Executive Spotlight: Chris LeGrand, Futures Group CEO Talks about a Recent Merger, Informatics and More

Chris LeGrand is president and CEO of Futures Group, where he works with foreign aid agencies, foundations and other partners to improve the health of people in countries across the globe.

The 25-year industry vet previously served as president of Constella Groups public sector business, including its domestic U.S. public health unit and international health development unit.

In his Q&A with ExecutiveBiz, LeGrand spoke about the importance of Futures Group’s mission, the company’s recent merger with Australian-based GRM International, and the use of informatics and mobile technology to improve health in developing countries.

ExecutiveBiz: Can you describe your position as CEO of Futures Group and describe some of the strengths of the company?

Chris LeGrand: Futures Group is a 41-year-old company that does international development, so we get contracts from governments in the developed world, like the U.S. and the British governments, to go into the developing world and help those governments implement better health programs for their citizens. I run that company, and I’ve been leading it for about six years now.

We have operations globally in about 35 countries.  And we do that with about 530 staff in those countries.  The strengths of Futures Group include having a very, very deep technical expertise in particular areas around public health and public health programs in the developing world.

Another one of our key strengths is that we deliver our programs largely through local staff in the countries where we work.  While we do send expats into the field, most of the staff who we hire and who run our programs are actually local country nationals.  We think that’s hugely beneficial to those countries because they get on-the-ground, tailored solutions that make sense for their particular country.  It also helps build the long-term capacity of those countries to be able to run health programs for themselves.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  What are some of the countries you do work in and how would a group of staff be organized in that country?

Chris LeGrand:  Our single largest country operation is India.  We have about 80 staff in India.  We also have large operations in Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, and Guatemala, and have a growing presence in a number of other African countries, for example, Nigeria.

In terms of the way we are organized, for example, in India, we would have a country director who runs all of our day-to-day programs, who has accountability for staff and local client relationships.  They would have a reporting line into one of our global technical centers for additional access to technical expertise globally, and for additional oversight.  But we really do believe in our country operations being semi-autonomous.  We’ve empowered them to run their local projects.

We put good systems and structures in place to make sure that there’s visibility and transparency, and that things are run in ways that meet the highest level of standards a U.S. government contractor would have to have.  We believe that’s a good balance of being able to provide local empowerment, while also providing a governance framework that ensures our taxpayer dollars are well-taken care of and we derive the maximum benefit for our client’s precious resources.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  What are some of the major growth drivers in the company and some contracts you are excited about?

Chris LeGrand: For major growth drivers, there are several factors. While our largest client today for Futures Group is the U.S. government, we see tremendous growth opportunities providing that support for the British government and the Australian government. Both of these governments are doing a significant amount of work in the developing world and they are making tangible progress in helping developing countries develop.

The British government and the Australian government are very dedicated to increasing their commitment, and so we see great opportunity there for us to be a major player in both of those markets.

We also see another trend with what you might call non-traditional donors.  They include foundations or even purely private sector companies that have a stake in a particular country developing its infrastructure.  An example might be an oil company that wants to do work in developing country and sees the benefit in funding the kinds of development work that Futures Group does. We see a real opportunity to tap those resources and help with programs in developing countries on behalf of these non-traditional donors.

The other area that I’m personally very excited about because it’s my own background is the area of informatics. We leverage state-of-the-art information technology in developing countries, in our case, to further health initiatives. We see just huge, huge potential to leapfrog some of the technologies used in the developed world in the last 30 years and use very modern mobile health, eHealth technologies. These tools can help to get information in the hands of consumers in developing countries and local government officials, who can make better decisions on how to use their resources.

There is just a huge untapped potential to be able to leverage technology in that way, and we think Futures Group is in a great position to take advantage of that trend, and really be a trend setter in putting new technologies in the hands of citizens in developing countries.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  How does Futures Group use informatics to improve health in the countries you work in?

Chris LeGrand:  Futures Group has developed an informatics platform to capture, manage, and deliver health data in health facilities in developing countries.  We have our platform running in around 400 different facilities around Africa and a couple outside of Africa as well.

That technology allows us to collect health data about patients in very rural, very remote parts of Africa so that a clinical facility that’s treating them can better track those patients and get them better treatment.

