In 1998, Randy J. Slager attended a national small-business conference sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore. One speaker asked the representatives of some 300 firms how many disabled-veteran business owners were present.
Only Slager raised his hand.
That was quite a contrast to more recent conferences he has attended with hundreds of disabled-veteran business owners.
“Times have changed,” said Slager, 58, from his office on the 11th floor of the Clark Building in Bethesda. From there, where he presides as CEO and chairman of information technology contractor Catapult Technology, he can see the Washington National Cathedral and other landmarks on a clear day.
It’s a view that Slager has earned, allowing him to reflect sometimes on how far he has come.
“People had to think differently and accept it,” said Slager, a key lobbyist for federal legislation that sparked changes for disabled-veteran business owners and a tireless advocate with agencies to implement the reforms.
The acceptance for Slager and Catapult has been a bit overwhelming at times. Catapult recently won its second Outsourcing Excellence Award, a global honor that has been won by industry giants such as IBM and features a black-tie awards ceremony, for Best Partnership with the Army Information Technology Agency’s Defense Continuity Integrated Network. That comes on top of being named the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce’s Corporate Leader of the Year for 2011 and recognition from the Tech Council of Maryland, SmartCEO, Inc. Magazine, Deloitte Maryland Technology Fast 50 and more.
The first time Catapult won an Outsourcing Excellence Award in 2009, it was up against giant $50 billion companies, Slager said. Privately held Catapult had revenues of $146.3 million last year, up from $76.6 million in 2007.
“It was like the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ story,” he said.
Slager often speaks to disabled-veteran business owners who are navigating through the same waters he once did, at sessions of the Montgomery County Chamber Community Foundation’s Veteran Institute for Procurement program, which trains veterans on the contracting process. He tells stories about walking into offices of banks and other lenders with a cane and deflecting the skeptical looks that questioned whether he could really build a company.
“Those are things these business owners still deal with,” said Barbara Ashe, executive vice president of the chamber and president of the community foundation, who launched the veteran procurement program in 2009. “Randy is very generous with his time and shares lessons that are very valuable. ... He’s a quite an inspiration to these veteran business owners, many of whom are disabled.”
Army accident changes life
More than two decades before he attended the Baltimore conference, Slager found himself in Utah, which he split with Colorado as his home state. He was working a job loading railroad cars as a teenager when a professor helped him obtain an Army ROTC scholarship to attend the University of Utah.
He took advantage of this first of many opportunities, earning bachelor degrees in computer science and psychology.
“That was when you had the huge computer systems that used punch cards,” Slager said. “I liked being on the leading edge of technological changes, but I also liked to do research in psychology.”
In the Army, he was sent to Germany and advanced to major. He managed the Army’s data processing center in Europe that supported 14 hospitals and 260 medical clinics.
“I worked long hours, but it gave me some good experience,” Slager said.
Then, in 1978, a freak accident during a routine training exercise changed his life.
“I just fell wrong,” Slager said.
A bone spur penetrated and partially severed his spinal cord. CT scans weren’t available then, and two ensuing operations didn’t help much, he said. In fact, they might have caused even more nerve damage.
“They just didn’t have the facilities and technology they have today,” Slager said matter-of-factly.
His limp became more pronounced and he had to use a cane. About a decade ago, he had titanium rods implanted and fused the vertebrae to relieve the pressure. He has undergone five back surgeries since then.
Automating the FBIWith his military career essentially over, Slager turned to work for high-tech giant Sperry-Univac. It was exciting to be involved in the fast-changing world of computers and telecommunications, he said. He completed his master’s in computer information systems at Boston University.
In 1982, Slager moved to the federal government in the FBI’s research and development office. He was the lead scientist on a $500 million program to automate the bureau’s 59 field offices, helping build two national data centers and implement a nationwide network that supported more than 9,000 special agents.
“Before I worked on that program, it took 21 days for an agent in one office to get some information about a suspect from another field office,” Slager said. “After the automation program was completed, that time decreased to 21 seconds.”
Returning to the private sector, he helped build several small technology firms that focused on systems engineering and management consulting support, implementing some large nationwide technological systems. At Sutron Corp., a Sterling, Va., company that makes systems that monitor and collect weather data, Slager helped create a new information technology consulting division.
