How Ray Lopez uses Navy leadership lessons to steer his business and life

Ray Lopez

Ray Lopez

By Tina Irgang

Ray Lopez is a veteran in more than one sense: After nearly three decades in the U.S. Navy, he founded Engineering Services Network (ESN), a government contractor and family business that has been going strong for 20 years. Here, Lopez discusses the people and values that have guided him over the years.

Q: How did your career in the Navy prepare you for being a business leader?

Lopez: I came up through the ranks. I started out as a seaman and then was chief petty officer and then I was commissioned into the Navy’s LDO [limited-duty officer] program… You learn leadership. I don’t think you can get any better training [than to] actively watch and observe the leaders that you want to be, because there are so many people above you and in your peer group, and you get to watch, and you pick up those skills. … You learn to lead by example, not by fiat, which is great. LDOs were paid to tell the truth. We came up through the enlisted ranks and we were there to support, not to embarrass. Unless it’s a safety issue, praise in public and chastise in private.

Q: You co-founded ESN with your wife, Carol, 20 years ago. How have you managed to keep the work-life balance for so long?

Lopez: What we’ve been able to do from when we started was, I went out and walked the halls and talked to people. If the wall stood still for five minutes, I’d try to have a conversation with it. I am not someone to pay attention to numbers; Carol is. So she was doing a lot of financials and that stuff. … And she is able to observe and look at people and is a good judge of character. I remember when I got involved with somebody, doesn’t matter who, we thought we were going to make a big splash and make a lot of money. She said, I don’t know about this guy, and she was absolutely right.

And of course we have three boys; two of them are involved in the company now. The other one is a retired marine, doing his own thing. She’s been able to maintain the balance all along. We were fortunate because all of our children were adults when we first started. She helps maintain the balance and helps center me. Where I’m emotional and go-go-go, she’s quiet. And she’s a good listener.

Q: What are the things that get you up in the morning?

Lopez: My wife. I’m an owl and she’s an eagle – she’s ready to get up and soar. Every day is different – you know there are always challenges. Now I’ve got this drive from Fredericksburg, VA to Crystal City, it gives me a lot of time to think and make phone calls. It’s just, you wonder what’s going to happen. … There’s a new project, there’s always something to keep you busy. I look forward to getting up and looking at my email, to see what’s going on.

Q: Running a company comes with a lot of pressure. What are your strategies for leaving all that behind?

Lopez: It used to be coaching high school football when I was in the service. I have a hobby, it’s model railroads, and I can kind of dive into that. But my strategy is to spend time with family, and try to get away with my wife.

Q: Have you ever invested money in something you later regretted?

Lopez: One time, somebody basically said, “Hey, I want you to do some work over in another country.” We flew over there, it was a 13-, 15-hour flight, stayed in a hotel, met with their version of the military-industrial complex folks and had discussions and wasted a lot of time and money. We got nothing from it. The lesson is to completely vet those you’re going to deal with. … You’re going to make mistakes, but you try not to. You just have to learn and just not do it again.

Q: What do you consider your best investment?

Lopez: Our best investment has to be in our people. We have an ESN University, and what we do is, we have a very good college reimbursement program. Since we have a lot of IT work, there are a lot of certifications that you can get. So we’ve broadened our college reimbursements, and that includes all technical skills now, and some soft skills as well. … If it’s a certification that [employees] need now or we feel will help us and them in the future, we’ll invest that kind of time and money, and we’ve been very fortunate to expand that program. Even our office staff, if it’s a computer class or a writing class, I think that’s very important. [Writing] is a lost skill.

About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email tina@smartceo.com.