Military service drives Halfaker's success

Growth comes from embracing its customers' mission

Halfaker and Associates LLC’s motto, “We continue to serve,” says a lot about its philosophy. Former military patrol officer Dawn Halfaker founded the consulting and IT services company in January 2006, a year and a half after losing her right arm during a mission in Iraq, as a way to continue serving the country.

In its first year of operations, the Arlington, Va.-based firm, a certified 8(a), small disadvantaged, service-disabled, veteran-owned and woman-owned small business, earned a little more than $300,000. By 2010, revenue was up to $15.1 million, giving the company a compound annual growth rate of 153.32 percent over the past five years and earning it the No. 11 spot on the Fast 50.

“What we bring is our culture as a company,” said Halfaker, president and CEO of the 150-person firm, three-fourths of whom are veterans. “A lot of us came out of the military, but even if we didn’t, I think we’re committed to the culture of service, which sets us apart from other companies.”

She retains her ties to the Defense Department through her firm’s customer base, which includes the Navy, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security departments.

When the Army Recruiting Command’s Customer Support Communications Center needed a scalable communications strategy that would keep lines open while adding emerging technology to improve delivery, it turned to Halfaker. Under a $21 million contract, the company manages the center’s three-tiered recruiting model and has advanced its infrastructure services management.

In 2008, the Army Office of Small Business Programs awarded Halfaker a $3 million contract for database and network support services. The company provides database management, statistical analysis and reporting, a comprehensive strategic communication and outreach approach, conference planning, and management support.

To ensure continued growth, Halfaker said the company has been focusing on diversifying its revenue stream. To do so, it is targeting health IT and government logistics opportunities.

“We’re really in a position where we can add value and leverage some of the work that we’ve done in other areas and bring that [experience] to health IT and areas like software development, software integration,” she said.

Still, Halfaker recognizes there are challenges.

“The obvious challenges are the federal budget crisis: budget cuts as they look to save money and potential tax increases as they look to increase revenues,” she said. “I think those increases can trickle down and affect small businesses in ways that they didn’t initially intend them to.”

Competition has also risen in recent years, she said. “Particularly in the government market as we see funding streams shift around and priorities shift and certain programs being defunded, companies that can be flexible and agile really gain a sustaining advantage in their ability to compete,” Halfaker said. “We understand the importance of being in the right spot at the right time. It’s as much of what it’s about as having the very best product.”

But adversity is not new to small businesses, Halfaker said. Owners must keep up with regulations while focusing on innovation. “I call every day a firefight,” she said, calling on military terminology.

In fact, she applies lessons learned as part of the massive enterprise that is the military to her small business.

“Even though the military is big, it’s still all about being given an objective for a mission and having a finite number of resources to accomplish that mission, and really understanding how to work together as a team and leverage everybody’s strengths, knowing that nothing’s going to go exactly according to plan,” Halfaker said. “Being able to have that background and have that mentality coming into the small-business world, it’s very, very similar.”

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