FAST 50: OM Group's willingness to change brought success

OM Group lands at No. 3 on the 2020 Fast 50 thanks to the company's willingness to change and its focus on the next big thing in technology.

Almost from the beginning, the story of OM Group Inc. is one of change and transformation. It’s also a bit about family.

The company, No. 3 on the 2020 Washington Technology Fast 50 with a compound annual growth rate of 180 percent, was never intended to be one of the fastest-growing companies in the government market. OM Group was founded in 2001 in New Jersey with a focus on the commercial market.

But then the 2008 recession hit and the company struggled. The husband-and-wife founder team to make a decision and Sowmya Hariharan’s husband left the company to get a job. She has continued as CEO.

Then in 2014 there came another crossroads. Hariharan's sister, Sangita Subramanian, joined OM Group as chief operating officer.

“We started talking about getting together and shifting the focus of the company,” Subramanian said.

Her background also is in commercial tech as she worked for Blackberry. Hariharan and Subramanian started looking at the stability and opportunities in the federal market. OM Group then became an 8(a) company and opened a major office in Northern Virginia.

Given their commercial backgrounds, the sisters saw an opportunity in the federal market beyond the small business program.

“There was a clear need for a move towards digitization, digital transformation and IT modernization,” Subramanian said. Those were trends they had experience with in the commercial sector.

An example is the move to cloud environments, which commercial businesses embraced a decade earlier. In the federal market, it was 2014 and the Cloud First initiative had just begun.

“We knew the federal government had to go down that path,” Subramanian said. “We had our experience and capabilities in those areas and we knew we were getting in early on those trends. We could see the opportunities there.”

Step one was landing a partnership with an established federal player. That took a lot of networking and meeting other businesses. The relationship with the Small Business Administration and the 8(a) program was a big help, she said.

“It was a lot of boots on the ground, going out and networking and meeting people and talking to them about our capabilities and finding ways that we could work in a complimentary manner,” Subramanian said.

OM Group's skills around software development and Agile development were a strong selling point. The company landed a few subcontracting jobs, then teamed with another firm that was graduating from the 8(a) program and was looking for a newcomer to mentor. That’s how OM Group got its first prime contract working with the Navy, she said.

The company began to grow rapidly and that has been aided by a forward looking philosophy of constantly looking for the next major technology wave.

“We have an internal R&D team that is constantly scanning the environment for what’s new and are vetting how it has been applied,” Subramanian said. “The commercial space can be a leading indicator of what we might see in the federal space.”

The R&D team conducts internal pilots and prototypes of solutions before presenting them to customers. “We like to see ourselves as a trusted digital transformation partner,” Subramanian said.

In 2017, OM Group won a spot on the Army’s ACCENT contract for commercial cloud services. OM Group won the first task under the vehicle in a full-and-open competition.

“We knew we had to get in early and prove ourselves and make a name for ourselves,” Subramanian said.

ACCENT has expired, but OM Group is part of a joint venture with three other companies on the ITES-3S vehicle that the Army is shifting work to.

“We are very excited about that and we see a lot of potential,” Subramanian said.

The company also has landed a spot on the Air Force Small Business Enterprise Applications Solutions vehicle known as SBEAS, which replaced the NetCents 2 vehicle. The win is important because the Air Force is a new customer for OM Group, she said.

Getting on large contract vehicles is an important strategy for OM Group as more agencies turn to those as opposed to smaller, individual contract competitions.

The company pursued SBEAS as part of small business joint venture with two other companies who had complimentary capabilities. OM Group and one partner have strong defense credentials and the third brought more commercial expertise.

“We could show the synergies in terms of commercial innovations and what we have done successfully with (the Defense Department) and our success with the Army, and we’ll bring that model to the Air Force,” she said.

OM Group is continuing to pursue large vehicles, but Subramanian said it is also one of their biggest challenges. For example, the company wants to break into the Homeland Security Department but isn’t on one of their vehicles.

Small businesses have to be aware of how different agencies do business and conduct procurements. Then you have to be ready to move when opportunities arise. It is a lot to keep up with.

“Some of these big vehicles they start planning two years or more out and we don’t have the luxury to have someone dedicated to tracking something two years out,” Subramanian said. “We are very operationally focused.”

It is important to find a balance between what needs to be done today and tracking what will be important in two years, she said. “Balancing those things is always a challenge.”

Moving forward, OM Group is positioning itself for the next thing after the migration to the cloud and for them it is the emerging opportunity around robotic process automation. OM Group’s research-and-development team is exploring solutions and they see it as the next big wave, Subramanian said.

“RPA allows you to do more with less,” she said because any rule-based, repetitive tasks are ripe for automation. “That will free the humans to do the tasks that need human intelligence, human judgement and creativity rather than bogging people down with mundane tasks.”