Cliff Kendall, industry pioneer and CDSI founder, on his secrets of success
Clifford Kendall received a Hall of Fame Award for founding CDSI and helping to create the government IT contracting industry.
Clifford Kendall didn’t plan on going into business, much less becoming an IT executive. However, thanks to his mother’s efforts to nudge him onto the college track and a few fortunate turns in Kendall's life that brought him in contact with the data processing field, Kendall eventually co-founded Computer Data Systems Inc. (CDSI) and became one of the pioneers of the government professional IT services industry.
Next month during the 8th Annual Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards ceremony, Kendall will receive the Hall of Fame Award for his 40-year-plus innovative career of service and commitment to the government IT market.
The honor is being presented by the Fairfax County, Va., Chamber of Commerce, the Professional Services Council and Washington Technology.
CDSI, which started in 1968 with four employees, grew rapidly to become one of the country’s top 25 government contractors, supplying a full range of IT services — including systems integration, software engineering and data center management — to clients such as the Navy, the Energy Department, the General Services Administration and several large states.
Kendall was president and CEO for 20 years before taking over as chairman. Under his leadership, the company rapidly evolved, navigating each new wave of technological advancement even as the government contracting industry went through budget cuts, downsizing and other turmoil.
“We were never accused of being on the bleeding edge of technology, but we would always be on the leading edge of what was taking place in the industry,” Kendall said, noting that CDSI was instrumental in developing message-switching systems for the military and advancing government accounting and debt collection systems. “We felt that, as a trusted government supplier, it was our job to make sure that whatever technology we were using or whatever we were doing was proven.”
By late 1997, when Kendall and his management team agreed to sell CDSI to Affiliated Computer Systems Inc., CDSI had 4,000 employees and $350 million in revenues.
“Cliff Kendall is really one of the giants of the industry and was and is very, very well respected by everyone who ever worked with him or came up against him in this business,” said Paul Lombardi, who competed against Kendall as a senior executive at PRC and then as president and CEO of DynCorp. “Personally, he taught me the value of never giving up on things that you believe in. A lot of people when they encounter change and hardship just fold their tent and go away, but Cliff was as far removed from that type of person as possible. He has a dogged determination.”
His strong sense of perseverance started early for Kendall, who saw his father struggle financially and pitched in from an early age, working a variety of after-school jobs.
When he graduated from high school, Kendall intended to keep supporting his mother and sister with a full-time job, but an assistant principal talked him into enrolling at a local teachers' college.
“I thought I was just lucky that this school official had taken an interest in me and that things had worked out for me,” Kendall said. “But about 15 years later, I came to find out that my mother, who couldn’t do anything with me about going to college, had asked him to talk to me. A lot of my success is because I had an absolutely outstanding mother. She had great confidence in me and always encouraged me.”
Kendall later transferred to the University of Maryland at College Park to study business and eventually received his master's degree in business administration from George Washington University. He initially worked as a contracting officer at the Air Force but then took assistant comptroller jobs at American University and then Washington University in St. Louis. In both positions, he became involved in the fledgling field of data processing.
After a short stint as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, Kendall connected with three other young would-be entrepreneurs — Jack Ballinger, Joe Easley and Jim Collins — all from different companies. They co-founded CDSI to provide programming and consulting services to the federal government.
“When we started, we had no contracts, we had all just quit our jobs,” Kendall said, noting that his three partners stayed with the company for just a few years. “Looking back, I probably should have been worried. I had four kids to put through college. We had borrowed on the insurance policy and sold our house. But I had the firm belief that I could always get another job if things didn’t work out.”
As it turned out, he was right not to worry because CDSI took off quickly. In a few years, the company was building automated information management systems and managing data for clients such as the Navy, Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture Department and World Bank.
Kendall took the company public in two years and put in place a policy that encouraged the promotion of senior management from inside, a step that helped CDSI draw young talent and ensured company loyalty, said Maryann Mayhew, who worked for CDSI for 18 years, during which she rose from junior officer to executive vice president.
“CDSI had a culture of high ethical standards, hard work and great commitment to our clients,” she said. “But because Cliff made sure that there were always growth opportunities for employees, they responded, and we had a lot of employees, like myself, who stayed for many, many years.”
That culture also made CDSI a standout contractor because the midsize firm was able to successfully compete with much larger contractors. “I had an investment broker who once wanted a reference to determine whether CDSI was a good investment, and so I gave him the name of a Navy client,” Kendall said, adding that CDSI paid a cash dividend to its shareholders every year for 23 years. “The client told the broker that in all his years of dealing with clients, CDSI was, dollar for dollar, the one company that he always got the best value from. That meant a lot to me.”
Kendall has come full circle. He has been married for 57 years to Camille, a former schoolteacher; three of his four sons head their own business; and, with much support from his wife, he devotes the bulk of his spare time to advancing his other passion: higher education. Kendall led the fundraising drive for a new business school at George Washington University and is chairman of the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland. In addition, he and Camille support several students through scholarships.
“There is so much need in the higher education system,” he said. “My wife and I were the first ones in our family to graduate from college, and because education made such a difference for us, we have chosen to spend our time, our energy and our resources in doing whatever we can to help out.”
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