Ray Oleson remembered for success, kindness, leadership
The government market has lost one of its pillars with the death earlier this week of Ray Oleson, founder of SI International and co-founder of Salient Federal Solutions.
Oleson, 69, died Monday, March 3, while playing golf near his home in Hilton Head, S.C.
Executives who worked closely with him at SI and Salient and during his time at CACI International Inc. described him as a gifted leader who brought a team approach to running his business and as someone who should be credited with helping create the business model of today’s government contracting market.
But you’d likely never hear him describe himself that way.
“It’s hard to pinpoint his legacy,” said Brad Antle, CEO of Salient and who was hired by Oleson to run SI’s first acquisition in 1999. “He was never trying to make a name for himself. He was very comfortable in the background.”
Oleson was more likely to credit others such as his former boss Jack London, executive chairman of CACI as a leading light of the industry. “He had great respect for Jack and others,” Antle said.
London credited Oleson with helping to launch CACI’s mergers and acquisitions program in 1992 and transforming CACI from a professional services firm to an information solutions and services provider. Oleson was an executive under London from 1987 until 1996. He rose to the position of president and chief operating officer of the company’s largest division.
“Ray helped set the stage for companies that are an integral part of the IT community today,” said Leslee Belluchie, who was chief marketing officer and executive vice president at SI.
“He was a positive force for our industry and an outstanding example of the ethical commitment we must all make to serve our nation’s critical missions,” London said.
Oleson’s commitment to the market was evident in how he remained connected to contracting groups such as the Professional Services Council, TechAmerica and the Northern Virginia Technology Council even after he sold SI to Serco North America in 2008 and moved to Hilton Head, S.C., Antle said.
“It is always hard to lose someone who was so influential in our community,” Antle said.
Antle met Oleson as he was putting together the financing to launch SI in 1998 and they were together pretty much from then on. Antle eventually took on the CEO role at SI and Oleson remained chairman. And after they sold the company to Serco they worked together to launch Salient, where Antle is the CEO and Oleson served as chairman.
“There are so many things he taught me,” Antle said.
One of his leadership lessons was that often the toughest decision is knowing when to say no, Antle said. “Saying yes is easy.”
“He was a firm believer of sticking close to your core capabilities and letting them evolve overtime.”
Antle shared with me Oleson’s four guiding principles, which he called axioms.
AXIOM 1—Happy customers will figure out how to get you more business not less.
AXIOM 2—Long term, multi-year contracts simplify marketing and sales efforts by reducing the yearly volume that needs to be replaced.
AXIOM 3—People buy from people; therefore, you need to talk to the client.
AXIOM 4—Fill the client’s needs. Don’t push old projects, pet projects, or what you think a customer needs unless it is needed. Listen to what a customer tells you.
I interviewed Oleson several times over the years, particularly during the SI days and the impression I always came away with was that of a warm, generous person with a beefy handshake and a big smile.
Without mentioning his name, I’ve often think about him when I talk about the different personality types of successful CEOs. Some are stern. Some are gregarious back slappers. Some are driven to be the center of attention.
Oleson was all about collaboration. I once had a briefing with him and his senior management team at SI. The atmosphere was remarkable in how open and comfortable it was. The rapport among the executives was genuine.
They were knowledgeable and serious about what they did but they weren’t overly serious about themselves. No one in the room was larger than the whole, including Oleson, who was the chairman and CEO at the time.
There was humor too, and Oleson wasn’t above being the target of some good natured ribbing.
“Ray believed in the kitchen cabinet type of meeting where you’d get together with a cup of coffee and share ideas,” Antle said. “He was very open. He didn’t care where the idea came from. If it was a good one, he’d go with it.”
“He was this big mountain of a man, but he was so gentle,” Belluchie said. She joined SI after the company went public and "Ray and Brad really made me feel like a part of something special."
While many of us will remember him for his business acumen, his most lasting legacy likely will be his family.
“He worked so hard and was so invested in SI and when he founded Salient he did it with vigor and gusto but he also wanted to spend time with his family and his wife and daughters,” Belluchie said. “At his peak, he stepped back and found balance. He could have easily plunged back in. That really struck me.”
Part of the motivation was his grandchildren. “He made a concerted effort to be part of their lives,” she said.
His wife Kathy also played a huge role in the slowdown. “Rarely do you see a couple married as long as they were be as close and caring as they were,” Antle said. “They were an incredibly close couple. Another area where he was a great role model.”
Oleson is survived by his wife, Kathy Oleson, a sister, a brother, two daughters, and three grandchildren, according to the obituary from the Island Funeral Home in Hilton Head.
Posted by Nick Wakeman on Mar 07, 2014 at 9:24 AM