Survival Guide: Mary Ann Elliott, president and chief executive officer, Arrowhead Global Services Inc.

Mary Ann Elliott, president and chief executive officer, Arrowhead Global Services Inc.

Mary Ann Elliott doesn't believe there's anything she can't do. A wife at 14 and a mother at 15, she was selling encyclopedias part time when her husband was killed in a car crash in 1975. Knowing she needed full-time work to support herself and three children, Elliott applied for work at Motorola, which had just started hiring women. She was turned down three times.

Her next move: Write to the chairman of the board. Elliott was finally hired, the first woman to work in terrestrial wireless communications for Motorola.

This persistence and savvy eventually led to her founding Arrowhead Global Services Inc. in 1991 as a woman-owned, Native American firm on the Small Business Administration's 8(a) business development program. The company ranks at No. 5 of Washington Technology's Top 25 8(a)s list. Elliott recently talked to Managing Editor Evamarie Socha about her experiences.

WT: Motorola rejected you three times. Why did you keep trying?

Elliott: I'm just persistent. (laughs)

WT: It seems like throughout your life, you don't take no for an answer.

Elliott: You can always find a reason for not doing something, so you have to look for ways to accomplish something. I believe in ethics first, quality second, and playing by the rules. But I will go all the way to the wall against the rules. I won't ever violate them, but I will push it to the max.

WT: What made you decide to launch your own business?

Elliott: I had been through five mergers in eight years. Because I was a female in a man's world without a degree, every time that happened, I had to start all over again. It was like you were going back to nursery school when you'd been in college. I also learned that the first buyout package you're offered is the best one you're ever going to get. When the [Contel Corp. and GTE Corp.] merger was announced, I took the buyout, which allowed me a very nice cushion to explore starting my own business.

For the first two years, I worked out of the basement of my home. Another woman-owned business subleased me a few offices, so I didn't have to do a major long-term lease when I didn't know if I was going to be able to pay the rent from one month to the next.

WT: What attracted you to the government market?

Elliott: I had such a strong background in the commercial satellite communications field. And [Operation] Desert Storm had come along. And for the first time, the military realized it couldn't fight a modern, digital war without using commercial satellites to augment the military satellite capacity. They needed people with commercial expertise, and I saw a little market niche opportunity.

But beside that, I saw the government market place as being very, very difficult, but once you had a contract, you had a long-term contract. You had a basis on which you could build a business. The commercial world is more profitable and less aggravating in terms of things you have to agree upon, but it's nowhere near as stable, because your contracts are here today and gone tomorrow.

WT: What must small business do to succeed in the government market?

Elliott: The first thing is to define a niche. You can't be everything to everyone. Grow that niche and develop what I call your second-string quarterback, so you're not just one-level deep in expertise. Another aspect is having a line of credit. Without it, you can't be in business. I've always told small businesses the government is not your banker, and neither are your large, prime contractors.

WT: What do you do to make sure the large integrators know you and put you on their teams?

Elliott: I first develop a good relationship with the particular agency. [Companies] come to us to be on their teams when they know that the agency knows us. We're going to help them win their bid, because they're well known, and their subcontractors are, too. You also develop history of quality performance and meeting you deliverables. Our motto is "On target with quality solutions." The companies that have allowed themselves to deliver inferior products or be late on service deliveries, it doesn't take long for that kind of reputation to get around.

WT: What's next for the company?

Elliott: The next major step is being a $100 million in revenue company, and we will grad from the small-business program next year. And while we win a great deal of our work in the full and open arena today, it is challenging to be competing with the Lockheed Martins, and the Boeings and the CSCs of the world. That will be a major change for us.

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