ICF's Kesavan leads through tough times

He's seen company bounce back by focusing on people and emerging opportunities

When Sudhakar Kesavan was head of ICF Consulting in 1997, the professional services and technology solutions firm was caught in the swirling waters of a corporate storm. Its parent company, Kaiser Engineers, was up to its neck in financial trouble and would later go bankrupt. But rather than let the ICF group be sold, Kesavan spearheaded a highly leveraged management buy-out with the help of 60 dedicated executives and an investment from a private equity firm.

As the chief executive officer of a newly independent firm that controlled its own destiny, Kesavan still faced major hurdles: keeping operations going and servicing a substantial debt. Undaunted, he led an effort to build an entire back-office accounting and contracts infrastructure from scratch, which strengthened ICF during the next several years. With Kesavan at the helm, the firm carefully managed its cash to pay down debt, aggressively invested in business development and moved into emerging markets in the federal government sector.

Today, ICF International — which successfully went public in 2006 — is valued at $450 million, posting revenues of more than $697 million last year and numbering about 3,500 employees worldwide. In the past five years, ICF has diversified its business, making acquisitions to improve its presence in information technology, homeland security and program management consulting, among other sectors.

Kesavan, who was named executive of the year for companies with over $300 million in revenue, has seen the ICF’s tribulations and triumphs from the ground up, having joined the company in 1983 as an entry-level employee. Born in India, he accepted a position at ICF after earning a master’s degree in technology and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I joined the firm because I could work on environment and energy issues,” Kesavan said. “That used to be a fairly niche interest, and ICF had an environmental practice.”

During the next 14 years, as he ascended through the ranks to become the chief executive of ICF, Kesavan absorbed lessons about corporate culture that shaped his management philosophy — one that helps perpetuate the company’s growth and success.

“The consulting business is a people business,” he said. “You need to hire the best people, and you need to make sure you put the best people in front of a client.”

To recruit and retain the best employees, “you have to create a flexible and interesting environment where people like to work and they’re passionate about the work. Therefore, you will get more emotional energy out of them than you would if they are just there for a paycheck.”

In a flexible environment, it’s easier to encourage employees to generate new ideas, he said. “Lots of smart people have lots of good ideas, and I think you need to create the sort of environment where entrepreneurial ideas are not squashed,” he said.

Kesavan also cited the element of trust and solidarity among managers and employees that has marked the culture at ICF. That trust was critical when ICF’s managers came together 12 years ago and undertook the massive challenge of taking the company private. “We didn’t lose a single person in a time when the dot-com just started, and everybody was thinking they were going to become millionaires overnight,” he said. “The trusting environment helped that.”

In recent years, under Kesavan’s leadership, ICF has become known as something of a trailblazer in the emerging green business market. Using its expertise in energy and environmental issues and determined to lead by example, he said, ICF has assiduously incorporated green practices into its own operations. It was the first professional services firm in the Washington, D.C., region to become carbon neutral.

“If you practice what you preach, clients will think you genuinely know what you’re talking about,” Kesavan said. “For us, that’s really important when advising [government and industry] clients on how they can become greener. If they ask, ‘Are you guys doing this?’ we should be able to say yes.”

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About the Author

Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

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