Remembering Earle Williams
The government contracting industry and the Northern Virginia region lost a great leader last week with the death of Earle C. Williams. He was 86 and died March 25 after a brief illness.
Williams is perhaps best known as the long-time CEO and president of BDM International.
He also was a tireless advocate for Northern Virginia and the many institutions that support the region and the government contracting industry.
He was part of a generation that laid the foundation for today’s government contracting industry with its focus on technology and professional services. He became president of BDM in 1962 and moved the company from El Paso, Texas, to Northern Virginia in 1970 so the company would be closer to its customers and be in position to expand into new government sectors.
Williams was one of the founders of the Professional Services Council and the Northern Virginia Technology Council. He also was a driving force behind George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Community College.
He also continued to build BDM, taking the company public in 1980 and then selling it to Ford Aerospace in 1988. He stayed on as CEO during that time and led a management buyout of BDM when Ford was selling the aerospace business to Loral in 1990.
To make that happen he had to face down a challenge by Loral CEO Bernard Swartz who didn’t believe it when Williams said the entire senior management team would leave because there were too many business conflicts of interest between BDM and the rest of Loral.
When Swartz challenged him, he told him to come to McLean, Va., and meet with the management team without him. Unprompted by Williams, the management team told Swartz the same thing.
The management team, with the backing of the Carlyle Group, acquired BDM.
Williams also knew that for BDM to face the challenges ahead, it needed to diversify, and it needed new leadership. In 1992, he stepped aside as CEO and brought on Phil Odeen as his replacement. Williams remained on the BDM board and held that position until the company was acquired by TRW in 1997. By that time, BDM had $1 billion in revenue and 8,000 employees.
Todd Stottlemyer worked at BDM under Williams and later at BTG, where Williams was a member of the board. The two had a 32-year friendship.
“Earle was an authentic leader who believed in building a great community in addition to building a great company,” Stottlemyer wrote in a Facebook posting. “I loved Earle for his authentic leadership, his courage in always being willing to say what needed to be said, his love of Virginia and the United States of America.”
That posting led to many other comments praising Williams and thanking him for his leadership and many contributions.
“He was genuine, direct, intelligent, caring and gracious. As our mutual friend Bob Templin wrote me last night, "We lost a great leader" and a "wonderful human being,” wrote Mario Marino, another technology entrepreneur who is a strong advocate for Northern Virginia.
NVTC gives an annual lifetime achievement award that is named for Williams. I wrote about the award in 2014 when he presented it to Templin, president of the Northern Virginia Community College.
The blog recounted many of his successes and the lessons he and other pioneers from the founding of this industry can teach the rest of us.
Williams reached out to me and invited me to lunch. While we had met briefly many years earlier, this was really our first conversation. He was an impressive man and we talked about the changes in the market and the continuing need for leadership.
More than anything, he emphasized the need for business leaders to be part of their community and to support important institutions such as schools, universities and the arts. His obituary includes many of the organizations he supported.
I got no sense of ego from Williams. He did what he did because he could and because it was the right thing to do.
When I look at the comments on Facebook and other emails I’ve been sent, the sense I got during our lunch continues to grow. He was loved and respected, more for what he did for people than for what he did for himself.
That’s a tremendous legacy to leave behind and one that will be remembered for many years to come.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, June, three daughters, and seven grandchildren.
Visitation will be Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at Fairfax Memorial Funeral Home at 9902 Braddock Road, Fairfax, Va. The funeral will be Thursday, but details are still pending.
Posted by Nick Wakeman on Mar 28, 2016 at 9:29 AM