By Linda Strowbridge / Photography by Rachel Smith
The Enola Gay hangs prominently above Louisa Jaffe’s desk.
For the president and CEO of Technical and Project Engineering, LLC (TAPE), who is a U.S. Army veteran, the large photograph and other memorabilia around her Alexandria office provide a daily and proud reminder of how her family has served the country.
Jaffe’s ancestors have fought in the Continental Army under George Washington, parachuted into bloody battles in Sicily and Anzio during World War II, and fought for both the Confederacy and the Union during the Civil War. One ancestor joined Union forces despite lengthy letters from his Quaker sister (Jaffe can quote them) expressing her regret at his decision.
And then there was her father — an ordnance officer stationed on Tinian in the North Mariana Islands during World War II. He supervised the loading of the Enola Gay and Bockscar B-29 bombers, which dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So when military retirement policies forced Jaffe to end her Army career shortly after 9/11, she was devastated and desperate to find some other way to serve.
Her quest led her to found TAPE — a certified service-disabled veteran-owned, economically disadvantaged, woman-owned small business. Over the past 12-and-a-half years, TAPE has wrestled with market competition and internal growing pains, federal sequestration and agency budget cuts, and occasional hard economic times that altered its profit margins or forced it to downsize. But the company, which started as two people operating out of Jaffe’s townhouse, has grown into a federal contractor conducting more than $25 million of business each year and providing IT, cybersecurity, logistics, training/simulation and program management services to the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
Jaffe, who was named the first ever Woman Vetrepreneur of the Year in 2014 by the National Veteran-Owned Business Association, credits TAPE’s success to a decision she and her husband and co-founder Bill Jaffe made at the company’s inception: to work diligently to create a distinctive corporate culture. Focused on developing entrepreneurial skills in every employee, doggedly seeking opportunity in every setback and delivering measurable results, that culture has helped TAPE earn exceptional ratings from demanding clients and land some of the largest small-business contract awards in government-contracting history.
A HISTORY OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
“It was never an intimidating idea to go into business for myself,” Jaffe says.
Within Jaffe’s extended family, entrepreneurship and innovation was even more common than military service. In the late 1700s, her ancestors founded an import business in New Jersey that continued for generations. Others launched a steel mill in Philadelphia and patented a process for extracting castor oil.
Jaffe’s father told her stories about how he started working at age five, selling peanuts on a street corner in St. Petersburg, FL. After serving in World War II, he dove into a series of entrepreneurial ventures, opening Hires Root Beer bottling plants in Atlantic City and Detroit, then becoming a stock broker, real estate developer and citrus company owner.
Jaffe followed in those footsteps. From Girl Scout cookies to car washes, Jaffe showed an early knack for selling and eventually put herself through college by working as an Avon Lady. Launching a career after graduation, however, was tricky, as job interviews collided with a prejudice of the day. One interview at a travel agency, for example, ended in a blunt rejection from the owner.
“He looked at me and actually said, ‘Why should I hire a cute little girl like you, because you will just get married and leave me.’ I was stunned,” Jaffe says.
So Jaffe pursued a different opportunity. In the wake of President Richard Nixon’s termination of the draft, large numbers of women began enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps, creating a need for female officers. As a college graduate, Jaffe landed a direct commission and started officer training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
“I loved my time in the Army,” she says.
She served six years of active duty, left in 1979 and continued her military service in the Army Reserves. As a media relations officer, Jaffe spent the last 12 years of reserve duty working with the Army Public Affairs Office at the Pentagon and the Army Materiel Command.
In the meantime, she pursued a variety of private-sector opportunities. She worked as a realtor, real-estate appraiser and paralegal. She helped manage a pair of convenience grocery stores and a Xerox facility, supervised a help desk at Comcast cable, and went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree — in citrus management. She took over management of the family citrus grove as well as two roadside citrus stands, a gift fruit-shipping business, and a fresh-squeezed juice manufacturer.
“I really loved it. If I could do anything, I would go back and run that citrus business,” Jaffe says. “Unfortunately, what happened is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into existence and the citrus industry in Florida was decimated because we lost our market.”
Because of NAFTA, fruit prices fell from $45 a box to as low as $3. The 9/11 attacks compounded growers’ problems as heightened scrutiny of immigrants made it more difficult to get pickers.
BETTING THE RANCH
After 9/11, Jaffe focused on a different priority. She quickly learned that a cousin died at the World Trade Center and that “the plane that hit the Pentagon took out parts of the Public Affairs Office. The desk that I used to sit at went up in flames that day. So by September 12, I was so angry … I called up the Army Reserves and said, ‘put me back on active duty.’”
By December, Lt. Col. Jaffe was back in the DC area working at the Army Materiel Command. But her determination to serve “a real tour of one to two years” was thwarted. It had been 28 years since she had entered the service and, without any stop-loss orders in place, she was forced to retire.
