LETTING EMPLOYEES LEAD THE GROWTH
An overnight success story often leads to one-hit wonders, while a sustainable business means steady growth over time. That’s the philosophy behind SOSi, a defense contractor with locations in Reston, VA, and New York that provides long-range logistics and sustainment solutions to the military, the State Department, and national security and intelligence agencies.
When Sosi Setian founded the company in 1989 as a provider of foreign language and cultural advisory services to the federal law enforcement community, its name mirrored her own: SOS Interpreting. Through the years, the contracts acquired by Setian grew and so did the services, from interpretation to analytical, IT and engineering. Today, SOSi is 400 employees strong.
Growing a company organically can be fast-paced, but being able to handle that pace is essential, says Julian Setian, president and CEO. “It’s always the unexpected that tends to have the biggest impact,” he says. “That’s not to say you shouldn’t plan. Plan ahead and develop future projections of where you want to be and what you want to do, but you really have to be open to change … to succeed.”
The company grew based on input from its employees, which took it from language interpretation to IT and beyond. To retain good employees, it’s important to build on their skills and interests, a far more organic and sustainable strategy than building in a vacuum, Setian says. “If there are certain areas of operation [where] employees want to become involved, we tend to morph in those directions. So we build the business around the actual people.”
Frank Helmick, VP of the Mission Solutions Group at SOSi, agrees. “We power down a lot to [employees] and we trust them. That trust goes both ways.”
SOSi has work all around the globe, and some of its government contracts require employees to be deployed to the more dangerous parts of the world. Knowing that employees are willing to be in those situations on behalf of the company says a lot about SOSi, and the executive management takes extra effort to make sure those employees, as well as all others, understand the company cares about them.
SOSi encourages its employees to grow with the company, and to look ahead in their own careers at possible advancements. Setian and Helmick attribute SOSi’s low turnover rate to this practice, along with the satisfying challenges employees encounter.
However, while having good relationships with loyal employees is necessary, it’s also important to be realistic about each one’s contribution. It’s not always in the company’s best interest to hold on to someone who isn’t pulling his or her weight, Setian says. Parting ways is a very difficult decision to make, but it’s only fair. “A company is only as strong as the weakest link within the organization,” he says.
SOSi’s executive team also likes to take a hands-on approach without being micro-managers, as a way to demonstrate pride in the company and its work. The team is constantly jetting around to visit clients and check on the work happening on-site. Having face-to-face interaction with not just the client, but also with the employees, helps build a stronger relationship. It also aids in comprehending the entire financial impact of everyone’s work by getting “into the weeds of the business,” Setian explains.
Lastly, it’s critical to manage growth in a company and move it in a direction that makes sense for the industry. As the environment changes, new opportunities will come up, and it’s up to SOSi to seize them. At the same time, the company strives to be smart about its growth, always making sure growth can be supported financially — something Setian says can be difficult for entrepreneurs.
“You have to temper the rate at which you’re spending money to grow the business,” Setian says. “You want to be able to finance your own growth.”
Photos (L to R): Top row: Julian Setian, President and CEO; Sosi Setian, Founder and Chairwoman; Pandora Setian, Chief Administrative Officer; Brian Geoghegan, EVP and General Counsel; Robert Billeaud, EVP of Operations. Bottom row: Frank Helmick, VP of Mission Solutions Group; Bruce Crowell, CFO; Mike Franz, VP of Business Development; Stephen Iwicki, VP of Intelligence Solutions Group