Phil Lantz, founder and president of SPA, talks longevity

Phil LantzWhen Phil Lantz left his small Wyoming town of 20,000, then wrapped up a four-year stint in the Navy, he had one overriding dream: to make it in Washington, D.C. In the 35 years since he started his own company, Systems Planning and Analysis, he’s more than succeeded. In a fierce field of competitors, SPA has grown from three to 465 employees, and proven itself to be an indispensible resource for clients such as DoD and Department of Homeland Security. So, what’s the secret to Lantz’s success? Simple, he says: Focus on solving your clients’ challenging problems, and the rest will follow.

Tell us briefly your background and what you do at Systems Planning and Analysis?

Phil Lantz: I’m the founder and president of Systems Planning and Analysis Inc. We incorporated in July of 1972, so we’re 35 ½ years old. Joe Paterno and I are the only ones I know who haven’t had a promotion in 35 years. (Joe Paterno is the coach of the Penn State football team). I’ve been working in the defense industry in the Washington area since 1965; before that I was a submarine officer in the Navy. I grew up in Wyoming. Prior to the Navy, I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, and following the Navy, to the University of Wyoming and The Johns Hopkins University.

What does SPA do?

Phil Lantz: SPA provides top-level decision makers with timely and objective assessments that integrate the technical, operational, programmatic, policy and business aspects of national security issues. What does that mean? We try to engage really tough and important problems for the key leaders in the field of national security.
We began with mostly Navy customers, and we expanded a little bit in the Department of Defense. When the Department of Homeland Security stood up, we began working with them from day one. We measure good decisions from a big-picture, long-term perspective – what is best for our country as a whole, not just what might be good for that particular client in the short term.

We believe SPA’s core culture makes us different – our mission and objectives are enduring. The things I wrote down 30 years ago and built this company on have only changed by four words in 30 years – two have been added and two taken away. There is a real consistency in how we operate.

How big is the company now, in terms of size?

Phil Lantz: We started with three employees, and we’ve grown to 465 today. We have been growing steadily for the last dozen years. We had a little downturn right after the Cold War. We call it our “post-Cold War peace dividend.” Since that time, we’ve been on a positive growth track.

What are some of the trends you are tracking that will impact your customer base over the next 12 to 18 months?

Phil Lantz: The pressures of the Iraqi war on the defense budget are important and complex. There is a continued emphasis on the global war on terror and homeland security but there are also a lot of budget pressures. The DoD and Department of Homeland Security – our clients — are wrestling to make good decisions for our nation within the budget constraints they have, and they will have for some time. Our job is to help them make those decisions by giving them the analysis and assessments that cover a broad spectrum of issues.

What’s your biggest challenge in business today?

Phil Lantz: We are very proud of the high-quality staff we hire; they are what make SPA successful. Our biggest challenging is finding enough of them. Our employees really are our greatest asset, so it’s important that the people we hire are exceptionally talented. Our high retention rates show that once people come to work at SPA, they stay, but attracting the level of talent to do the kinds of work that we do is always challenging.

You’re in a very competitive marketplace, what would you say is your key to success over the last 3 to 5 years?

Phil Lantz: Our reputation is built on the quality of our work. Our clients are senior leaders in their fields, and over the years we have earned the position of trusted agents with them. They trust us to give us their toughest problems and they rely on our answers; they rely on our integrity. Our belief has always been that doing good work gets us more work. Each year, our work increases and growth continues.

When you’re in no man’s land you might take calls all the time to be acquired, what’s your general approach to that?

Phil Lantz: I’m pretty proud of what we do. We have some formidable competitors, and I like our culture and I like what we are doing. Yes, I’ve had a number of investment bankers call me and other large corporations, and I just say, “Why would I change when I’m having fun and doing important work?” My plan is to continue the culture of SPA, which emphasizes growth through individual initiative, and doing important work, not driven by the bottom line, but because the work is interesting and it matters for our nation. These are parts of the culture that I want to continue, and the present structure of the company is best suited for that.

What will the company look like in two years?

