By Dan Mills
Photography by Rachel Smith
In November 2013, one of Tony Jimenez’s worst fears came true. His company, MicroTech, was under attack.
Until that point, MicroTech had been experiencing a meteoric rise in success, having grown from a startup consultancy — launched from Jimenez’s kitchen table in 2004 — to one of Washington, DC’s most prominent government contractors in its space. With nearly 400 employees, prime office space near McLean, VA, and a steady stream of high-profile contracts, Jimenez’s MicroTech was not only humming along nicely, but it was collecting awards, recognition and industry credibility.
Then it all changed. When the first article of The Washington Post series landed, Jimenez wasn’t exactly surprised. He knew, after all, that investigative reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr. was coming after him and his company. What he didn’t know was how it would all unfold.
The article series, which was launched on Nov. 12, 2013, would comprise 13 installments and allege that Jimenez and MicroTech had provided misleading information regarding the company’s status as a small business, and that the company had become too big to be considered a small business. As a result, the articles claimed, MicroTech was ineligible for the government contract set-asides that go to small, disadvantaged and veteran-owned firms. Further, Jimenez’s lifestyle, professional affiliations and personal interests would be called into question as the series unfolded.
The seven-month ordeal — spanning November 2013 to May 2014 — which involved a suspension from receiving new contracts and an investigation by the Small Business Administration, as well as audits by several other government agencies and firms, would ultimately vindicate MicroTech of any wrongdoing.
Jimenez, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, spent 24 years in the military and earned master’s degrees in acquisition and information systems, as well as a series of accomplishments leading high-visibility IT programs.
When he started MicroTech, he envisioned a “nice-sized company” of 25 people providing systems expertise and program management to the federal government. What resulted was a burgeoning business that grew rapidly. On many occasions, Jimenez has been quoted saying he’s living proof of the American Dream.
In June, Jimenez invited SmartCEO to MicroTech’s offices, which are nestled in a tree-shaded corner of Vienna, VA, to tell his side of the story — what it was like to be the subject of an investigation by The Washington Post, and subsequently the governing bodies under which MicroTech does business, and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
SmartCEO: When the story broke, did you know it was coming? Were there rumblings in the grapevine, or were you completely blindsided?
Tony Jimenez: It’s worse than that. For three years, a man followed me, called me, contacted people I knew, told people what he was doing. Yeah, the answer was I saw it coming. I met with him. I interviewed with him. I thought giving him the facts and cooperating would make him realize quickly that we were everything we claim to be, that I was everything I claim to be. I just believed that once he looked, he would realize there was no story, that the successes we had were legitimate, that I was who I claim to be — my degrees were legitimate, my accomplishments were legitimate and my company was legitimate. When the article finally came out, it came out over three years after he had originally contacted us and told us he was interested in doing a story and that it was going to be a story of a negative manner. I was a little surprised and a little naïve because I thought I could convince him that there was no story of a negative fashion.
What do you think set his wheels in motion? Was it the press you were receiving, the awards? You’re a very public figure, you sit on many boards and engage in sponsorships.
I could probably answer that with another question, and the question is: Is anybody interested in reading a story about somebody who’s accomplished nothing, or is somebody interested in a story about a person who’s accomplished something and put a little bit of a gray area around that accomplishment to make them look like they didn’t deserve it?
I think his desire was — in fact, I don’t think, I know, because he told me — he’s not a fan of set-asides. He’s not a fan of any set-aside, whether it’s small business or whether it’s service disabled, whether it’s woman-owned, whether it’s HUB Zone. His feeling was that set-asides are unfair to those who don’t have the ability to have set-asides. And I explained to him, the only one who doesn’t have the ability to have a set-aside is a large business. Everybody qualifies for a set-aside if they’re starting out, whether it’s a small business or whether it’s a HUB Zone or whether it’s socio-economic, there’s going to be some way that they have an opportunity to have the playing field leveled for them to ensure that the opportunities are there and they’re available for them to grow. The answer is, we saw it coming, we did everything we could to make sure he had the truth, thinking that it would prevent any kind of a negative story from coming. I was naïve.
Even after you granted him an in-person interview to explain and talk about everything he had questions about, he was still skeptical enough to continue with the story? Did he have other sources that confirmed his suspicions?