That information also can be combined with other information to allow decision makers at government level to make better decisions on where to put their resources.  It’s all built on open source technology. It’s free and it was developed specifically with the developing context in mind. We developed the technology so that it’s very thin, very light, very easy to operate in remote settings. It doesn’t require heavy duty power, doesn’t require huge database resources and is not very intensive in terms of processing speeds, for example.

We think this is the wave of the future. Now we are doing work on mobile applications because many citizens in African countries and other developing countries have mobile phones.  They may not have a landline.  They may not have a lot of other things. They may not even have a computer, but a lot of people have mobile phones.  If you can deliver applications that work in a mobile environment in Africa, it’s hugely powerful to be able to put resources in the hands of citizens and their governments.

 

ExecutiveBiz: Futures Group merged with Australian-based GRM international in 2011. How has it impacted your company’s scope and offerings? 

Chris LeGrand:  The merger between Futures Group and GRM International was about creating synergistic growth opportunities for both companies that neither organization could have realistically executed without the other.  GRM is focused on development, so they understand the type of work we do in developing countries, but they work almost exclusively in sectors other than health.  From that perspective, it is a great, complimentary relationship.

GRM provides support to the Australian government, and secondarily, to the British government.  Those are their two major clients.  They were doing no work for the U.S. government at all.  So Futures Group provides a great avenue to take their capabilities in sectors other than health and build out our portfolio of business with U.S. government funding.

And then the counterpart of that is true. The Australian government and then the British government are dramatically growing their spending in development, and GRM had really no health presence.  We believe that, combined with their understanding of those two clients and our health capabilities, we can substantially grow our health portfolio of projects with the British government and the Australian government.

So it’s all about synergistic growth.  We’re already starting to see the fruits of these synergies.  We’ve started to grow our work with the British government in areas that we would not have been well-positioned for otherwise.  And we’re also looking at some non-health activities with the U.S. governments that we believe we are well-positioned for with GRM’s corporate capacity.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  How is your company adapting to the current budget environment and possible sequestration? 

Chris LeGrand:  We’ve been looking at these kinds of trends for a couple of years, knowing it was likely that the U.S. government was going to have to trim budgets, but not knowing whether reductions would be in development or not.  One of the key reasons that I started looking to create a partnership with a firm in Australia was to diversify our portfolio so that we weren’t so dependent on the U.S. government for our contracts.

The U.S. government is still the largest contracting entity in the international development sector and they will continue to be a major client for Futures Group. But a couple of years ago, we really saw a diversification as a critical strategy for the company.  We think we’re in a great position now to weather the current budget environment.

We also think that, in the end, cooler heads will prevail.  While many government agencies will probably have some reductions, we see real value in how foreign assistance funds are spent and it provides a real strategic asset to U.S. governments as a complement to our foreign policy and our defense policy.  It is a really critical component of what the U.S. government is trying to do abroad.  We don’t think there are going to be dramatic cuts in the foreign assistance in the end.

 

ExecutiveBiz: What lessons have you learned from your career in government contracting management? 

Chris LeGrand:  So many lessons.  A theme that I’ve learned over the years that applies not just for U.S. government contracting, but also for any client in the services business, and that is us ultimately we’re in the business of selling our people.  We have to create an environment where we can attract, retain and develop top talent globally.  It never pays in the long run to try to short-change your employees. You have to create a great environment for them to foster what they want to be doing and flourish in your organization.  A really important piece of what I try to do is to help connect our people to our people strategy and to our business strategy.

Another lesson I have learned everyday is about being a complete business leader.  Looking for and trying to develop as a complete business leader is very important, and it’s in some ways sort of like looking for the Holy Grail.

In terms of looking for top talent, we’re trying to look for people who are well-rounded leaders. They could be 22 years old or they could be 60 years old. We’re looking for individuals who can be developed into well-rounded leaders, who are strong technically, who can manage and delight clients, and who can build good client relationships. They must know how to grow the business, be business savvy and financially savvy, and know how to successfully manage projects financially.  They also must be strong people managers, who can get the best out of the people who they’re working with.

For me personally, sometimes people inside the company can’t see what you need to see or can’t give you the feedback that you might need.  So it’s tremendously valuable to have an outside perspective.  I’ve had an executive coach for about 10 years now and she’s made an enormous difference in my life in both personally and professionally in helping me grow and develop as a leader. And she can be straight with me and call me on things if I’m not living up to what I say I am as a leader.  And I just think that’s something that’s noteworthy for any leader.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  What do you think are some of your biggest personal accomplishments at Futures Group? 

