Retired CEOs come to agencies' rescue
Firm creates in high-level temp service
- By David Hubler
- Sep 02, 2011
In the 1985 film, “Cocoon,” several Florida retirees are youthfully rejuvenated by nightly nocturnal dips in a nearby swimming pool inhabited by the cocoons of an alien life form.
Mason Harriman Group is doing the same thing for a number of retired CEOs, CFOs and CTOs. The company is returning them temporarily to the government employment pool, but without getting wet and without the presence of an alien life form.
MHG is the brainchild of Teddy Vagias, a former corporate executive who founded the company in 2001 in Towaco, N.J.
Vagias chose the company’s name by combining his devotion to the Masons with Averill Harriman, one of his favorite problem solvers who served as Commerce secretary, special envoy to Europe during World War II, governor of New York and U.S. ambassador to the USSR and to Britain, among other positions.
Vagias’ business plan was simple: enlist retired Fortune 200 C-level executives looking for some challenges away from the golf course and put them to work again temporarily.
They would provide professional IT and management assistance for government agencies, financial institutions, media, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and other large commercial entities in the metropolitan New York area.
Vargias did not want MBAs fresh out of graduate school or professional consultants.
“I didn’t want that mind-set,” he said, because young MBAs wouldn’t have the required experience and consultants might be tempted to campaign for a full-time position they were sent in to help.
Mason-Harriman’s approximately 45 retirees, on the other hand, are not looking for full-time employment. They have sufficient income to live comfortably. However, they still relish tackling and solving tough challenges.
Moreover, most of them have no trouble putting in long hours until there is a satisfactory resolution because they all were recruited from high-pressure industries such as financial services, banking and insurance, said company President and CEO Richard Mangogna, a retired executive vice president and CIO at J.P. Morgan Chase Bank.
Mangogna is a prime example. Following a three-decade banking career, he went to the Homeland Security Department in the CIO's office during the George W. Bush administration. He joined MHG in 2009 to direct the work of the retiree teams while Vagias ran the company’s day-to-day operations.
“They’ve been there and done that,” Vagias said. “And they’re willing to work their way out of a job,” a slogan that has become the company’s registered trade mark.
In other words, as soon as the problem or program is fixed, the retiree bows out until the next call from Mason-Harriman.
“Because these people are jumping into the job right away, we wanted to make sure the people we hired had good work ethics,” Mangogna said.
“How do you know that? By knowing them. [Vagias] would only hire people or bring people in that he either he knew or somebody he worked with before and knew,” he added.
Vagias acknowledges that sometimes private industry executives had difficulty buying into the program because they viewed the advisers as possible threats to their own jobs.
“Many times an executive would say, ‘Hey, you’re bringing me somebody who’s at my same level or higher than me. Are they going to take my job?’ The answer was no,” Vagias said, citing the company slogan again.
MHG’s business plan of assisting private companies solve their management and IT problems was growing well until November 2002, when DHS was created in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“I said to the folks that were in our Mason Harriman company that we have a duty to support this new forming department,” Vagias said. “We came down to D.C. and spoke with the [DHS] small business office and offered our retired executives' help."
Vagias said in 2003 his crew began assisted the newly formed department stand up its programs and offices by providing pro bono advice and services including some independent verification and validation analysis, all of which conformed to FAR regulations.
“We began supporting programs that were going astray," he said.
The company was able to do this without compensation under the DHS Senior Advisor Program, which according to the department provided "a mechanism by which DHS can obtain expertise from the private sector to provide critically needed skills until the Department is a position to hire or contract for those skills."
Vagias, his cadre of retirees and volunteer executives from private firms in the New York area helped officials integrate and structure the nearly two dozen disparate offices and agencies in DHS, now the third largest cabinet department in the government. MHG got its first contract from DHS in 2005.
As a result of its change of focus from private industry to assisting government agencies, Vagias’ Mason Harriman Group now derives 70 percent of its revenue from federal contracts, mostly from DHS.
Although the private company's headquarters remains in New Jersey, Mason-Harriman has leased several apartments in Arlington, Va. One of the apartments is used as the company’s local office.
Vargias said the location is ideal for the retirees to use when they come to town to work and when their families pay a visit. It’s close to the Pentagon, the Metro and Reagan National Airport.
“We want them to be able to enjoy the city and get around easily using public transportation whenever possible,” he said. “After all, they’re not youngsters.”
David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.