Brett Mason is vice president and general manager of Mission Eessential Personnel‘s intelligence solutions group, where he manages the company’s relations with U.S. intelligence agencies.
He is the co-owner and co-founder at RW Sterling Investments Ltd, where he also served as president, and was a senior program manager at L-3 Communications’ intelligence solutions division.
Prior to entering the private sector, Mason served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years and retired in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel and a member of the Joint Staff.
Mason recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz about MEP’s focus areas, the company’s new solution offerings and what it is like to be part of an up-and-coming firm.
ExecutiveBiz: Give us a basic overview of what you do on a daily basis and some challenges you face throughout your day?
Brett Mason: Mission Essential Personnel established the intelligence solutions group a little under three years ago, and the objective was to expand the work that we’re doing already within a smaller subset of the intelligence community and broaden it into the intelligence community at large. All 17 agencies within the community are potential clients, some whom we provide support today and others would be completely new clients.
On a day-to-day basis we–my group has the obligation to execute our current contracts that we have as well as respond to solicitations that we’re well matched for and then thirdly cultivating relationships inside of industry to be able to provide services as a vendor or a teammate or those sorts of things for those same client sets.
It’s both an operations arm and a growth arm. Probably the biggest challenges that have in trying to pursue that really has two parts. One, the marketplace is changing a lot. So, that has an effect on how we execute as well as how we pursue new work.
And then, the second piece is sort of getting the word out about MEP’s capability and our past performance and the sort of work we’re doing. We have a well-established history providing language support to the army, and quite often that’s what people know us for, but there’s a lot of derivative work that supports the various parts of the Intel community that we are constantly trying to get the word out about and that’s sort of–the challenging part.
ExecutiveBiz: Who in the linguistics area are your major competitors? What does your company bring to the table that sets MEP apart from other firms?
Many of them have been doing it quite a long time, and we’re sort of the relative newcomer to that space since MEP was founded in 2004. I think the biggest strength that MEP has, which translates very easily to the Intel practice, as well as the training and technical services practice, grew out of the language sector and that’s basically the recruiting arm of the company.
Our recruiting system is very successful at finding qualified specialties or languages. It started out really hunting down those people with interesting dialects or had a combination of a dialect and a security clearance and those sorts of things.
The second largest activity I think has to do with MEP’s capability to move between, not only countries, but areas of operations, transporting people safely and not losing them along the way, so to speak, because we’ve got operations in Africa, Europe and Afghanistan and formally had operations in Iraq. Sometimes you have to deal with having a locally registered company, which we have in some of our operating areas.
The other piece is that the company has been able to adapt to the needs of where the operation is occurring on and effectively getting and delivering people to the location the government needs them.
That’s been a quality that’s been very beneficial to the expanding Intel practice because it’s not a capability that the Intel practice had to build. We sort of were able to make use of it and adopt it into those opportunities that require that kind of service.
ExecutiveBiz: Upon joining the company in 2009, what are some major areas that you have worked to change or improve within the company that you would cite as successes?
Mason: The original major purpose of the — of my joining the team was to go pursue and capture the INSCOM OMNIBUS III contract that was due to come out and to put together the team and produce a winning proposal and then go on to continue to cultivate that work. That was sort of the first stepping stone of 2009.
The proposal kicked off and we were able to turn in a good effort and around six to nine months after that solicitation was responded to and we were awarded a seat at that IDIQ with INSCOM. That was sort of the first substantiation of some validation of what we were trying to create within MEP.
Coincidentally we were able to take some counterintelligence work that we had some incumbency on that was in Afghanistan, we competed for the re-compete, which occurred in the summer of 2010 and were able to secure one of three seats providing intelligence support services in Afghanistan that was nearly a simultaneous award alongside of the OMNIBUS award.
So, we had the luxury of securing two major efforts that probably together totaled more than $25 million of annual revenue in the first 12 months of sort of pursuing the strategic initiative of creating intelligence practice.
Alongside of that we were able to cultivate some opportunities that support various elements of the army Intel community as well as support to DHS.
With some of our partners that we had developed relationships with on these larger prime contracts we’re able to start to secure toeholds in DHS and toeholds at Fort Meade and continue to sort of expand MEP’s presence inside of the 17 agencies of the intelligence community.
ExecutiveBiz: What is it like to be at this new up and coming company around an eclectic team of seasoned individuals?
Mason: I’d say there’s a lot of anticipation for what the future holds.
