Retired Navy Vice Adm. Lou Crenshaw is national leader for the aerospace and defense industry market at Grant Thornton, where he serves as a principal at the global audit, tax and advisory firm.
Previously, he led engagements with the Defense Department as lead for the defense and intelligence sector. The 30-year Navy veteran served in budgeting and financial operations within several commands during his military career.
He recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz about his experiences in the public and private sectors, his new position duties and how sectors can shape themselves for success despite budget setbacks.
ExecutiveBiz: What does your duty overseeing engagement with defense and intel communities entail and what services does Grant Thornton provide to those sectors?
Lou Crenshaw: My role changed with GT changed in January. I previously ran the defense and intelligence sector within the public sector business. I've since moved to the commercial side of the firm where I am the national leader for the aerospace and defense industry. I currently have a foot in the public sector and commercial camps and have done work in government, for government and now in the commercial sector.
Although the day-to-day responsibility for defense and intelligence has transferred to another partner, I still stay involved and help with relationship management. I also provide expertise in senior level advisory boards for several of the engagements that we have throughout the federal space.
The Grant Thornton public sector practice handles all of the work with the federal government, state and local governments and international organizations such as the United Nations and International Monetary Fund. The global public sector services mirrors the rest of the firm. We provide a full range of audit and advisory services, including human capital strategy.
Organizational efficiency and business process improvement is another key focus of ours. We help clients measure and improve performance and manage cost, which dovetails quite nicely in our organizational improvement piece. We do information technology program management and because of our strong independent, public accounting roots, we can act as an honest broker for clients buying or implementing major technology or software.
We now provide audit services to the Defense Department and U.S. Marine Corps. We also do a variety of audit work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and audit readiness work in several parts of the federal government.
We're obviously known as a commercial tax firm and do a lot of tax work. Probably a little bit lesser-known part of Grant Thornton is our business advisory services. Through our transaction advisory services, we assist in mergers and acquisitions for firms that want to be bought and firms that want to buy. We also have a robust corporate advisory and restructuring practice, including a strong emphasis on risk management.
ExecutiveBiz: What perspective does your experience working on the public and private sector side of the business provide you in carrying out your day-to-day duties?
Lou Crenshaw: I came from a world of spending money into a world of making money for a living, and it's quite a huge change. When I was in the Navy, I was working with $130 billion to spend in usually about 300 days. It's hard to spend that kind of money and a whole heck of a lot harder to make even a fraction of that.
That gives me a good sense of what the needs of the clients are when I go over to the Pentagon, because I do understand the planning, programming, budgeting and execution system, which is unlike anything else. The budget management techniques that you might use for a $20 million business are completely different than what you use for a $130 billion business.
There's no shortage of good people on in the public and private sectors. We've got some good people here at global public sector that have a strong sense of civic duty, serving the U.S. and helping the government do things better. I enjoy working with them and having an exchange of ideas between these groups of good people. I feel very blessed and lucky to be able to have served on one side and then to be able to translate for the other.
Frequently you hear the phrase, “What are those guys thinking over there?“ I can provide some perspective on what “they“ are thinking. To our government clients I can bring them the private sector perspective, while at the same time helping our commercial clients understand the factors driving government actions. For example, the mission motive in DoD is in many ways analogous to the profit motive in industry and can explain why certain decisions are made which might not make sense in the private sector. Knowing when to draw parallels and when not to draw parallels between those two worlds has been interesting challenge for me.
ExecutiveBiz: What were some of the more memorable or potentially challenging experiences you gained while serving in the Navy?
Lou Crenshaw: People always ask if I miss being in the Navy. The answer is: I miss the Navy, but not necessarily the day-to-day issues I was dealing with. But, the event in my life that had the most profound impact on me and carried through in my military career and now my civilian career was having command at sea. I was lucky to command in a variety of capacities. Each one was very rewarding.
My first tour as a squadron commanding officer had the most profound impact on me throughout my life, primarily because it was a combat tour during the first Desert Storm. Soon after assuming command, I was informed that instead of the expected 18-month turnaround time , we were being deployed in four months. We had to pack a whole bunch of work into a small amount of time.
It's always an honor and a privilege to command these great men and women that serve in our armed forces, but to see them operating in combat conditions made a difference for me. Going in, I had my vision of whom my good people were and who I thought would be average performers. As Commanding Officer I was constantly ranking all of my officers. As a result of observing them in combat operations, my whole ranking structure changed.
The people who I thought were going to be really good in combat turned not to be so good in some cases and vice versa. I changed my outlook on what's important and the way I do business.
ExecutiveBiz: How has your induction as a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration been beneficial to you?
Lou Crenshaw: It's one of the two highlights of my post-military career. I was very much honored and humbled when my fellow partners in the firm approached me and asked me to join the partnership. The NAPA nomination was the second highlight. The list of the fellows is a prestigious, knowledgeable, famous group, and I sometimes wonder how I found my way in there.
It's opened up a new access point to different thinking. In the Defense Department, you tend to forget that there are other parts of the federal government from which you can learn. One of the big benefits I've found as a fellow is having that access to those senior leaders in the public sector elsewhere in government. They bring an incredibly rich treasure-trove of experience and a sense of continuity. I try to access that expertise and am beginning to pass some of those ideas on to Pentagon.
I was in a workshop the other day. We discussed the senior executive service and how that was coming along for the federal government. It was fascinating to be able to sit in the same room with several of the architects of the SES system and hear what they had originally envisioned and see what it has morphed into. Having access to that intellectual capital has been professionally rewarding and intellectually invigorating.
ExecutiveBiz: In what areas do you see the government budget increasing or decreasing and how will this affect the contracting community?
Lou Crenshaw: Everybody has an opinion on what's hot and what's not in government. One of the things I think I've learned over the years is things change and things don't change. I like to focus less on the “eaches“ and think more about the enduring foundations upon which the government rests and what their implications are to future business.
There's a universal desire for better government. Whether it's business process improvement, accountability or wrestling with information technology game changers, that holds true. IT in general and cyber are hot topics of the day. IT is really the enduring foundation of innovation, which I think the government is based upon. People forget that a huge percentage of the innovation that has benefited the U.S. has actually come from within government.
If it has to deal with doing things better, downsizing and still doing the same work, helping the government be more accountable or deal with IT and rapidly changing mediums, then those are areas upon which to focus. The government rewards innovation of all kinds, not just technical ones. I think being on the forefront of innovation, regardless of area, is very smart.
There's also a general tenor across both sides of the aisle that the government is too big and I believe there will be plenty of opportunities to look at reforming the structure and process of government, regardless of the upcoming election results.
So, my advice, for both commercial and public sector, is number one: focus on the foundations. While you need to keep an eye on the little distractions that come up, I think if you focus on the foundations you'll be better off.
I'm an aviator. One of the things we do is called an instrument scan. While we look at all the instruments from time to time, there are a few, key instruments that we constantly revisit. The same thing is true for providing services to the government. We need to keep that scan going and focus more on those foundational issues of accountability, transparency and efficiency and less on the crisis of the day.
The second thing is to listen to what the customer says. We often spend too much time talking and not enough time listening to our clients. One of the most successful business meetings you can have is when you go in with a listening mindset. You can go then take what you heard, thoughtfully consider what they have said and actually add value to their business and yours too.