When Bureaucrats Go Private, It's Not Just for Cash

When Bureaucrats Go Private, It's Not Just for Cash

Kathy Adams

By Nick Wakeman, Staff Writer

Big bucks, top drawer bonuses and stock option benefits are not the best lures for pulling senior government executives into the ranks of the private sector.

Former government officials who made the jump to companies, such as Affiliated Computer Services Inc., AverStar Inc., Electronic Data Systems Corp., SRA International Inc. and Veridian Inc., say that intangibles such as culture, job responsibilities and even the potential for fun played a bigger role than compensation when deciding where to go after government service.

"Surprisingly, all the offers were very similar. All of them were generous and accommodating," said John Thomas, a retired Army colonel who is vice president and deputy general manager of AverStar Systems Group. In this role, he oversees the Burlington, Mass.-based integrator's information assurance practice.

Thomas, whose last Army assignment was commander of Global Network Operations and Security Center at the Defense Information Systems Agency, said he was flooded with offers when he announced his retirement. He left the Army in May 1999 after 26 years of active duty and joined AverStar last July.

"It seems like magic, because all of a sudden all the companies around the Beltway start looking at you," said Thomas, who fielded eight serious offers, then "I stopped taking calls."

While the Office of Personnel Management lacks statistics tracking the number of senior officials leaving government, factors such as buyout offers, government downsizing and reaching the zenith of a public service career are influencing many officials to make the leap.

"I had a successful career, but you can only go up so far," said Kathy Adams, former assistant deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration. With the agency for 28 years, she now is vice president and deputy director of health systems at Fairfax, Va.-based SRA, which she joined in September 1999.

Adams declined to say how many companies courted her when she decided to leave Social Security. "There are a lot of opportunities because most companies are looking for talent and are competing for the same type of people," she said.

Anne Reed, former chief information officer at the Agriculture Department who joined Plano, Texas-based EDS Feb. 1, knew her days in government were numbered because her position was a political appointment. She was CIO at Agriculture for six and one-half years and spent 12 years as a civil servant with the Navy before that.

"I wanted to pick my own time to leave," said Reed, who now is vice president of industry relations for EDS Global Government Group.

Reed said she had three to five serious offers. "I was approached by consulting firms, large corporations and lobbying groups. It was the whole gamut, which was exciting," she said.

Most of the offers had the same three elements: a base salary, a bonus system and stock options, she said. But similarities in the monetary value of those elements made them less of a deciding factor, Reed said.

"I had to think very long and hard about what strengths I have and what I wanted to accomplish," she said.

Renato DiPentima, who spent more than 30 years at the Social Security Administration and became president of the government sector at SRA in 1997, said when he is wooing a government official to come to SRA, "I always encourage them to talk to three or four other companies."

"Corporate cultures differ, and when you are talking to people, the cultures definitely come through," said Adams, who followed DiPentima's advice and still chose SRA.

Finding the right fit for both the prospective employee and the company is more important than the amount of money being offered, DiPentima said. "Obviously, we pay them well, but culture is the key," he said.

DiPentima, who joined SRA after serving as deputy commissioner for systems at Social Security, said former senior government officials bring a lot of value to the companies that hire them.

"They play an important role helping us manage our customers and understanding our customers," he said. "You don't hire them to write code or design a system."

Albert Edmonds, vice president of EDS Global Government Group and a retired Army lieutenant general, said he does not talk about EDS when he is recruiting a government official.

"I talk about the value of a second career rather than a second job," he said.

While Edmonds always is on the lookout for people with strong technology backgrounds, people with program skills in areas such as procurement, logistics and medical services are even more attractive, he said. "I'm looking for experts in how government operates," he said.

Many of those leaving government still want to contribute to the public good, officials said.

"I know it sounds corny," DiPentima said. But after spending more than 20 or 30 years working for the government, "we come from a culture of service to our country, of delivering something back."

When Brent Bennitt, a retired Navy vice admiral, was deciding on his post-military career, he knew he wanted to continue working in military aviation. "That is what I had spent 35 years doing. It is what I enjoy doing and what I want to keep doing," he said.

Bennitt left the Navy in March 1998 and joined Veridian Inc. of Alexandria, Va., in July of that year. He is now president of Veridian's aeronautics sector. "I looked for a company that shares my culture, my core values and has a focus on growth and paying attention to employees," he said.

For AverStar's Thomas, working with a company with a strong focus on information assurance was important, he said. "I wanted to stay attuned to the betterment of the government information assurance position, because I had invested my heart and soul into that," he said.

Government officials who put most of their focus on money when looking for a job in the private sector are making a mistake, said Bob Woods, former commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service.

Woods retired from GSA at the end of 1997 after 30 years in the government and joined the market research firm Federal Sources Inc. of McLean, Va., as president. After a consulting engagement at Affiliated Computer Services of Dallas, that company tapped him in May 1999 to become president of its government business application solutions unit.

"People who haggle too much over money are setting themselves up to fail," he said. "Companies that don't come to you with a serious offer to start with, you don't want to deal with anyway."

The focus of a job search should be on finding a challenge, Woods said. "You have to ask yourself: Am I going to be smarter two years from now?"

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