dorfman at Hughes gave me the opportunity to learn how to run very large complex organizations at a young age. To me, the learning curve was unimaginable at the time. The second is Mark Ronald, former CEO of BAE Systems. Mark taught me the subtle distinction between management and growth leadership, and the importance of leaders to use their role as a platform to fundamentally improve a company, to make bold decisions and to challenge and break self-imposed constraints. I draw on these great lessons just about every day.
WashingtonExec: What has changed since you entered the industry?
Bill Ballhaus: Over the last 25 years I’ve witnessed firsthand that the industry does tend to experience and repeat cycles; whether it is in acquisition approaches or macros in the environment – we tend to see similar cycles unfold over time. Now we are entering a cycle of decreased investment and significant budgetary pressures.
WashingtonExec: Which cycle does the current environment bring you back to?
Bill Ballhaus: Probably the downturn in the early ‘90s. Ironically, downturns can lead to opportunities. As a young engineer I saw tremendous opportunities for people who were motivated and ambitious to come into an environment and take on lots of responsibilities. I think that will also be the case today for young engineers coming out of school in specialty areas like IT and cyber security, where they are coming out of college actually understanding the state-of-the-art because of how quickly the technology is moving.
WashingtonExec: What book made the greatest impact on you and why?
Bill Ballhaus: Many over time have had an impact. One of the strongest images of leadership that has stuck with me over time is Jim Collin’s characterization of Level 5 Leadership in Good To Great: the triumph of humility and fierce resolve. Most recently, last week I finished reading Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg. The stories about the main actors contain great leadership lessons: the fact that leadership matters, the power of alignment and collaboration in leadership and the importance of leaders understanding intent and context when they are leading. We have a leadership development program that is wrapped around the Battle of Gettysburg and I joined our last cohort and spent 2 ½ days with them out on the battlefield as a part of that experience. It was a lot of fun.
WashingtonExec: It has been 3 months since you became CEO of SRA International, what have you been focusing on?
Bill Ballhaus: Positioning ourselves so that we can most effectively address our clients’ needs. We have realigned our business groups around our four target markets (Civil, Defense, Health, and Intelligence/Homeland Security), we have reduced infrastructure costs to increase investment capacity, and we are investing to create increased differentiation in areas that are broadly relevant to our customers like cyber security, cloud computing, mobilization, agile system development, ERP and data analytics. Other than that, our sole focus is on winning work, executing for our customers and making SRA the best company to work for.
*Featured in the 11/14 edition of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority online magazine E-Bird.