There’s been a strong emphasis on identifying those skills that advance the strategic objective of the company. As a result, the advisory relationships, and the structure and restructure all centers around taking the company to the next level, taking advantage of those things that sort of fill a consistent need within the industry and business practice, but then augmenting it with broader talent or talent that’s focused with a slightly different client or marrying two clients together and creating a slightly new offering.
Inside the planning cells and initiatives within the company and quite often casual meetings there’s a great deal of emphasis just purely on “How do we define and establish the path to take Mission Essential Personnel to new clients, new venues, new initiatives and the sorts of people and sorts of experience that you need around you to accomplish that?” I would be comfortable in suggesting that it’s nearly a daily part of the conversation within the leadership of the company. Not always are the questions that are asked always easily answered, but all the questions and all of the initiatives are focused on sort of “What does MEP need to be in 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and 2016 and where does our offering go?”
So, it’s all about the future benefiting from the work of the past and the good fortune of the past.
ExecutiveBiz: Does being a relatively new company have a direct impact on MEP’s flexibility when navigating the government contracting realm?
Mason: I would say MEP is keeping the best of the best tools and practices that are proven and effective and the company is augmenting that with a fresh pair of eyes that are more open to considering “What’s the art of the doable?”
When you look at certain practices related to program execution there’s a lot of things that you can try, but there are a few things that you need to kind of stay steady with, with respect to controlling costs or being –or managing– or addressing risks, tried and true reliable practices, but then there are other times when being creative about compensation or being creative about work schedules or being creative about partnership arrangements and how you work with your teammates.
Those are probably examples of places where MEP wants to consider what’s the art of the doable. I think there’s a mixture of using those effective and efficient tried and true approaches and keeping your eyes open and your mind open to what’s possible if you make some adjustments or changes.
It’s been very effective particularly when you look at some of the things that we’ve been doing overseas.
We followed some very well-seasoned approaches and I think we’ve probably implemented them better than others. I’d say it wasn’t so much the approach that was important. It was how the approach was implemented that created the speed of change that was necessary with respect to the operation.
ExecutiveBiz: What are some of the new products or service offerings MEP is currently working on?
Mason: The biggest emphasis that MEP has that’s going to be used in the marketplace has to do with a more customer focused, both, use of tools as well as identification of useful tools.
Quite often the government has a need and there’s a technology solution or a personnel solution and we want to cultivate the relationship of customer focused collaboration and sort of cultivating win-win relationships.
We don’t want to be tied to crazy licensing agreements or long-term development and request for change processes that just seem to go on and on and on. There’s a great deal of opportunity in the intelligence community for creating efficient teams that focus on the product outcome as opposed to the tool that’s used to create the product outcome. And that’s the focus that a sort of intellectual — not an intellectual property, type company that MEP is to deliver that to the marketplace.
We’re sort of more focused on creative solutions rather than sort of “How do you lock down a particular client in a way that he has no choice but to continue to do business with you?” We want to create a value proposition in which our clients demand that we’re there because we provide them the most flexibility and the most talent simultaneously.
ExecutiveBiz: How has your experience as an electrical engineer enabled you to view things in a different light on the executive level?
Mason: I think there’s probably three elements that have been the most professionally beneficial to my progression in the profession of electrical engineering, program management, or executive leadership as well as sort of exposure to certain things.
The first thing is that I’ve had some great bosses over the years, both when I was in the Air Force and when I was in industry and their focus was on making good business decisions.
Very early in my professional career, I was sort of taught the value of a dollar and the value of an hour and that you can have an appreciation for the impact of choosing to do something or not do something. The second piece is that engineers grow up with sort of a focus on managing projects and leading projects and developing plans and mitigating risk and dealing with safety factors and sort of all those things that apply to building a spacecraft or a launch vehicle or a bridge or a road or a radio or an antenna.
That experience translates very well to leadership and planning in the business setting when it comes to whether it’s profitability or making sure that you’re delivering the customer’s needs, all those sorts of qualities come out in the program management arm of being an engineering professional.
We engineers come out of ABET accredited schools and pretty much even as entry level engineers already know the value of program management and project management.
After fourteen and a half years of sort of engineering practicing, I started transitioning into the business world and the operations world, both in the Air Force and in industry. That’s when I started seeing those skills translate very well into running a business unit or analyzing a business unit and being able to organize teams that are effective and creative. So, it’s just a very sort of natural progression from being an entry level engineer to running programs and then transitioning into running a business unit.