I didn’t think there was anybody out there. Once again, I was naïve. I assumed that everybody loves a winner and everybody wants to see people succeed. I think the unfortunate thing is, if you dig hard enough, you can always find somebody willing and able to scrutinize success and believe that whoever has achieved it doesn’t deserve it. I don’t think there’s a lot of them out there, but unfortunately, there’s enough out there.
We’ve had a lot of employees. If you look hard enough, you’ll find somebody that wasn’t happy. We have had a lot of customers and if you look really hard — I don’t think you will — but you might find somebody who’s unhappy. The good news is, he didn’t. Everybody he contacted was … in fact, many of them would call me, which is how I knew he was out there. I got calls from friends. I got calls from family. I got calls from former employees. I got calls from partners all saying, “What did you do? We’ve got this guy calling and he’s telling us he’s investigating you.” I never understood that.
In the end, you hope to be an ethical, amazing-looking company that will withstand scrutiny, and I think in the end, we were able to do that. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking with you today if I was not the kind of company I claim to be. We went through an incredible amount of scrutiny and, in the end, we were vindicated.
That’s when the official Small Business Administration (SBA) investigation started? What did you have to go through to be vindicated?
We had more than a dozen audits. Keep in mind, if you read the articles, he never said we did anything wrong. He just insinuated that there were a lot of things and he tried to create a smoke-and-fire kind of scenario. I was accused of having success, having friends in high places. I was accused of changing my lifestyle. I was accused of living in a nice house and driving a nice car. I was accused of having a love for mixed martial arts and sports. Many of those, unfortunately for me, are true. I do have some successful stints in my life. Do I think I live an incredibly luxurious life? No. I think I actually live pretty modest in comparison to the amount of success we’ve had. I think that I’ve done more than my fair share to be an active member of my community, but in the end, what made us an important target of the story, which talks about minority success and service-disabled veteran success, is success.
If I had not been successful, would I have had that kind of story? Absolutely not. Nobody wants to hear about a $200,000 company that has had a lot of success but might not necessarily have deserved it. But everybody wants to hear about a guy at the top of the ladder, the person that everybody is talking about being an amazing entrepreneur, the company that everybody’s talking about being an amazing company. That’s a front-page story, particularly when you throw a little bit of mud on it and ensure that some of it, or attempt to ensure that some of it, sticks.
In the midst of it all, what effect did this have on you mentally as a leader?
I think it probably made me more angry than anything. The thought that you can do everything right, that you can make every attempt to be the kind of person that your family, your friends, your colleagues, your customers would be proud to be associated with, and still be the subject of great scrutiny. I look back at myself as a person, knowing that I never had any trouble with the law. I don’t even have any traffic tickets. I’m one of those guys; it’s just so rare. I never had run-ins with the police. I [had] never had front-page articles that were of any negative fashion. I served my country. I was decorated. I try to be an active and nurturing member of my community. I give back.
I think in the end, I looked at my life and I thought, “Wow I’ve done all these things right and so very few things wrong.” Not in the sense of career, but in the sense of being the kind of person I’ve always thought I was — ethical, professional. I was a little shocked that I would find myself getting this kind of attention, but more angry that having done what I’ve done and having worked so hard to ensure that my life is an open book, and [that] the things I’m doing create the kind of company and person that people would be proud of.
At times, I was even a little disappointed. But in the end, I had a lot of smart people who are successful who said to me, “Tony you really can’t be shocked. You can’t honestly believe that with all the success would come no scrutiny.” The thing I am most proud of though is the people that stuck by me, the employees that work so hard to do well, fortunately, stayed by me. My friends, my family, who felt every letter, every paragraph, every article — it was tough for them. It was tough on my wife; it was tough on my kids; it was tough on my mother; it was tough on my family. It was tough on my friends, particularly the people who knew me and who knew the kind of person I am, and the people who work here who know the kind of boss I am, and the people who did business with me who know the kind of partner I am. They wanted to scream; they wanted to fight.
