Chief executive, National Technologies Associates, a Shirlington company that provides technical support services to government customers.
After a 20-year career in the Air Force, Michael Fraser worked at information technology companies such as Trident Data Systems, Sytel and Veridian, which was later acquired by General Dynamics. He co-founded and was CEO of iMask, a secure database company. He had stints at a security company (USIS) and a commercial satellite company (iDirect) before going to Artel. A call from a headhunter led him to become just the second CEO at National Technologies Associates.
The first time you were a CEO was when you founded the company iMask with your friends. What did you take away from that experience?
When I interviewed for this job, the chairman of the board at NTA asked me my greatest success and my greatest failure in my career. I told him they both happened at iMask. For me, the greatest success was starting my own company, building it, developing it, hiring people and getting the satisfaction out of making those decisions. The failure side, as I look back on it, was being pretty naïve about the business. It was the first time I’d ever done it. We looked at these dot.com companies, yes they were small, they were risky, but oh, we were all going to make a boatload of money out of it. We just didn’t see it for what it was. We didn’t diversify. We didn’t have a Plan B. You’ve got to have a Plan B. You’ve got to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Had you always wanted to be a CEO?
My wife had asked me the same question. I don’t know if I started my career going, “Okay here’s my career path, I’ve got to get this job to get the next job.” I never really said I want to be a CEO. But as I got older, you go, “What’s left in my career?” I got to work in different industries. I got to do everything. I said if the opportunity comes along, I’m going to do that. Yes, it’s a lot of work. It’s stressful. But I know I can do it. So if the opportunity ever comes along, I’m going to grab at it. I thought Artel would be that opportunity. I went into it with that expectation. Then this one came along. This just was a natural fit and a nice culmination of my career, which I hope is not over at this point.
What appealed to you about National Technologies Associates?
So I’ve been in a company that operated under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Trident Data Systems was an ESOP company, and I was part of the transition from private owner to an ESOP, and I saw the transformation in the culture and the way the employees really bought into that. When I saw that this was an ESOP company, I saw the opportunity to really get the employees to buy in. Then as I did my research, they had a fabulous reputation for the work they do. It was the credentials and the past performance that made me feel like this is a company that’s got a foundation that we can build on to move them into new markets that they need to move into.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?
First and foremost, communication with the employees. I don’t know if you know the history of the company, but John Kaufmann, the owner and founder of the company, the only CEO the company has ever known, tragically had a heart attack back in October. First and foremost, it’s getting with all these employees across the country and making them feel better about the company. I never met John Kaufmann, but from everything I’ve heard about him, he was a marvelous man. He built a great culture. And then I’ve talked to about half the company so far, and they’re as concerned as I am about the future of the company. I think it’s getting buy-in from the employees that we need to make a transition and we need to move. We have to move up the food chain and move into new markets for the company to grow and for them to get new opportunities. That’s really the high priority for me.
As you try to grow and transform the company and move it in a new direction, do you think being an ESOP company will help you with that transformation?
Only time will tell. I’d like to think that they see the value of doing this. We’ve had a failure as a company to really communicate the value of that ESOP to the employees. They kind of know they have ownership, but they really don’t know what that means. What they do know is that at the end of every year, a valuation is done on the company. What we can communicate to the employees is that the growth of the company is good for you financially and you will see that every 12 months as we do the valuation. The way the company will grow is new markets, higher-end services that we can deliver that deliver higher margins. For us to do that, we’re going to have to change and it’s going to be a little bit uncomfortable but in the end you’ll see the rewards.
What’s the hardest part about being CEO?
For this company, as I mentioned before, I think the hardest part is realizing there’s only been one other guy besides me. From everything I’ve heard, he was a marvelous guy. I can’t be him. I don’t aspire to be him. We want to retain his legacy, but the hard part is realizing I’m not him. I’ve got to be true to myself and not get pushed into being like him to try to make people happy. That’s a little bit of a different challenge than if you’d walk into some other organization where you’re the 30th CEO.
What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career?
Don’t try to be the smartest guy in the room. That was from a good buddy of mine. His name is Phil Lacombe. Of all the mentors and friends I’ve had through my career, Phil has been marvelous. When we working together at Veridian, he told me that, and that was what he did. To Phil’s credit as the lead guy, he didn’t feel like he needed to be the smartest guy. I took that to heart and every job I’ve been in and this one in particular as I sit down in the room with my chief financial officer, I’m not afraid to admit that 30 percent of what he talks about goes right over my head and that’s okay. It’s okay not to be that smartest person and that just means you have to surround yourself with smart people and I try to find people that are smarter than me.
— Interview with Kathy Orton
More from Capital Business: