Pragmatics founder Nguyen shares his winning formula

Long Nguyen, a 2010 executive of the year, talks about how he built Pragmatics into a successful business.

While growing up in Vietnam, Long Nguyen found himself drawn to historical accounts of U.S. entrepreneurs who had a penchant for pragmatism and innovative, can-do thinking. So when he had a chance to start his own technology company in 1985, it was only fitting that he chose to name it Pragmatics Inc.

“That came immediately to my mind,” said Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s and spent at least part of his career teaching computer sciences at a number of universities. “And it was really because I wanted to let the customer know that we weren’t in an ivory tower telling them what they needed. We were there to work with the customer and come up with high-quality but practical solutions to their real-world problems.”

That philosophy has served his venture well. Under Nguyen’s bold and consistent leadership, Pragmatics, based in Reston, Va., has quietly but persistently evolved from a fledgling 8(a) contractor into a well-known midtier player in the government IT market. It has 700 employees and provides software engineering, information assurance and program management services to a number of civilian and military agencies, including the Army; Navy; Defense Information Systems Agency; the Homeland Security, State, Justice and Treasury departments; and the General Services Administration.

In 2010, Pragmatics celebrated its 25th anniversary, topped $150 million in revenues, acquired its first company, Innovative Solutions Inc. (ISI) and began preparations for its plan to issue an initial public offering as early as 2013. For his part, Nguyen was recognized as the Greater Washington Government Contractor Executive of the Year in the $75 million to $300 million revenue category. The GovCon awards are presented by the Fairfax County, Va., Chamber of Commerce; the Professional Services Council; and Washington Technology. Nguyen also won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2010 Award in Greater Washington in the IT Services category.

Nguyen credits much of the success to his company’s penchant for “making the right decision at the right time” and adapting to market and competitive changes. Early on, Pragmatics forwent reliance on larger companies and sought task-order contracts as a prime contractor before the company had become popular. Company officials also began pursuing process improvement certifications — such as the Capability Maturity Model Integration and ISO:9001 — to showcase the company’s commitment to quality long before other companies caught on.

And Nguyen has gone to great financial lengths to ensure that staff members feel highly valued and want to come work for and stay at Pragmatics. After their first year of employment, all company personnel are eligible to participate in the employee stock option plan and receive bonuses, and Pragmatics provided a 6 percent match for all employee contributions to their 401(k)s. He’s also set up a college scholarship program for children of employees.

“We offer that to everyone, from the receptionist to the top executives,” Nguyen said. “We like to think we are a company that truly cares about our staff, and we want them to know that not just by our words and interactions but through our actions as well.”

Paul Cohen, vice chairman of Pragmatics, describes Nguyen as a humble, generous and — yes — pragmatic business leader who leads by example and inspires excellence in everyone around him. That extends even to his family: His son Kim holds a doctorate in economics and is vice president of special operations at Pragmatics, while a second son, Ben, is a neurosurgeon in Fairfax, Va. Both attended Harvard University.

“He’s got this consistency of vision that just permeates the organization,” Cohen said. “For some companies, that vision might be the next quarterly report, but for Dr. Nguyen, the vision has always been long term. He has always felt that you have to aim high, and the employees embrace that outlook.”

A few years ago, for example, Nguyen told his staff that he wanted Pragmatics to reach $250 million in revenue and go public. Now he has set a new goal to top $1 billion in sales in 10 years. The employees might have been initially shocked at the ambition but quickly got on board. Now, he said, “everyone feels excited and comfortable that we can meet those objectives.”

Recent developments are certainly in the company’s favor. The acquisition of ISI, a previously private engineering and consulting firm based in Vienna, Va., will enhance Pragmatics’ program management and engineering services capabilities and enable it to develop new technologies that take advantage of satellite-based capabilities to deliver next-generation communications, navigation and surveillance.

Nguyen said ISI’s technologies and expertise are particularly applicable to the Defense and Homeland Security departments, for which Pragmatics already has a strong presence. ISI has a strong track record with the Federal Aviation Administration and strong capabilities in Global Positioning System technologies and flight safety. “We believe that, together, we can play a larger role in the modernization of our nation’s air traffic management system,” he said.

And he looks forward to helping his government customers navigate the budgetary terrain and political climate by providing practical, efficient IT solutions and services that enable them to do more with less.

“When I started the company, I always had hopes and dreams of success like most entrepreneurs do, but looking back and seeing where we are now, I am really quite proud of what our staff has accomplished in terms of our growth and our successful performance on so many programs of national significance,” Nguyen said. “However, we still have many more accomplishments to achieve, and I really believe that there are many more exciting days ahead of us.”

Cohen said that although Pragmatics has succeeded in establishing itself as a leading IT contractor, the company also has been a vehicle for Nguyen to give back to his adopted country and make the local community a better place for his children and grandchildren, in addition to his employees and their families.

Since its founding, Pragmatics has provided resources for a number of education, military and community organizations and causes, including raising money for victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake; sending holiday cards to military troops; and providing Christmas presents for low-income children.

Nguyen and his wife, Kimmy, personally gave $5 million last May to George Mason University for a 180,000-square-foot engineering building for the school’s Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering, and the couple has also endowed money to Iowa State University, where Nguyen earned his doctorate.

“Being immigrants, my family is very, very grateful for all of the opportunities that America has provided us,” he said. “It is such a wonderful country, and we want to continue to give back and make a difference as much as we can for years to come.”