It was a very, very hard period of time. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I look back, “How did that happen to me?” Had I not been at the level I was, I’m not sure I could’ve survived. The good news is, we had a great company. We had a great business; we had great customers. We had great partners, and people stuck by us and believed in us and knew there was no way that the things that the articles were insinuating could be true.
One of the questions you asked me is about the SBA and about the investigation. I’ve got to tell you, if I were the SBA, I would’ve investigated MicroTech, too. I mean, MicroTech ended up on the front page of The Washington Post. Let me put this into perspective: I ended up on the front page of The Washington Post during the period when Edward Snowden was doing what he was doing, and I got more front-page time than he did.
At the end of it, the allegations were that I misrepresented myself on the contract, which turned out to be a full and open contract; that I had had too much success, more success than a company my size should have or was entitled to; and that I lived in a nice house, drove a nice car and hung out with important people. When I look back on that, there’s not a whole lot I can do to change or to prevent that from happening.
Give me a comparison on two fronts: Compare the Tony Jimenez of today — the person, the leader, the business man, the husband — with Tony Jimenez before the investigation. Compare MicroTech, as a business, in the same way. What has changed?
I’ve always been a firm believer in right is right and wrong is not right. I don’t care how you twist it or turn it. I’ve always been a firm believer that if you do the right thing, right things will result. If you follow the rules and you pay attention, and you treat people the way you want to be treated, and you perform at the highest level you’re capable of performing, good things will happen. I believe in the American way. I believe what a lot of people who come to America believe, that if you work hard and you come to work every day expecting to accomplish more than you did yesterday, and you lead by example, and you perform at the highest level of your capability, that in the end, you’re going to be successful whether you are doing IT or running a business or working for the government.
The difference between me and 2012, actually in 2010 when we found out this gentleman was turning over every stone, today I know that being a business owner is kind of like sailing around the ocean.
You’re not going to encounter calm seas the entire trip. You’re going to have some very beautiful, very calm days where the wind is blowing lightly and you could stand out on the deck of the ship and really enjoy it. And then there’s going to be some days that you are going to be asking yourself, “Why the hell did I do this? Why am I out here? Why did I not anticipate this kind of a storm or this kind of a gale …?” There are going to be some good days, and there’s going to be some bad days and you need to remember those good days when the bad days are happening.
I think probably the most important thing I realize now is, I’m not taking anything for granted. Not that I did back then, but I definitely know now that you’re only as good as you have the ability to be, and you can’t be what you’re not. What I mean by that is that I understood in the middle of all this that had I not been the kind of company, had I not been squeaky clean, had I not been participating in the things I was participating [in], had I not been as ethical as I thought I was, I would not have gotten through this and I wouldn’t be here today.
Is MicroTech stronger now than it was before the investigation?
The good news is, the SBA did what they had to do and they had no choice. These were a number of front-page articles. Congressmen read it. Senators read it. My competitors read it. My partners read it. My customers read it. I’m beginning to believe everybody in Washington, DC, and the entire world read it, because everybody talks to me about it. I think when I look back at that, I realize that despite all of that, despite all the negative publicity and all the things that were said, I’m here today because I went through the scrutiny. I was vindicated and we’re back in business.
I will tell you that it was a difficult period. The SBA had no choice but to look at the allegations made by The Washington Post. Our customers had no choice but to look and scrutinize and to make sure that they were doing business with the kind of ethical company that we claim to be. Our last year has been probably one of our best years. We own the kind of contract vehicles that allow us to compete at a level where very few can compete, and we’re competing with some of the very best companies in our space. We’re doing that after having been scrutinized and attacked. And the fact that we’re back I think says an awful lot.
Is MicroTech financially stronger?
Absolutely. We’ve got better partners today than we’ve ever had. I am now the 100-percent owner of this company. We are so financially stable that I was able to buy my partners out. I have sold some divisions off that were great companies, great divisions, great pieces of MicroTech, but in the end, they didn’t fit where we’re trying to go, which is cybersecurity, cloud, healthcare and financial services.
Why did you decide to buy out your partners and jettison some of your business segments?
I think the most important thing is, I bought my partners out because I believe in the company. If I didn’t, I would’ve sold the company. I changed my philosophy of where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do because I want to be the very best at what I do. I wanted to look at some of the things I was doing in a different fashion and I wanted to move into some areas that I thought were wide open and capable.
