An FFRDC is a unique organization that assists the government with scientific research and analysis, development and acquisition, systems engineering and integration. MITRE operates five FFRDCs for government agencies.
Kontos joined the company in 2005 and currently serves as senior vice president and chief financial officer for the corporation, based in McLean, Va. and Bedford, Mass. Prior to joining MITRE, he worked for Battelle Memorial Institute, AK Steel Corp. and Citicorp.
Kontos recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz about the services MITRE provides for the federal government, hotspots in new technological developments and lessons he’s learned throughout his career.
ExecutiveBiz: Give our readers an overview of your role with MITRE.
Mark Kontos: I’m primarily responsible for ensuring MITRE’s financial strength, which I see as having two components. First is the responsibility that I have to ensure the company has access to capital, that it’s meeting its reporting, compliance and regulatory obligations, and managing its debt.
The second is being a service provider to the organization and its individual operating businesses. In that capacity, I oversee the company’s business and management processes, its financial information systems, performance metrics, budgeting, strategic planning, and decision support systems.
ExecutiveBiz: What would you highlight as strategic gains you’ve had a direct hand in since joining MITRE nearly seven years ago?
Kontos: My first priority was to improve the data systems so that we could expand our capacity to analyze information. I wanted us to make better business decisions that were more based on data and modeling.
My team and I also looked at our budgeting process and introduced a more rigorous process that was driven by business strategies. As part of this process, we also increased the use of performance metrics so that we could measure how well we were keeping to our budget targets and thus meeting our strategic expectations.
Being more strategically focused has enabled us to be clearer about our goals and the business and financial outcomes we want to achieve. We then turned our attention to really understanding the composition of our cost structure and how that drives the unit price that we charge our customers.
This led to two results. First, we really took a hard look at our costs, and by eliminating costs that were not strategically important or adding value to our customers’ outcomes, we’ve been able to keep our unit price essentially flat for the last four years. We’re quite proud of this.
Second, in the process of looking at our price and how it relates to value, we began to rethink how we deliver our services to our customers. In the last year, we’ve changed the way we engage with our customers. We’ve increased our focus on achieving outcomes that advance our customers’ missions and generally upped the tempo of how and where and to whom we deliver value for the price that we charge.
ExecutiveBiz: Explain MITRE’s partnership with the government as a manager of federally funded R&D centers and its overall purpose.
Kontos: We manage five federally funded research and development centers for different agencies of the government: the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. federal court system and one co-sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service and the Veterans Administration.
FFRDCs are designed to bridge capability gaps between the expertise that the government has and expertise that exists in private industry. For example, the government might turn to an FFRDC when it needs a new technology to access, acquire, manage, advance, or integrate into its existing systems. In cases where the government doesn’t have the in-house expertise, it would look to an FFRDC to provide objective and independent advice.
To do that effectively, the government needs to rely on an entity that is unencumbered by competing or conflicting interest. Managers of FFRDCs are not-for-profits and they generally don’t offer other products and services. For example, we can’t manufacture products. We can’t compete with industry for business. And we’re prohibited from working or partnering with commercial companies. When the government is accessing, managing, introducing, or integrating new technologies, we sit with them and help them analyze the data to make informed decisions.
What we’re able to do working in this environment is to support government agencies across a full spectrum of planning, concept development, research and development, systems acquisitions, systems integration and change management. Ultimately they will acquire and implement those technologies from industry, but the process of getting to that purchase and integrating it into their legacy systems is something that FFRDCs can and do help them with.
Moreover, because FFRDCs are committed to working in the public interest, they tend to serve as a long-term strategic partner with their sponsoring agencies. FFRDCs have access to information and people within the government that is not available to the private industry because of potential conflicts of interest. FFRDCs must comply with strict conflict of interest rules because of the unique role they provide for the federal government.
ExecutiveBiz: In what areas has MITRE seen major interest from the government in technological developments?
Kontos: One area is bio detection. We’re teaming up with Palo Alto Research Center to develop a handheld bio threat detection sensor. We’re combining existing technologies and sampling techniques to identify a variety of biological and chemical agents in the soil, the air or water. We haven’t completed the research yet, but the holy grail of bio detection is to be able to do something quickly and portably. Assuming we can accomplish that, it will be a huge advantage to first responders.
Another area we’re working on is forming the Government Mobile Applications Group. This is a community of interests that looks at open source methods of creating mobile apps on your iPhone or iPad or Android that you can use in the field. We brought together people from Apple, Google and Microsoft, along with other military contractors and senior government representatives. One of the first things they worked on was an application that brings in information from the battlefield onto a soldier’s or commander’s iPhone.
With a few simple keystrokes an army commander can input real-time map or battle data into his iPhone, instantly update friendly forces in the area and identify where threats might be. It’s that kind of bridging that MITRE’s and others’ FFRDCs can bring together with commercial off-the-shelf technologies to provide real substantive advantage to the warfighter in the field.
ExecutiveBiz: How does the government find skilled individuals to fill these R&D centers?
Kontos: When the government has a particular problem that needs the help of an FFRDC to solve, an agency will ask us to help them solve that problem. When we’re on a particular project, MITRE employees work on it. We will occasionally contract out work, but the vast majority of what we do is done by MITRE employees. That’s one of the hallmarks of an FFRDC. At MITRE, we tend to attract very high-level talent, averaging 24 years of work experience.
ExecutiveBiz: How has your past experience with companies like Battelle, AK Steel and Citicorp helped you transition into your current executive role at MITRE?
Kontos: I’ve learned two important lessons from all of my experiences.
First I’ve learned that there’s always room for improvement. There’s always something that can be done to improve the way the organization operates or that has to occur for the organization to respond to what’s happening among its customers or the larger outside world. Customer requirements are constantly changing, and organizations have to change to meet the requirements of its customers. The fact that change is constant and that change management is part of the role of an executive leader is an important lesson.
The second thing I’ve learned is that one of the best ways to lead an organization is to set expectations. Once you set expectations, it’s almost universal that people within the organization will meet them.