Catapult founder Randy Slager shares lessons from the small-business trenches
- By Mark Hoover
- Sep 14, 2012
It wasn’t long ago that some big changes launched Catapult Technology into the news. The IT and management consulting company was sold this past July to D.C. Capital Partners, a private investment firm. As with many sales, the company made a few changes to its executive suite; the biggest was when Randy Slager, Catapult’s founder and chief executive officer, stepped down.
Mark Hunker, chief operating officer, took Slager’s place at the company helm, while Slager remains on Catapult’s board of directors. Though he no longer plays an executive role in the company’s daily operations, his deep personal investment in the company continues, as it has since he founded it in 1996.
As one of the more successful small business entrepreneurs in the government market, Slager shared some of the lessons he learned from the launch of the company, and how he handled the industry’s ups and downs.
He founded the company and grew it to $146 million in revenue in 2011. The company provides technology, security, and management solutions to a large number of federal defense and civilian agencies such as the Justice, Veteran Affairs and Homeland Security departments, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Joint Forces Command, to name only a few.
“In the early 80s, I was on the federal government side of the industry, and I found very few firms out there that really stood out, as far as quality,” Slager said. For him, it was rare to find a true partner; one who sincerely focused on what was best for the organization it served.
He wanted Catapult to be one of those exceptions. Being committed is an important principle for the company. “I wanted to build a business that really had that focus, that understood what the client needed, and was there for the long term,” Slager said.
Slager also wanted his company to be people-oriented, as that would help Catapult to meet the level of quality that Slager found lacking in the industry.
One lesson learned, though, was how those same principles caused the company to hit some snags: being too committed to people actually ended up hurting Catapult.
One of the toughest decisions that Slager faced had to do with people, namely his senior executive staff.
“It was when could I develop or move them to the next level, as the company got bigger, and when was it that those people just weren’t the right ones for that next level of management,” he said. “I wanted to keep it a very people-oriented company, so instead of making a decision, I’d wait three, four, five months longer then I knew I really needed to.”
Slager wanted to see whether the company was being hurt by keeping certain people on the team.
“If you’re loyal to people, and they’ve worked hard, and they’ve been with you, then you try to get them to that next level,” he said. “And I would try to get the managers to that point.”
“And when you finally realize that you have to bring somebody in from the outside, who has the right experience and skills,” Slager said, “that was the toughest.”
“And the company felt the pain of the delay,” he said.
And over the sixteen years that Slager was CEO, there were also times when he feared the company would fail. “In 2004, about 40 percent of our work on a major contract, and some on related contracts, all of a sudden got pulled because of some political decisions.”
The company had been doing outstanding work and the expectation was the contract would continue for three more years. “Then, out of the blue, we get that decision that told us to cut the contract off, so we lost about 40 percent of our base,” he said.
In an attempt to remedy the loss, Catapult bid on everything it thought it could win, and as it turned out, won almost everything it bid for. Slager credits his employees for escaping that mess. “I think it was just knowing the impact, everybody tried that much harder,” he said.
There were plenty of good times, too, as the company grew.
“My favorite thing was really making a difference for our clients,” he said.
Catapult, on a few occasions, had employees from other companies knocking on their door, wanting to go work for them. “That says you’re doing something right,” he said.
The company also won awards that made him particularly proud. Catapult managed to do “something that is very unusual for a smaller company; we won two awards that are normally only won by the industry giants,” he said.
Earlier this year, the company won Best Partnership from the U.S. Army Information Technology Agency, presented by the Outsourcing Center. In 2009, Catapult won Best in IT Infrastructure award for its work with the General Services Administration, presented in conjunction with the Outsourcing Center, Everest Group and Forbes magazine.
“We’re sitting there with IBM, Lockheed Martin, CSC, all the giants…and little us,” he said. “I’m very proud of it, and it took a lot from our employees; it took a lot of dedication.”
And, for Slager, those awards are especially meaningful; they are testament that Catapult Technology has succeeded in what it sought out to do when it was founded in 1996.
“And that’s really the people on the project, the employees,” Slager said. “I can’t take credit for those awards; it’s the people in the company that made that happen.”
“I’m very proud of them,” he said.
Slager might not be in the thick of the daily grind anymore, but he’s still very committed. He’s seen Catapult soar and he expects more to come.