In Tight Intelligence Market, SOS International Maintains Competitive Advantage Through Focus on Roots and Personal Accountability

Julian Setian, SOSi’s CEO since 2001

Julian Setian, SOSi CEO

By the time a company reaches global scale, it’s not always easy to stay true to its core roots.

That’s not the case with SOS International.

While the Reston, Virginia-based government services integrator provides mission support services to intelligence and defense sector customers in far-flung corners of the globe, the company stays true to its roots as a family-owned-and-operated business. It is, in fact, the largest private, noninstitutionally owned company in the defense and national security market.  

In practical terms, that translates into greater flexibility and responsiveness for its clients.

When operating in contingency environments, companies can’t always count on the luxury of time in fulfilling new customer requirements. That’s especially true for publicly traded and private equity-backed firms, beholden to public and institutional investors. In the case of SOSi, swift decision-making is already ingrained in the company’s DNA.

“We don’t have multiple levels of decision-making approvals,” says Julian Setian, who’s been SOSi’s CEO since 2001, after first joining the company in 1995, six years after his mother, Sosi, an immigrant from Bulgaria, parlayed her work as a translator for the Drug Enforcement Administration into a full-time business.

“Since our family’s name is on the line every time we execute a project—and anything we do in business reflects on us personally—we make sure that as we grow, we maintain the highest ethical standards in everything we do,” Setian says.

Pride in the company name yields greater accountability, he adds.

“At the end of the day, I don’t report to a fiduciary board, because it is our family that finances and provides the guarantees for all the work that we do,” says Setian, who notes the largest, most impactful decisions are made at the senior executive level in direct consultation with him. “We can make big decisions—and commit large amounts of capital—very quickly compared to our competitors.”

That core point of differentiation means the company is less rattled by the winds of political change—and budgets—than many of its competitors. Just as President Donald Trump’s 2018 federal budget proposes steep spending cuts (as much as 37 percent, in the case of the State Department), Setian remains unfazed.

“While overall spending may be decreasing, we see an opportunity to take market share away from some of the largest companies in this space,” Setian says. “Largely because a lot of those companies have been shrinking in recent years and in some cases, struggling financially. Our planning horizons are longer than those of our competitors, and we build our business the old-fashioned way—by offering the best solutions at the most competitive prices, and by doing what we say we’re going to do.”

SOSi, meanwhile, continues its core practice of building out its two business groups: The Mission Solutions Group provides long-range logistics and operations support to the military and other agencies in the national security community, mostly in overseas contingency areas. The Intelligence Solutions Group, meanwhile, provides intelligence analysis; foreign language support; technical R&D services; and systems engineering—boosted, in large part, by SOSi’s 2016 acquisition of New World Solutions, an intelligence contracting firm that specialized in sensor integration and multispectral image analysis.

Together, these two business units have collectively achieved 30 percent average year-over-year growth for the past 15 years. Through the first half of 2017 alone, SOSi has already achieved approximately 15 percent growth.

“As far as the overall business goes, we see our Mission Solutions Group being our primary growth driver, and our Intelligence Solutions Group being our primary value driver,” Setian says.

That dual strategy is paying off.

SOSi recently won a 5-year contract to provide facilities management services to the U.S. Central Command in the U.S. and overseas. The move represents a “significant win,” as Setian puts it, as the company expands and diversifies its overseas business.

In day-to-day terms, its work translates into providing essential, turnkey logistics support to the military in areas such as facilities management, vehicles maintenance, food and fuel services, as well as comprehensive medical and fire emergency support services. In addition, SOSi provides supply chain management for bulk food and fuel to support thousands of deployed personnel.

Maintenance doesn’t negate innovation, Setian adds. That’s especially true in how clients view costs—and the accompanying ownership of risk—in the overseas operations and maintenance market.

“Traditionally, that work has been done under large cost-plus contracts, in which the government has born all of the execution and financial risk associated with the projects,” Setian says. “We’ve upended a lot of that traditional thinking by offering to provide, on a commercial basis, services that have traditionally been offered as large, conventional government solutions.”

The idea, Setian adds, goes back to accountability.

“We assume direct responsibility for a lot of the facilities and assets that are utilized by our clients—and offer to provide services commercially to those clients—assuming a lot of the performance and financial risk ourselves,” Setian says.

New approaches also drive SOSi’s Intelligence Solutions Group. Industrywide, most intelligence services work has become highly commoditized, especially over the last seven years. SOSi is working to change the status quo.

“Things that were considered high-end 10 years ago are no longer considered high-end today,” Setian says. “Our goal is to offer not just services but technology-facilitated solutions. To that end, we’ve been building a product suite in the open source intelligence analytics business called Exovera that has slowly developed its own brand identity.”

Unveiled in 2013, the solution has since been primarily marketed to the military.

“But our goal,” Setian adds, “is to move it into the national-level intelligence community market.”

Looking ahead, Setian sees a healthy pipeline of potential new acquisitions—and wins. The company entered 2017 alone with more than $2.5 billion in bids pending award. And just weeks ago, the company secured a re-compete of a contract with the U.S. Army to provide communications support to the public affairs office at the U.S. Military headquarters in Afghanistan.

As the company continues to grow, it is also giving back to the community.

SOSi staff lend a hand at a local community center in the Washington, D.C., area

SOSi staff lend a hand at a local community center in the D.C. area

“We are placing a lot more emphasis on activities that support the communities we serve,” says Setian, whose company aids military and local charities in Fairfax County, Virginia.  SOSi is a highly active supporter of both its local USO chapter and a nonprofit organization called Cornerstones, which assists those in need of food and shelter in Reston.

“We’ve exponentially increased our giving and employee engagement in those communities,” Setian says. “In the years to come, I think you will see a much greater level of involvement by the company and our employees in local and national charities.”

If past performance is any indication, SOS’s continued focus on roots and accountability will pay off, too.

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