A lot of people, I think, would’ve looked and said, “Who needs this? Who needs this kind of scrutiny? Who the heck would want to work in this space? Now is the time to leave.” I looked at it just the opposite. I said, “You know what? I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to allow myself to be beat down to a point where I give up.” … I felt like now was the best time to repurpose and reinvent and redevelop MicroTech into a company that’s going to be here for another 20 years.
We just went through probably one of the biggest baptisms by fire I can think of. Honestly, if you look around, there are very few people that can survive the kind of scrutiny MicroTech went through. Not only did we survive it, we came back stronger.
Today, we have more contracts, we have better contracts, we have smarter people, we have harder-working people and we have better customers than anybody would have ever imagined we would have after what we went through. I think we’re positioned to grow.
Was there ever a time during the whole process of being audited, being scrutinized, the articles coming out, when you were fearful that MicroTech might go out of business?
I’m fearful every day. If this was easy, everybody would be doing it. Every day I’m concerned about the decisions I make, about the people I hire, about the work I chase and about the work I win. This is not an easy business. I’m a small business and what motivates me is winning, not losing. I wake up in the morning and say, “I hope I win and I better not lose.” I hate losing more than I love winning, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a character flaw. But you show me an entrepreneur that likes to lose and I’ll show you an unsuccessful entrepreneur. You show me anybody that’s comfortable with losing, and I’ll show you somebody that needs to evaluate if they’re in the right job.
What was the financial burden MicroTech experienced as a result of the investigation?
When you’re proposed for a debarment, there are things you can’t bid on. So yeah, there were those opportunities, but the good news was we were proposed for debartment and I think it was a short two weeks later the proposal for debarment was lifted. Did we feel it? Of course. I’m not going to convince you that it’s something everybody needs to do, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It was a rough time because you don’t know what you don’t know.
In the end, I figured the truth would prevail. I believe that the SBA is a great organization, and I was convinced that once they looked into the allegations and once they had a chance to look at the things that we were accused of, or really not accused but that were implied, that the SBA would see and understand that much of that was inaccurate and that we would be vindicated. I was right.
As far as opportunities today? No. Today we have solid partners. We’re still partnering with some of the biggest, best systems integrators in the space.
Do I wish it would happen again? No. Am I happy it happened? No. Am I shocked? Absolutely. I think the biggest thing is now when I read things about companies that are going through the same thing, I have to wonder if it’s just another one of those allegation-written, innuendo-written stories developed to sell papers, or if there’s actually any truth behind it. I think that, unfortunately in this space, it’s not an easy space to work in. Working for the government is tough. I can’t think of any other business tougher than working for the federal government. They’re the most demanding customer I’ve ever seen. They expect excellence, and they expect excellence at a price better than anybody else. More importantly, if you’re good at providing that level of expertise and you’re comfortable with the customer, which I am — I devoted my entire adult life to supporting my nation and to supporting my government — then it falls into place.
What advice would you offer other CEOs who may encounter a situation such as yours?
There’s no company out there that’s successful that hasn’t had something written about them that was either inaccurate or completely false. You don’t get to a high level of success without scrutiny, and most of that time, scrutiny is inaccurate.
You want to run for president? Guess what? You’re going to be scrutinized. Some of it isn’t even going to be true. You want to be a successful company? Guess what? You’re going to be scrutinized, and unfortunately, some of it isn’t going to be true. You’re going to run into that. It’s just an unfortunate rite of passage.
If somebody had told me five years ago, 10 years ago, that I’d be on the front page of The Washington Post, I would’ve said, “That’s great.” The answer is, it wasn’t. It wasn’t great. I could go on for hours about what to tell CEOs. I think the answer is, it could happen to you, and when it does, and it’s not accurate, fight it. Don’t give up.
One of my friends said to me, “Tony, you have to understand that the higher up the ladder you get, the more your backside is going to show.” We were climbing that ladder pretty steadily. When you’re at the top of the hill, when you’re at the top of the mountain, when you’re at the top of the highest point, you can’t expect it to be an easy run or an easy ride or an easy climb. CEO
Dan Mills is SmartCEO’s editorial director. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.