Jaffe, who then took a job as a supervisor at Comcast in Silver Spring, found herself at a networking event, bemoaning her inability to serve her country. Bill Jaffe, who was just an acquaintance at the time, suggested that maybe there was a different way she could serve. Experienced in helping small companies land federal contracts, he began describing the government’s staffing needs and contracting opportunities, and how the government needed contractors who understood both military operations and efficient business practices.
“The more I learned about government contracting, the more it looked like a perfect blend for me and my business and military background,” she says.
Eighteen months after that conversation, “Bill and I did the only logical thing under the circumstances,” Jaffe added. “We got on a plane and we went to Las Vegas and we got married with Elvis.”
Just two months later, Louisa and Bill incorporated TAPE. Preferring to avoid carrying any unsecured debt in the company, the newlyweds opted to sell their house in McLean and use the profits to support the startup’s operations.
“We bet the ranch,” says Bill Jaffe, executive vice president and general manager of TAPE. “I wish I could say there was some earth-shattering conversation or sleepless nights getting to that decision. But there wasn’t. We just felt it was the right thing to do, to put our money into this opportunity.”
THE TROUBLE WITH NUMBERS
Established as a two-person shop in the Jaffes’ rented townhouse, TAPE initially sustained itself with “rent-a-Bill” services (consulting gigs for Bill Jaffe) and occasional, small subcontracting jobs as it prepared to submit proposals to compete for larger, federal contracts — a process that can span more than two years from the competition announcement to the contract award and require heavy investment of time and resources from the bidders. Within three years, TAPE began winning prime contracts, starting with a contract to provide acquisition support services to all divisions of the Department of Homeland Security. Within four years, it landed a game-changer. Valued at $69 million, the single-award contract to support training-resources activities was the largest the Army had awarded to a service-disabled veteran-owned small company. TAPE’s growth, Bill Jaffe says, “went into rocket mode.”
Growth, however, came with some growing pains.
“The main hard lesson was to understand your numbers,” Louisa Jaffe says.
While chasing a large number and a wide variety of contracts in its early years, TAPE hired too many indirect staff members, which could not be billed against its contracts and could not fit within its profit margins. TAPE sometimes lacked the intricate knowledge of federal contracting instruments that is essential to ensuring a company can meet projected costs of contract employees, recognize all hidden costs that will impact its profit, and avoid running afoul of federal regulations.
“We got burned many times through ignorance,” Louisa Jaffe says.
Those issues eventually landed TAPE in a conflict with its bank.
“In our ignorance, we were dramatically impacted in terms of maintaining our credit line with our bank because the bank had a certain formula for how much you are paying for indirect personnel versus direct personnel, elements of profit, costs of running your company. We thought we understood those … but we did not understand how those things fit into the bank’s formula,” she says. “As a result, we had to quite quickly make some previously unplanned downsizing. We had to seriously readjust that overhead picture to comply with the bank’s formula.”
TAPE’s ability to learn and adjust, however, not only resolved the immediate crisis but also proved to the bank that TAPE was a responsive partner and a good risk long-term.
Such challenges also proved the strength of TAPE’s corporate culture.
NO PROBLEMS, ONLY OPPORTUNITIES
“I cannot imagine a better place to learn about business,” says Todd Calderwood, former director and vice president at TAPE, and current CEO of Metrics LLC.
Retiring from the Army in 2008 after 21 years of service, Calderwood joined TAPE and landed in the midst of Louisa Jaffe’s concerted efforts to foster personal growth and entrepreneurial thinking in all of her employees.
“Louisa provided me with the autonomy and support to try new things, and to make mistakes,” Calderwood says. “As long as I was making mistakes with the best of intentions, they were considered lessons learned and then we would move on.”
Jaffe’s management and culture-development philosophy was based on the book Change the Way You See Everything by Kathryn Cramer and Hank Wasiak, which promotes a methodology called Asset-Based Thinking. Essentially, it challenges individuals to find an asset or opportunity in any development, no matter how negative.
Jaffe adds her own rule of thumb to the practice: “I tell everyone, you can have anywhere from 30 seconds to 24 hours to grieve a disappointment. But after that I need to hear what is the asset in this … Otherwise people will dwell [on negatives] and there is no success there. And we are very success-oriented.”
In daily business life, the approach can have powerful results, Calderwood says. For example, as a new director with TAPE responsible for writing proposals and executing contracts, Calderwood learned some harsh lessons about the Service Contract Act (SCA), which regulates the salary and benefits of contract workers. The act can prevent bidders from learning compensation levels of employees on an existing contract that is being re-competed. Such information is considered proprietary. Consequently, a successful bidder can sometimes discover they are inheriting staff who earn far more than the bidder expected to pay and who are guaranteed that compensation level.