Chris LeGrand:  In the last 10 years, Futures Group grew dramatically and then went through a wave of changes. The company was purchased in 2005, purchased again in 2007, divested in 2008 and then merged again in 2011.  There has been a lot of corporate structural change.

I think the thing I’m proudest of from the last five or six years is that we’ve been able to really maintain the essence of who Futures Group is and has always been in the marketplace. We are deeply technical, highly data-driven, and highly flexible and nimble with our client relationships.  It’s been a challenge and an achievement to maintain this through all of the changes. When we divested Futures Group with a management buy-out in 2008, we basically had to put back in place all of the infrastructure, all of the underpinnings of how you run the company. We had to do this while preserving the technical work we were doing, reestablishing Futures Group’s place in the world, and rebuilding its reputation.

We were able to do all of that while putting the corporate underpinning back in place to make sure we could make the payroll, service our debts, and reestablish the company’s growth path.  I’m really happy about how we navigated this process, and that we were now able to find a merger partner in GRM.  I think it was the right time, and GRM is a great partner to be connecting up with.  I think the future is very bright.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  Were there any accomplishments in your broader career that you wanted to touch on? 

Chris LeGrand:  Everything I’ve done in the last 25 years, I view as an ongoing leadership journey. I have never stopped learning. I’m never done.  I’ve never felt like I arrived.  I always try to tell myself and others, at the point that you think you’ve arrived, then you definitely have not.

I’m proud that I just kept moving, learning and growing in a wide variety of settings. I am proud  that people would look at me and say, “He’s somebody I want to work with or work for. He’s somebody who is authentic and passionate about what he does. He may not make all the right decisions, but those decisions have integrity behind them.”

I feel that I’ve had a career that I can, at some point, wind down and look back and say I made a difference, made a lasting impact on a set of companies, and more importantly, made an impact on a set of people and not just in the U.S., but globally.

I think I was really intended to help connect people globally.  Futures Group is really a great platform for me to be able to do that.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance? 

Chris LeGrand:  I am pretty careful about ensuring that I spend, not just quality time, but also quantity time with my family.  I do travel extensively.  But when I am not on the road, I absolutely carve out time to go to my kids’ cross-country meets, to go to my daughter’s vocal performances, to take a day off and take her on a college visit, to spend time with my wife planning our future.

I do think that time will get away from you if you don’t block it out.  The way I plan out my days and weeks involves explicitly planning those things into my life.

I also am very intentional about continuing to exercise and try to stay healthy.  I have a history of heart disease in my family.  I’m very cognizant of the fact that I want to hang around for a long time and see my kids grow up.  And so, I’m pretty careful.

You’d actually see that in my calendar, I block out time to go to the gym, and I block out time to play tennis.  It doesn’t always work every day or every week.  But, I think I’m pretty happy with where it is right now.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  Futures Group actually goes into the developing world and helps communities help individuals.  I was wondering if you have any touching human interest stories that Futures Group was involved with? 

Chris LeGrand:  India is one of my favorite countries to go to.  It’s our largest operation.  I have a lot of personal interest there as well.

We just completed a large, long-term project in India where we were working to help create public-private partnerships between the Indian government and the private sector in health, in medical care.

In India, the public health systems are woefully underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded.  And private health facilities, hospitals, and clinics, and doctor’s offices are uneven, but generally much, much better.

One of my favorite stories is about a public-private partnership program that we worked on.  We helped to create a voucher program where a poor rural pregnant woman could use a voucher from the Indian government, take that voucher for giving birth and go into a private health care clinic. That woman would have otherwise probably given birth in her home or at a public facility where she might not have even gotten to see a doctor for days.  She might have waited in line for two days.

I met a woman when I went to visit one of those clinics up in Northern India, who had had a C-section when she got into the private clinic.  She had brought her voucher in.  She had come in and the baby had issues, so she had a C-section in the private facility.  She and the baby were doing just fine.  They’d just given birth the day before I was there.

There is no doubt in my mind that mother and that child would have died if the woman had tried to give birth in her village or even in a public facility.  That program literally saved that woman’s life and that’s just one example of many like that. That woman and millions like her are why we do what we do.

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