Sudhakar Kesavan, Chairman and CEO, ICF International

Sudhakar Kesavan, Chairman and CEO, ICF International - top government contractors - best government contracting event

Sudhakar KesavanSkim the headlines on any given day, and chances are you'll see news of energy prices, climate change regulation, disaster preparedness and healthcare reform. When it comes to tackling these and other global issues, ICF International, based in Fairfax, stands at the forefront “” thanks, in no small part to its CEO Sudhakar Kesavan. In the following Q&A, Kesavan talks about some of his company's cutting edge strategies “” everything from incorporating green practices to ensuring that his workforce stays engaged and vested in the company's growth. Plus, he shares his long-term vision for ICF, and how small businesses can be apart of the company's unprecedented growth.

Tell us your role and day-to-day responsibilities at ICF.

Sudhakar Kesavan: I'm the chairman and CEO of ICF International, a public company traded on NASDAQ, under the symbol ICFI.

You went public a couple of years ago. Tell us about that process and how it has helped the company.

Sudhakar Kesavan: We undertook a public offering so we [could] continue to grow and invest in our people and our business. Raising capital through a public offering moves us toward achieving our goal of becoming a more dominant player in our markets. The funds from this offering have improved our capital structure and our ability to invest in our business. Being a public company has also made it easier to attract and compensate the best people to work for ICF. Our performance after the public offering has been strong.

What are the major business areas of ICF?

Sudhakar Kesavan: We work on the most critical issues of our time. The markets we serve include energy and climate change; environment and infrastructure; health and human services; and homeland security and defense.

You cannot pick up the newspaper today without reading something about energy prices, energy security, climate change regulation, disaster preparedness and healthcare reform. We work in all these areas. We believe our in-depth expertise in these areas positions us for strong future growth.

What is your approach in the marketplace to help distinguish ICF?

Sudhakar Kesavan: Throughout our 40-year history we have established our reputation as a trusted advisor in our domain areas of expertise. More recently, we have begun to encourage our clients to not only take our advice, but also use our services to implement that advice. We have taken a more holistic approach by integrating our advisory services work with implementation offerings in areas such as IT, program management, and human capital strategies, to create a more seamless project experience for our clients. We have an historical understanding of their business because we have advised them for decades. We believe that these insights, coupled with our implementation expertise, allow us to achieve results for our clients in a cost-effective way. I don't have to tell you about the history of technology implementation projects which failed because the execution was not sensitive to the mission of the client. Our clients can be assured of achieving the desired results because we have understood their needs, challenges, and most importantly, their goals and objectives.

What is your biggest challenge in business today?

Sudhakar Kesavan: I think our biggest challenge, as [it is] for all professional services firms, is recruiting and retaining quality people. We want our employees to see this as a career choice and not just a job. I believe we are doing well in overcoming this challenge as we've recently received a number of awards for our talent development and training programs; our comparatively low turnover rate; and the long tenure of our senior staff. We are proud of the fact that our employee turnover rates are the lowest amongst our public company peers.

Tell us about your green practices and the background behind that. How is that working for the company?

Sudhakar Kesavan: We have a long history of working on energy and environmental issues. We traditionally have been quite focused on making sure that we practice what we preach. So what we are trying to do is make sure that when we talk about doing something in an energy efficient way, we not only advise others on how to do it, but also do it ourselves.

Our green practices are not new. For example, in our headquarters office we have installed energy efficient technologies. When I walk out of my office, the sensors will shut off the lights in a few minutes“”same with our computers and hand-held devices automatically switching to a hibernate mode. It makes economic sense to engage in these practices. After all, why pay more for something when you can pay less? ICF also encourages public transportation by providing employees transit benefits for using mass transit rather than automobiles. And we have a robust telecommuting program. We do many things, which I've traditionally encouraged, to reduce our environmental footprint. In addition, this year we became the first professional services firm to become carbon neutral, by following a variety of energy efficient practices and filling in the gap through the purchase of high quality carbon offsets. We are committed to maintaining carbon neutrality as we grow.

Your company has been active in three acquisitions recently. What is your strategy, in going forward in “˜08 in regards to acquisitions?

Sudhakar Kesavan: Our acquisition strategy has two objectives: expand our advisory capabilities and bring scale to our implementation capabilities. When I say implementation, I'm referring to program management, IT services, human capital services, and training and technical assistance in the areas of our expertise.

We've made three acquisitions in the past year. Last June, we acquired Z-Tech, a health services and health IT firm. We are very pleased that the Z-Tech staff decided to join us and are very encouraged by their performance subsequently. Last November, we acquired SH&E, the world's leading air transport consulting firm. ICF's climate change expertise combined with SH&E's air transport expertise will become increasingly important as airlines and airports are likely to be part of the emissions trading system that will evolve over the next few years. The European Union has already said that any airline flying to Europe starting in 2012 will have to offset their emissions under the EU's emissions trading system. We will leverage SH&E client relationships to expand our climate change work globally. We will also take SH&E's understanding of the air transportation business to our federal clients. Our third acquisition this January of Jones & Stokes will expand our natural resource and environmental management capabilities significantly, and will give us much greater presence throughout the western United States.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Sudhakar Kesavan: When you grow up in a consulting firm environment you don't have that much of a hierarchy. Our people here know the business “” we operate with a consensus-driven style, and we do the things that we believe are right. Given that we have a highly trained workforce, it is not difficult to communicate with our employees.

What will the company look like in 2 years?

Sudhakar Kesavan: Our goal is to be a billion dollar provider in the next few years. That scale will allow us to compete more effectively in our client markets, especially the federal government. So for us to stay competitive, we have to grow through continued organic growth and through acquisitions. We are growing rapidly and we hope to continue the pace.

How do you describe the culture at ICF?

Sudhakar Kesavan: The culture is quite informal and hard working. A certain value system has evolved over the history of the firm that has built a culture of trust, mutual respect, honesty, and integrity “” traits that are highly-valued by our leadership and our clients. ICF promotes a culture of collaboration where our talented employees are motivated by seeing their work make a measurable difference. We have a very diverse employee base. Our employees represent a wide range of experience, education, and ethnic backgrounds, which allows for different perspectives in our work teams. We know that a diverse employee base is a powerful resource for solving the most complex problems for our clients. We strive to create an environment “” from offering excellent benefits, to supporting continuing education, to providing social activities “” to keep employees interested and passionate about their work.

What advise would you give a small business that wanted to partner with ICF?

Sudhakar Kesavan: We welcome partnerships. We have partnered with small businesses over the history of the firm, and for the past several years have kept a “Partners Database“ on our web site where we encourage small businesses to register with us. We are always looking for ways to partner, because we believe one of our responsibilities is to be a mentor to small businesses. For a successful teaming opportunity, the business should have a specific skill set that adds to our capabilities and sets us apart from the competition.

What is something most people are surprised to learn about your company?

Sudhakar Kesavan: Generally, what most surprises people around town is that ICF has been around for 40 years. I think our rapid growth over the last few years and the fact we have such a diverse business in the areas of energy, environment, transportation, health, and human services always tends to surprise people. Most people think Washington, D.C. only has defense and pure IT services firms. Yet we are considered leaders in our areas of expertise. People are also surprised that we have a strong presence overseas.

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

Sudhakar Kesavan: I was an extra in the movie “Gandhi,“ and I had a great time during the filming of it. I met Richard Attenborough, Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen and all sorts of other Hollywood and Bollywood types! It was interesting, to say the least.

Interview with Sudhakar Kesavan conducted by JD Kathuria

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