Tom McCabe, general counsel at Alion, says company legal departments often have the unfair reputation for taking forever just to say no. Not so at Alion. “We'll never say no; we say: “˜Here's a better way to do it,'“ McCabe told ExecutiveBiz.
He shares what a day in the life of a GC is like, along with how companies avoid the legal “train wrecks.“
ExecutiveBiz: Could you tell me a little about your background and how you came to be at Alion?
Tom McCabe: I've been a general counsel at a number of public companies as well as president and CEO of several companies. I’ve always been interested in both law and business, and I've served simultaneously in both legal and business roles. Immediately prior to Alion, I was at a small public company, Braintech, where I was GC as well and founding president of its federal division, which we grew from almost nothing to close to $1 million in the first year. It was a fascinating business; automated vision software which enabled robots to see, think and react like human beings. We took this initially automotive technology into the military world. We were working with the Office of Naval Research and BAE Systems to construct a robotic device to assemble bombs on nuclear powered carriers. It was very exciting and cutting edge. Not many GCs get to work in the bomb magazine of the USS Eisenhower learning the intricacies of how 2,000-pound bombs are assembled. One day, I received a call from a recruiting firm saying that Alion was looking for a GC with an MBA who had also run businesses. Curiously, Braintech and Alion were in the same building at the time. I took the elevator up to the 13th floor to Alion and immediately fell in love with the creativity that I found there. For a nearly $1 billion company, Alion is amazingly nimble and inventive. The next thing I knew, I was GC of Alion.
ExecutiveBiz: Could you describe what your duties are like as GC? What is a day in the life like?
Tom McCabe: I have a wide range of responsibilities. In addition to law, I am responsible for mergers and acquisitions. We had two transactions in my first two quarters here. I am also responsible for ethics and security. Last quarter, Alion added Internal Audit and Export Compliance under me, and we do a lot of international work. So, I need to keep things moving quickly to stay on top of all of these areas.
ExecutiveBiz: Because of the economic climate, many government contractors say it is a time of increased competition. Does that mean an increased work load for company general counsels, too?
Tom McCabe: It certainly does because the margin of error is very slim and companies cannot afford to lose. We win a lot of bids, but we often find ourselves tied up in protest activity because there are fewer larger programs out there and the companies that lose feel they have no choice but to protest. This puts an increased burden on the legal department. Our philosophy is to be preemptive. From the start of any activity, we work closely with the business folks to keep things on track and to reduce the likelihood of running across any landmines, so that we all get to the goal of winning and successfully executing on our contracts.
ExecutiveBiz: What do you think is the secret, if there is one, to successfully leading a company's legal team?
Tom McCabe: It's really pretty easy; just get the best legal team you can. One of the wonderful things about Alion that attracted me was the great legal team that I inherited. I have two deputy general counsels that are first class. Josh Izenberg handles the corporate side. Last year, he put together a $300 million bond offering with our finance team here. It was particularly impressive to achieve this in the midst of the ‘Great Recession.’ This put Alion on great financial footing. With that level of capability in-house, it's simply a question of supporting the great people you have. We have similar expertise on the operations side, where Jesse Watters is our deputy general counsel. Government contracting firms are highly regulated, and the rules get more complex and voluminous on a daily basis. Things that are perfectly acceptable in the commercial world, such as classic sales puffery, for example, could even be criminal in a government contracting context. We rely on Jesse very heavily. I'm very fortunate to have a great team here, and that's really the secret.
ExecutiveBiz: Do you have any other thoughts to add on how it is different working with the government contracting firm compared to practicing other types of corporate law?
Tom McCabe: Government contractors have to be extremely pro-active with compliance program, ethics training and risk mitigation of all kinds. We have a variety of training programs here, and we're constantly auditing and checking ourselves. In such a highly regulated industry, you can't afford slipups. We make sure that every aspect of our business is run absolutely legally and ethically.
ExecutiveBiz: What do you think are some misconceptions about general counsels or government contracting legal teams?
Tom McCabe: In some companies you hear, “˜Whatever you do, don't take it to Legal, you won't hear back for many months and then they'll just say no.' In prior jobs, I was responsible for sales, operations and the entire P&L, so I feel their pain when they come in here. I know how difficult it is to bring in new business. My whole department shares this philosophy – we facilitate winning and fulfilling the business objective – of course in the proper way. We'll never say no, we say: ‘Here's a better way to do it.’ We get them to the same goal even faster, and we avoid the train wrecks.
ExecutiveBiz: Do you have any outside hobbies or anything you like to do when you are off the clock?
Tom McCabe: I like to run in the woods. Last summer, my buddies and I formed a team to run the Blue Ridge Relay, a 208 mile race through the mountains of western North Carolina. Running 36 hours straight, you fight sleep deprivation and hunger. You run in the dark with a flashing reflective vest, avoiding bears and dodging errant pickup trucks on remote country roads. It was an invigorating and hilarious experience. After that, I was definitely ready to come back to work!
ExecutiveBiz: Is there anything you would like to add?
Tom McCabe: I feel fortunate to be here at Alion. The culture is intellectually stimulating and vibrant. Other companies compliment us on our openness and our focus on getting the best answer for the customer. We don't have a ‘not invented here’ mentality, and frankly that's our value. We are the honest broker that recommends the best solution, whether it's electromagnetic or nuclear or cyber. We don't sell prepackaged hardware or products, and our scientists are cross-trained in a variety of disciplines, so they don't give a stovepipe solution that considers only one area of expertise. For me, it's really stimulating and enjoyable. Every day, I learn some new technology because we have so many creative Ph.D.s here who are pushing the envelope. It's just a great place to work.