And sometimes, the government switches a contract from being non-SCA-compliant to SCA-compliant in the midst of a competition — a shift that can cause an entirely different dilemma. During such an event, TAPE won a contract only to realize that the compensation levels it promised were one-third less than the salaries paid by the outgoing contractor. Due to federal regulations, the salaries would have to drop by one-third and remain at that lower level. Disgruntled employees protested the decision to the federal Department of Labor (DOL), triggering an audit of TAPE and the contracting federal agency. (Ultimately, TAPE was found innocent of any wrongdoing, and went on to perform under that contract as prime for five years.)
TAPE suddenly had to devote time and resources to managing a DOL audit while also trying to satisfy its new client in the midst of the turmoil.
“Throughout everything, Louisa was supportive and very receptive to looking at the situation and figuring out how we could make it into an asset,” Calderwood says. “The solution was, since we had this issue with DOL and SCA, we would make ourselves experts in them. She sent the CFO for training and the HR staff for training. We became experts at responding to SCA requirements and protecting our clients from any problems with SCA or DOL.”
As a result, TAPE won over 80 percent of the work in its functional category of the PACTS contracting vehicle, which included its problematic award, even though seven other companies were qualified to compete for the same work.
EACH ONE AN ENTREPRENEUR
TAPE’s efforts to foster entrepreneurial thinking and a success-oriented work culture don’t stop there.
“Bill and I have always been committed to creating this culture,” Jaffe says. “It doesn’t happen by accident. We work on it all the time and we are always considering new things.”
Those things include clearly identifying metrics for success in every job and on every contract, then taking the time to periodically talk to employees about how to achieve that success and talk to clients about how TAPE is doing at hitting the defined goals.
“I tell employees you are empowered to use your own creativity, your own spark in your own innovative way to help the customer … You are empowered to find a solution for your customer even if nobody has asked you to and even if the customer may not know what they need,” Jaffe says.
Then, she added, “We also do lots of kudos letters.”
Since government clients can’t directly reward or additionally compensate contract workers, Jaffe urges her federal clients to email her whenever members of her team provide exceptional service. She, in turn, writes a kudos letter on top of that email and sends it along to the individual with a $100 gift card.
It is part of Jaffe’s “culture of gratitude.” But it is also an effective tool for building entrepreneurial mindset and business growth.
“The most basic way to be entrepreneurial is to do a great job for a client,” Calderwood says. “If you do a great job, they give you recognition. We then use those written recognitions in our proposals to gain opportunities elsewhere. That’s entrepreneurial.”
The proof of the culture’s strengths, Jaffe says, can be found in ratings and numbers. TAPE, she says, has been rated “exceptional” on nearly every contract completed for the federal government — a track record that is unheard of. And despite sequestration, other federal budget cuts and ongoing pressures to push down the price of contracted services, TAPE has sustained its revenues for the past four years in a row. CEO
Linda Strowbridge is a freelance writer based in Owings Mills, MD. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A SMALL-BUSINESS POWERHOUSE
TAPE has created a recipe and infrastructure that breeds success
An enthusiastic supporter of other vetrepreneurs and small-business people in general, Louisa Jaffe, president and CEO of Technical and Project Engineering, LLC (TAPE), often advises people on how to succeed in the daunting, complex world of federal contracting.
“I am so impressed with Louisa,” says Jackie Robinson-Burnette, associate administrator of small business at the Small Business Administration. “I have watched her grow her business over the years. She has also quickly jumped in to help [other small business owners] navigate the often complex federal procurement process.”
So what are some of Jaffe’s pieces of advice?
Tap into the experts:
The Greater Washington region is fortunate to have multiple chapters of the National Contract Management Association, which sponsor classes, business lunches and conferences about the rigors of contracting. Federal contracting officers regularly attend to fuel their own professional development.
“Those contracting officers are available to talk with you … and answer questions about how the process works. It gives you a great network,” Jaffe says.
Dissect your numbers:
Several hard lessons convinced Jaffe that extremely detailed and ever-vigilant knowledge of your numbers is essential to surviving in government contracting. Understand every factor that impacts your profit margins, realizing those factors can change from contract type to contract type.
Streamline your services:
Although most startups experience an “anything for money” phase, a scattered approach to seeking new and varied opportunities can be inefficient, exhausting and ultimately harmful to your bottom line. Growing companies need to decide what they are really great at and what offers them the best opportunity for success.
Prepare to deal with bullies:
Too often, small businesses are pushed around in the course of proposal preparation or contract work. Entrepreneurs need to have a strategy to deal with bullies “without becoming a bully yourself,” Jaffe says. “Know your facts. Speak your truth quietly and clearly. Avoid any reactive statements or actions … Appeal to the highest moral gauge in others and trust yourself and others to do the right thing.”