When James E. Smith joined Westat in 1985, the Rockville market and survey research company was about one-fourth its size today. Capitalizing on its proximity to federal agencies and increased need of such clients for data and statistics, Westat has grown to about 2,000 employees at its 400,000-square-foot campus near Interstate 270 and is the city's largest private employer by far. The company's work force more than doubles that of the next largest private employer, health care organization Kaiser Permanente, according to city figures. It is also in the top 10 among private employers in Montgomery County, according to state figures.Smith, who had primarily an academic background before joining Westat, rose through the ranks to recently be named president and CEO. Numerous colleagues have remained at the company more than two decades, which he attributes largely to its culture of valuing and nurturing employees, he said."The company is 100 percent employee-owned," said Smith, 62. "There is very low turnover at all levels."Smith has contributed much to the growth and success of Westat, as a manager and accomplished researcher, according to Joseph A. Hunt, who was president for 32 years. Hunt remains vice chairman of the company's board. "He has established broad working relationships with our study areas and with our support units as the head of our systems and programming staff," Hunt said in a statement. "He has contributed to many of our projects and led many of our corporate information technology capability developments."Headed west as a young manBorn at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, Smith grew up in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Va., area. His father was a career Navy noncommissioned officer and his mother a teacher. He had ties to the Washington, D.C., area, with three siblings born at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.After graduating from Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, Smith went west for college due to what he called his "church connection." He earned a bachelor's in sociology from Brigham Young University in Utah. Smith then chose the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for graduate work, obtaining a master's and doctorate in sociology, with an emphasis on demography."USC has excellent demography and population studies programs," he said. "That was the main reason I chose to go there for my graduate studies."At Cambridge (U.K.) University, where he taught and worked in a demographic research unit, Smith met and married Maggie, a native of Cambridge. After their son's birth in England, they returned to the U.S. and eventually settled in Montgomery County, where their two daughters were born.Smith's corporate career began in 1984 when he joined Vienna, Va., computer software business CMIS Corp. Westat's culture and focus on research attracted him."There is a very collegial environment here, much like in academics," Smith said. He became a vice president of Westat in 1988 and a board member in 2006. Smith has written and co-written numerous publications on demography and family sociology.Westat was founded by statisticians at the University of Wyoming and was incorporated in 1963. The founders came to the Washington, D.C. area to do some work for the Patent and Trademark Office and soon set up an office in Rockville. "Westat has completed studies in just about every conceivable area," Smith said. Those include economics, the work force, health care, the environment, immigration policy and science.One recent study concluded that taking medication once a week for three months to treat tuberculosis worked just as well as doing so daily for nine months. Last year, the business completed a landmark review of the Defense Department's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gay soldiers, with a majority of service members saying that repealing that policy would have a neutral impact.The company also has conducted studies on changes in health among seniors for the National Institute on Aging. Westat has seen its revenue grow to about $500 million annually. That has fluctuated some in recent years, Smith said. "We expect to be up a little this year from last year," he said. The business also has research offices in Bethesda, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Houston, Beijing, New Delhi, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Bangkok, Thailand. The biggest challenge is to "keep abreast of new developments, while at the same time benefit from existing investments," Smith said. "That also applies to research in general. You cannot ever rest on your reputation."Most surveys in the 1980s were conducted with hard copies, using paper and files, Smith noted. The electronic age has certainly made the process quicker, he said."Newer methods and technology have helped us to do our work more efficiently," Smith said. "Cost effectiveness has increased."Smith iniitally managed the information technology staff and became director of a large data collection project. His department had about one-third of the professional staff at Westat.Besides its full-time employees, Westat employs several thousand more contractors to collect data, most on a part-time basis. While many employees are recruited locally, Westat looks to hire nationally and internationally.Boy Scout leaderAn avid reader since his youth, Smith collects books and frequents used and antiquarian bookshops. He and Maggie live in Poolesville and have three adult children and two grandchildren.His major volunteer work in the past decade has been with the Boy Scouts of America. Having been a Cub Scout and Boy Scout himself, he became involved with his son's interest in scouting as a Webelos den leader, troop committee member and a charting organization representative. Smith is in his fourth year as district chairman of the Montgomery Scout District, which has about 8,000 youth members and 3,000 adult volunteers. He is in his eighth year as a Venturing crew adviser, a scout youth development program.It takes a lot of dedication and work to lead the Montgomery scouting district, which is probably the largest single district in the nation, said Steve Robillard, the Montgomery district commissioner who works closely with Smith. Robillard helped recruit Smith when the latter chaired the Black Hill district, which merged with other smaller districts into the Montgomery one."We noticed his abilities four to five years ago when he led the Black Hill district. He was the kind of individual we wanted on our team," Robillard said. "He's also one heck of a nice guy."Smith has extensive training and has received the Venturing Award of Merit, the District Award of Merit and other scouting honors."It's a wonderful organization," Smith said of scouting. "I really enjoy backpacking and canoeing. The Shenandoah Valley is a great place to do that. We have been on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland and Virginia many times. There is so much to do in this area."kshay@gazette.net