Phil Lantz: Usually that kind of a question is answered in quantitative terms, and I’ve never thought of SPA in quantitative terms. The important thing to me has always been the qualities of the company — the kinds of work we do, working on challenging, important questions, the levels of key decision makers, maintaining absolute, utmost marketplace integrity and working with people who are talented and nice to be around. We have six corporate objectives, the last of which is to “remain profitable” as opposed to maximize profits. If we meet all of our other objectives, then remaining profitable is just a fallout. I don‘t worry about that too much. I view what we‘re going to look like next year, two years from now, or five years from now qualitatively, and it will be very similar to what we are and have been. If you look out for the quality, the quantity part seems to take care of itself.

What’s your approach to working with small businesses?

Phil Lantz: We were one. I started with three people, and we have never acquired anyone. This has all been organic growth, and good work getting more work. We look for opportunities to work with small businesses. Recently, I met for two hours with one of the small businesses we work with for a mentoring session. That approach helps them be successful, and helps us be a successful team.

How has your Navy background helped you at SPA?

Phil Lantz: I was only in the Navy for a little over four years, but during that time I had a lot of leadership opportunities for a junior officer. Since that time I’ve had a natural inclination for leadership. Over the years I have tried to emulate things I thought were good and effective, and traits that I admired. I’ve tried to avoid things I didn’t admire. Have I been perfect on either account? Certainly not. But that’s the light I’m navigating by, and having been around this business for as long as I have, and building the company from three to 465 people, it seems to be working.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Phil Lantz: I recognize that SPA is a people company. We’re not selling a gadget. We don’t have a patent. We just provide good, thoughtful service to our clients. So I respect those people. I view good leadership as leading by a good example, trying to be fair to people, providing them a professional environment so they can excel at working on hard problems. That is the philosophical tone for the company, and we try to attract people that subscribe to that. Our employees respond to that and stay with us. We have nine employees who have been here more than 25 years. The ninth one just got his 25-year pin recently. I ask him how many people were in the company when he joined; he thought about 16. Keeping nine out of 16 for 25 years is a pretty good batting average.

What is something people are surprised to hear about the company as they get to know what the company offers?

Phil Lantz: I think we have quite a different business model than so many companies, who are focused on the bottom line. Publicly traded companies have to worry about the stock price. We align ourselves with government decision makers. We get a number of requests to work with private industry and occasionally we do that, but with great care. It goes back to that objective. We’re not here to maximize profits, we’re here to work on challenging problems. And we make a decent living along the way, don’t get me wrong. But is it just to maximize profits and see how our stock price goes up and how big we can grow year over year over year? No, it’s the quality of things, the whole environment that makes it work.

What’s the biggest set back in business over 35 years and what did you learn from it?

Phil Lantz: Well, it was the one I described as the “post-Cold War peace dividend.” From day one of SPA, we have been involved in the Navy Strategic Nuclear Weapons program, and things related to that. At the end of the Cold War, there were a lot of things we as a nation just didn’t need anymore. So we were involved in a couple of programs that were deemed to just end. That resulted in a 25 percent contraction over a two-year period because that work didn’t exist anymore. I learned a couple of things from that. If you hire the right kind of people and you get to that downsizing situation, you don’t have to feel to guilty because they are so good they can just go out and get a job. You’re not putting people on the breadline. Every person that we had to let go landed on their feet, and I’m happy about that. And we’re still friends.

Number two, it’s probably healthy to trim the bushes once in a while. When it’s just “grow, grow, grow,” you just “hire, hire, hire” as much as you can. And not everyone is as good as everybody else. And when you trim the hedges you trim the people that are not quite as productive as somebody else. You come out of that kind of a situation stronger, and you reflect on yourself. We adjusted our way of doing business a little bit, and it has served us well since that time.

What is something most people don’t know about you personally?

Phil Lantz: I think it’s the point of a guy from Wyoming who grew up in a town of less than 20,000 people and somehow got into the Navy as a submarine officer. I’m a pretty big guy, so a lot people wonder how in the world I fit into a submarine. When I decided not to make the Navy a career, I ended up in Washington, D.C. Quite frankly, for a while I wasn’t very stimulated by the work I was doing; but then I had an amazing opportunity to work on a challenging, important decision for this nation, and I think I had a positive impact on that. It changed my professional life, it changed my personal life. It was the basis for my founding this company and the culture that we go by today.

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