New at the top: The Army served as Damon Walsh’s training ground for business

November 11, 2012

I seem to have the luck to find my way to companies that need some help in putting in place the infrastructure to grow into the success that they’ve already achieved.

It was my 25-year career in the military that gave me the necessary leadership training to do that.

I stumbled into the Army.

As a child, I thought I would become a two-dimensional artist. In college, my initial major was energy management, but then I switched to a psychology degree. At that point, I didn’t have a career path laid out. I was just going to school and trying to find myself.

Then I found myself in uniform.


Damon Walsh is the new president of Synexxus. (Synexxus)

It was the 1980s, right after the Iran hostage crisis. I felt an overwhelming desire to serve my country.

After my freshman year, I enlisted in the Army Reserve as an attack helicopter mechanic. In the reserve, I became a Special Forces radio operator and fell in love with the Army — the sense of serving a purpose larger than yourself, the camaraderie, the belonging.

For the final 12 years, I was an Army Acquisition Corps officer.

In the Army, I found that I had a strong ability to lead. I’m pretty adept at getting an organization to believe in itself and synchronize its actions to a common goal and direction.

That proved indispensable in my short but intense business career.

After I retired and worked at different contractors, I remember I was asked to run a company called Jet-Hot High Performance Coatings. The company had come out of bankruptcy and had trouble believing in itself. When I first got there, I would hear people say, “This is never going to work” or “We can’t do this.” I knew I had to turn this around.

To do this, I drew on a very important experience in the Army. When I was a lieutenant in Alaska, I was in an airborne unit doing a very difficult air mobile exercise. As we decided to conduct the operation, there was some doubt that we could actually go up in the command-and-control bird. I presumed that the commander was going to do it. He looked at me and said, “You’re going to do that.” I was terrified, but I did it and felt great about myself and my abilities.

That’s where I learned how to increase people’s confidence.

So at Jet-Hot, first things first, I met with the people individually. Then I gave them confidence targets, so that they could become more confident in their ability to trust their judgment.

They didn’t believe they could process parts in 24 hours. I said, “Let’s try it for a day and see what happens.” We did and, lo and behold, they processed parts in 24 hours.

Eventually more business was coming in and the parts were getting processed faster. I saw the culture change. They began making changes without asking me. We turned the company around.

Now, here at Synexxus, I want to help the company put the necessary pieces in place to help them capitalize on tremendous success in a way that allows them to be a viable business entity.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Damon Walsh

Position: President, Synexxus, a systems engineering company based in Arlington.

Career highlights: President, Jet-Hot High Performance Coatings; executive vice president for customer operations, Force Protection Industries.

Age: 50

Education: BA, general psychology, Eastern Illinois University; MS in management, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Personal: Lives in Arlington with his wife, Jana. They have two grown children, Jason and Kelsey.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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