He then worked as an independent computer scientist consultant for the Federal Aviation Administration, performing feasibility and other studies as the agency converted non-air traffic control systems to an IBM platform.
That’s when the entrepreneurship bug hit.
His father, an immigrant from the Netherlands, had started several businesses after he was laid off from 20th Century Fox, where he managed concessions throughout the Rocky Mountain region. Those enterprises included recording background music on eight-track cassettes for shopping malls and physicians’ and lawyers’ offices, as well as operating rental cabins, restaurants and a ranch.
Slager observed and learned.
“He always talked about how America was the land of opportunity,” he said of his father.
Catapulting through federal contracts
In 1990, he co-founded management consulting and systems engineering firm E&A, obtaining contracts from the FAA as part of one of the largest information technology outsourcing efforts being conducted by the federal government at the time. When that company dissolved in 1996, Slager decided to go it alone in forming Catapult.
“It was basically myself in the beginning,” he said.
Slager persuaded the Department of Transportation to award him a $22,300 fixed-price contract for a four-month IT study.
“That led to larger contracts,” he said. “I started having to hire a lot of skilled people.”
The business has grown to some 700 employees, with 75 in Maryland. Most people in the state work at the Bethesda headquarters, where Catapult moved to in 2004. Some are at a call center in Chambersburg just across the Pennsylvania line.
“I studied companies that were successful to emulate what worked for them,” Slager said. “I took the profits and reinvested them into the company. I made sure we did the best job that we possibly could.”
Obtaining certification, including through the federal 8(a) Small Business Administration program and the International Standards Organization, really helped, he said. Catapult works in numerous areas, including cybersecurity, infrastructure and program management, systems and software engineering, and telecommunications. Projects include a $200 million contract won in 2007 to consolidate the General Services Administration’s information technology infrastructure.
Although the company’s track record and network of contacts now are important to obtaining more work, in the early days Slager had to overcome questions of whether he really could deliver.
“People looked at me, walking into a meeting using a cane, and wondered if I could do the job,” he said.
Helping other disabled vets
As Catapult grew, Slager found ways to help others in similar situations.
At the 1998 conference in Baltimore, he met Anthony Principi, who chaired a congressional commission that was considering reforms to veterans benefits and would later become Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Slager recently had been rejected for the federal 8(a) program and told Principi that there were more disabled-veteran business owners who needed help.
Principi gave him a report that detailed a lack of disabled-veteran companies working for the federal government. So Slager started lobbying Congress on the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act, which passed in 1999 and established a service disabled veteran-owned business category to help them obtain federal contracts.
Slager didn’t stop there, as he worked to make sure agencies implemented the reforms. He pushed the SBA to formally recognize physical disability and have such owners qualify for the 8(a) program, with his company obtaining that certification.
“It’s one thing to have an act; it’s another thing to actually implement it,” said Slager, who continued to lobby for further laws, including the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003, which provided more federal contracting assistance to service-disabled veteran small businesses.
Slager and other executives at Catapult embraced mentoring programs, including one overseen by the General Services Administration.
“He is very charming and cares for the company under his mentorship,” said Nayereh Rassoulpour, president and CEO of NSR Solutions, a Rockville information technology 8(a) woman-owned company that Catapult mentors. “They have helped me get some federal contracts, but it’s not just help with contracting. They have helped with human resources, network security and other areas.”
Slager and Catapult have helped Dexisive, a woman- and service-disabled veteran-owned high-tech business in Reston, Va., with efforts such as marketing programs and achieving ISO certification.
“It’s a great working relationship,” said Jack Murphy, Dexisive COO and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who earned a doctorate in computer science from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Executives under Slager devote a lot of time to such programs. Catapult President Barry Kane, for instance, is a regular instructor and panelist for the Montgomery chamber’s veteran procurement program.
With the growth of more contractors comes more competition. Some government agencies go for the lowest price regardless of the value, Slager said, which makes the process more competitive. But he continues to lend a hand.
“People helped me when I really needed it,” Slager said. “If I can help someone else in that same way, that’s what I want to do.”