James McNeil | Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Interview with James McNeil, founder, McNeil Technologies Inc.

James McNeil, founder, McNeil Technologies Inc.

Rick Steele

James McNeil spent 21 years building a rock-solid company that enjoyed a reputation as a leader in the government IT market. His success attracted a major buyer in Veritas Capital Inc. of New York, which in 2004 acquired McNeil Technologies Inc., Springfield, Va. The deal allowed McNeil to stay on as CEO, while fueling more acquisitions and greater growth. In 2005, the company raked in about $120 million in revenue.

But the recent death of a close friend gave the 53-year-old McNeil cause to reflect on the things he still wanted to accomplish in life. McNeil retired from his company March 31 to pursue more community-oriented projects. He spoke with Editor Nick Wakeman about building his company and what comes next.

WT: When you started your business, what was your plan?

McNeil: I worked for a minority small business at the time, and I wanted to build something that would mimic what it was doing, but with a different slant. I was interested in international programs and program management. But I just wanted to build a small company that I could manage and control. That's all I wanted ? five or six people.

WT: How quickly did that vision change?

McNeil: That philosophy stayed pretty consistent for the first five years or so. It took me 18 months to find work that required me to hire other people.

Then we won work down at [Patuxent River Naval Air Station], and I had seven or eight people who were working on site. But after about five years, the work diminished, and I saw the impact on our employees. You need to be larger if you want to maintain a level of comfort for your employees.

The work went away at Pax River because the services weren't needed any longer. That put us in a tailspin, because we didn't have other jobs to put those employees in. We had to lay them off, and that was devastating for me.

WT: As you grow a company, how do you decide which parts of the market to pursue?

McNeil: You start with a general idea of what your capabilities are, and you go after that. But you also piece together experiences you gain on contracts. You might get a contract that's program management, but a small portion might be database management, so you build that capability. You put those pieces together, and you start to market them. That's what happened with our language services. We saw a need and started focusing on it, now it represents 20 percent or 25 percent of our business.

WT: Your language business started with one employee.

McNeil: Right, we had an administrative assistant who could speak Vietnamese and French. She translated a couple documents for an agency. Then they started coming back to us. I said, "Wait a minute. The first one we did for free because I know you guys, but let's see if there's a real need here." Now we do cradle-to-grave language services. We build dictionaries, glossaries and readers, and we deploy linguists to the field.

WT: Do you ever see yourself getting back into business?

McNeil: Not at this point. I'll keep performing some consulting services to this company, because this is the company I've devoted my life to. But otherwise, no.

WT: How did the sale to Veritas change the company?

McNeil: Only for the best. It opened markets and brought people to our board I would never have gotten. It also provided capital for acquisitions, and it let me provide some additional stock to key personnel within the company.

WT: What advice would you give someone starting today?

McNeil: You have to know your business, and you have to pay attention to the financials. That is where a lot of people break down. They don't know the details. They don't have a good handle on what it takes to bid and win and execute a job.

Another thing is you have to have an end game. What's your plan? How are you going to get out?

WT: What is your plan now?

McNeil: There is a huge need for minority mentors and role models in the community.

There are programs with the Fairfax County, Va., public schools and some of the local universities that I'll work with. I'll also be doing some fundraising and awareness raising, and just talking with the kids.

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