One of 17 children, Michael Sawyers learned early about how to work well on a large team.
Those lessons became all the more valuable decades later when he started his own federal contracting firm, inserting himself into the government’s enormous supply chain, and then again this past year, when his company suddenly tripled in size.
“I learned a lot being in a family that big,” said Sawyers, owner of 7Delta, an information technology company in Fulton. “It’s where I learned about teamwork, and pitching in and helping out. Everyone had their roles to play.”
That mentality has helped 7Delta become one the top sellers to the Department of Veterans Affairs, specializing in software that helps veterans apply for benefits and access their health care information. Started in 2005, Sawyers’s firm now employs 200 people and earned more than $50 million in revenue in 2012 (both a three-fold increase over 2011), even as government spending was held in check. That growth helped him win this year’s Maryland Small Business Person of the Year Award from the Small Business Administration.
Sawyers’s government service began after college when he joined the Army Medical Service Corps as an information systems officer. Twenty years later, he left the military to join a newly acquired technology contractor called Apptis, working closely with the owners and learning the ins and outs of procurement.
When a series of acquisitions saw senior executives from other firms come in and leapfrog him on the leadership chain, Sawyers didn’t have to look far for other opportunities. Apptis was starting to outgrow the limits for some of its small-business set-aside contracts and had started looking to partner with smaller contractors.
“They were going out every month looking for new companies, so I started thinking I should start my own and fill that need myself,” Sawyers said. “I went to them with a business plan, and when I eventually went off on my own, I actually got my first contract working with them, working on one of their larger projects.”
Now he is returning the favor — and in the process, 7Delta is building a large family of contracting partners.
“I told them, when my company was big enough to stand on its own two feet as a prime, I would come back and team with them, because I knew they would need small businesses to go to for small-business contracting credits,” Sawyers said. “I’ve kept that promise, and we continue to work with them on lots of contracts.”
His entrepreneurial success did not surprise his former employers.
“Mike has a great business mind, and when he told us he was interested in starting a business, we always thought he would do well,” said Gary Sofo, one of the Apptis owners who later sold the company to start a firm called Qbase. “He has become a cornerstone of this community we have all built of primes and subcontractors.”
Sawyers’s procurement network paid off two years ago, when 7Delta landed one of 15 spots on the VA’s Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology contract, a five-year $12 billion project to help the department offer faster access to benefits and health care for retired military personnel. He says a strong team of subcontractors was largely responsible for the bid’s eventual success — including Qbase.
Driven largely by that one project, Sawyers expects the company to grow to around $70 million in revenue this year, and then $90 million by the end of 2014.
Still, he would like to pick up the pace even more.
“I would love to keep tripling every year, but I guess that’s not very likely,” he said.
“[Apptis was] going out every month looking for new companies [to partner with], so I started thinking I should start my own and fill that need myself.”