Mac Curtis is a keen observer and a hands-on strategist, both qualities he brought to the fore in Vangent Holding Corp.’s pending $960 million acquisition by General Dynamics. But perhaps what this former civil engineer observes most acutely aren’t transactions and technologies, but people.
In environments ranging from business processes to health IT, Curtis has watched what people do and what they say, and noted the gaps where the two don’t always add up. He’s paid attention to how personalities make partnerships successful. He’s looked at the needs and values of people he grew up with and who he works with each day —civilian workers, veterans, active military. And he’s studied the behavior of his mentors — some of the best in the business world.
This ability to put people before process has helped make Vangent one of the leading global providers of information management and business process outsourcing solutions — and made Curtis one of this year’s Fed 100. In 2007, the company transformed from Pearson Government Solutions, a government contracting business unit of Pearson LLC since 1973, doing about $90 million annually. Today, Vangent handles “high citizen touch” areas, including student financial aid, Medicare and Medicaid, veteran services, pensions and benefits programs, and more. In 2010, Vangent reported $761 million in revenue and 10,000 employees.
It’s these employees who made it possible, Curtis says. A firm believer that “the right people in the right places” leads to success, the CEO sets a top-down priority that each employee knows fully why he or she is there: to “design, build and operate mission-critical systems and processes that ensure our customers’ success by combining the right people, technology and knowledge.”
What makes that combination right — and how to execute it — is a process Curtis has been perfecting as he has worked his way up.
Growing up in Norfolk, Va., his veteran father worked in the shipyards, as did his brothers and generations before them. Curtis himself practiced marine engineering on a trawler. Studying civil engineering at Virginia Military Institute instilled in him a strong respect for teamwork: “It teaches you that it’s not about you,” he says. “It’s about the guy on the right, or the woman on the left. The service schools or being in the military, they help you focus on what your team is trying to accomplish.”
After a few years, marine engineering involved too much travel for his home team — he and his wife, Cindy. So in 1984, he went to work for Advanced Technology, whose CEO, Robert LaRose, helped launch the careers of many future leaders in government contracting.
After about five years in engineering and program management, Curtis moved on to DynCorp to work for Paul Lombardi. Lombardi’s charge was to transform the aviation support business into a powerhouse of information engineering technology. Through several acquisitions in the early ’90s, that’s precisely what happened.
Seeking challenge at a publicly traded company, Curtis in 1999 went to National Computer Systems as vice president and general manager of its government services division. The educational testing company, headed by Russ Gullotti, exceeded its earnings for 28 quarters in a row. “Russ really knew how to create value,” Curtis says. The next year, NCS was acquired by Pearson PLC, the U.K. company that publishes Financial Times, for $2.5 billion — 35 times earnings.
Curtis was tapped to head up Pearson Government Solutions, a U.S.-based division. By the mid-2000s, its revenue had grown to about $500 million. “I had a chance to get in front of the Pearson board and say, ‘Look, there’s a better owner for this business. We’d like for it to be us,’” Curtis says.
Giving People a Chance
After funding from New York-based private-equity firm Veritas Capital, in 2007, Vangent was born. Curtis led the company into health IT and other growth areas.
“Over the past 11 years, it’s really been organic growth,” he says. “You go through certain ceilings, from being a $200 million business, then a $500 million business, and so on.”
At each stage, employees have to grow, too. “The smaller the business, the more everyone can multitask,” Curtis says. “But with growth, having the precise person in each position becomes more important.”
“You reach certain plateaus where the business has to change — it has to get more sophisticated.”
Sophisticated doesn’t mean complicated, however.. “Burdensome, monolithic bureaucratic processes” don’t have a place here. “If there’s something wrong with the process, fix the process” is another one of Curtis’ rules — and everyone is responsible.
“We all want policies and processes in place because this is a pretty highly regulated business,” Curtis says. “But we want to make sure we’re achieving outcomes — getting things accomplished — so people can continue to do their jobs.”
The View from the Customer’s Side
If Vangent employees ever wonder what’s important, they only need to look at the other side of the employee ID card. Vangent’s six core principles are printed there, including doing “meaningful work.” With customers such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Veterans Affairs Department, Vangent and Curtis take service seriously.
“With every contract, people are asking questions that matter to their lives,” Curtis says. “They’re counting on us to have designed, built and operated a system to get them the answer. When a 95-year-old grandmother calls Medicare and wants to know about her prescription, that’s the most important thing at that point.”
The company, which has contracts with Military Health Systems and VA, also supports the Winter Olympics for Disabled American Veterans. “It’s a little different than engineering, but it feels awfully good,” Curtis says. “Our people feel really good about the work they do.”
A recent $130 million contract with the new Consumer Finance Protection Board, for instance, will take a closer look at front-end financial practices including reverse mortgages and check-cashing services.
Curtis talks about working people, such as those he remembers from the shipyards, who sometimes live “paycheck to paycheck” and could benefit from
an agency on their side: “This is important,” he says. Of course, it’s not all about caring and sharing: “We’re aggressive competitors. We like to win,” Curtis says. “We can go in there and say, ‘We’re the ones who, end-to-end, have done more of this kind of work than anyone around the beltway. And by the way, we’re not doing this just because defense budgets got cut. This is our business: mission-critical systems with high citizen touch.’”
Curtis anticipates continued growth for Vangent. But what puts a spark in his eyes nowadays is looking to the future of technology, both through his work on the board of George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering and leading Vangent into the markets of fraud protection and prevention.
But as important as outcomes are, he says, to get those outcomes, people must always come first.
“I used to think it was about mechanical engineering or computer science,” Curtis admits. “But it’s all about the people and putting the team together. Do I miss the engineering? Not really. You need enough technical acumen to understand what people are talking about, but I enjoy the people side much more.”
— Sara Wildberger