By Marjorie Censer
Capital Business Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 5:31 PM
At age 36 and just 18 months into running her own contracting company, Sandy Corbett didn't expect to find herself at a dinner table with former deputy defense secretary Gordon England.
But as part of a new group established to bring together national security contractor chief executives, Corbett said she has access to experts such as England as well as peer CEOs and former defense and intelligence officials.
The group, called MissionLink, is made up of just chief executives - no chief financial officers or other high-ranking substitutes. It has been formed as mid-size defense firms have faced an increasingly difficult contracting environment.
As defense spending slows, small- and medium-size firms find it more difficult to grow, and often struggle to absorb the cost of complying with new regulations, bid proposal rules, increased oversight and longer delays in waiting for contract decisions.
Those kinds of shared concerns were part of the impetus for getting executives together, according to the two men who organized MissionLink, attorney Andrew Lustig, a partner in Cooley's mergers and acquisitions and corporate practice in Reston, and Jeremy King, managing partner at Benchmark Executive Search in Reston.
"Initially, we were thinking about 30 or 40 CEOs the first year," King said. That "doubled pretty quickly based on interest."
The group plans to hold eight off-the-record meetings annually, and has an advisory board of former senior officials at defense and intelligence agencies.
The member companies' revenues range from $10 million to $500 million, but most are under $50 million. No large contractors are included.
Lustig and King capped the group at 60 chief executives for the first year and plan to graduate members each year to bring in a new crop.
MissionLink held its first session earlier this month. Attendees included Corbett, who founded Manassas-based InCadence Strategic Solutions, and Dennis Kelly, chief of Fredericksburg-based A-T Solutions, which provides counterterrorism training and technology. About three-quarters of the CEOs are based in the Washington area.
To ensure that the program joins like-minded officials, Lustig and King require that members' companies have a focus on the federal market and have either a product or service in use in the national security or intelligence sector.
They limit the group to chief executives to enable members to have high-level conversations. "At CEO level, you really do see the world a bit differently," Lustig said. "You kind of have to."
Meetings are generally structured around a speaker or panel - England spoke at the first event - to discuss issues such as teaming with larger companies.
For Corbett, it has been a chance to speak frankly about the challenge of running her new business, which specializes in biometrics, identity management and engineering services.
"It's a very focused group," she said. "We all kind of get what each other's challenges [are]. It's more of a supportive-type environment than competitive."
Bob Gourley, a former chief technology officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency who now runs a consultancy, serves on MissionLink's advisory board. The board has about a dozen former officials, representing agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office, the CIA and the National Security Agency.
Gourley said the meetings provide an opportunity for former government officials to make clear what the defense and intelligence communities actually need.
"A lot of firms have a great capability, but they're not sure exactly where that applies," he said.