Debbie Thurman serves as vice president of contracts and procurement at URS’ federal services division.
The 24-year U.S. Air Force veteran joined URS in July 2012 after spending more than seven years with ManTech International.
She spoke with ExecutiveBiz about how the current budget environment changes her responsibilities, how her federal experience helps make her a better executive and how the procurement process works from her point of view.
ExecutiveBiz: Please describe your position at URS Federal Services and summarize your responsibilities as a contracting executive?
Debbie Thurman: I’ve been at URS now since mid-July last year. I retired from the Air Force in 1997 while assigned to the NRO, so I have about 15-plus years now with industry, giving me business perspective from both the Government and contractor viewpoints. I serve as vice president of contracts and procurement for the division and report to the Executive VP of Operations. In this role, I’m responsible for all actions related to contracts, subcontracts, purchasing, all aspects of procurement/supply chain management, export control, and GSA schedule management also falls under my organization. These responsibilities are quite consistent with what I’ve seen from my peers across the industry, including the close working relationship that is required between my organization and the line operations that are supporting our customers.
This is extremely important as I see contracting and our goals as much more operational than functional in terms of the way we operate. For instance, my staff and I work daily not just with the internal staff but with our external customers; including participation on customer visits. The bottom line is while we may not be responsible for a profit and loss center, we do work closely with the operational staff that does have that responsibility and we have direct impact on the company’s success in mitigating risk, developing relationships with the customers and doing the kind of things that we can from a contractual perspective to make sure we meet P&L goals & objectives.
ExecutiveBiz: How do you organize a large and geographically dispersed staff to best manage all those contracts?
Thurman: It’s not easy; the division itself has about 13,000 employees, so my organization is a small portion of the total but is engaged in efforts that span every market, customer and geographical area, in fact, together with the operational team, they’re located at multiple geographical sites across the country and overseas as well.
I have a VP of contracts who reports to me for each one of the three operating groups within the division and then those VPs have managers under them who share the responsibility for the day-to-day operations. I also have a director of GSA Schedules who’s located in our Germantown, Maryland office who manages all of the activities related to maintaining our schedules.
From a Contracts Compliance perspective, I have a VP who handles all of the audits and interfaces with our ACO, DCAA, DCMA and other audit agencies, as well as internal audits. Given the current oversight environment, you really have to have an expert that you can depend on to respond to the many requests, particularly when the staff is disparately located across many geographical sites where we may need to pull the requested data from.
I also try to visit my staff at the various locations as often as I can. It’s very important to get out, meet the people, see their locations and talk to them in terms of work their supporting. I also want to ensure that they have the tools, processes and resources they need to do their job effectively and just having those conversations to make sure that everything is working properly is extremely valuable. I’ve spent some quality time on airplanes these past few months.
We always want to ensure that we’re running as efficiently and effectively as possible while at the same time providing the support needed to our operational staff and that can be a challenge in a geographically dispersed environment. So it’s definitely a team effort. I meet with my direct reporting staff at least twice a month to explore issues, share information and to discuss the organizational needs. And of course, we meet as often as necessary at other times to resolve any other issues that arise.
ExecutiveBiz: What is the process like, from when you get the RFP to when you deliver your offerings? How is it different on the buyer side as opposed to the supplier side?
Thurman: I think our procurement process, whether you’re on the buying side or on the seller side, government or industry, is pretty much defined by the federal acquisition regulations in terms of how we manage the process. Having spent time on both sides, I can tell you that for the most part, we all follow the FAR in terms of upfront planning and the way we work within our teams.
On the industry side, it’s a huge team effort in terms of planning; specifically doing that well in advance of a solicitation issued by the customer. My team works with marketing, business development and other staff to identify opportunities, understand the problems, clarify the customer’s requirements and do our best to be prepared when the solicitation is released so that we can submit a winning proposal and ensure we are not wasting our valuable resources – whether it’s management and technical expertise or investment dollars.
Internally, we have designated approvals by the executive management team depending upon the type of contract and dollar thresholds. We also work closely with our technical leads to develop efficient and effective solutions for the customer to make sure that those are cost effective and supportable. We also work with many of the other functional areas as needed, human resources as an example for hiring, understanding collective bargaining agreements, service contract act requirements, and any other issues related to staffing.
We work with our information technology organization for systems application and integration requirements, and with finance for pricing, understanding the accounting aspects of the requirement, any related issues such as insurance needs and any kind of bond requirements or taxes. The Group contract management leads work with our legal staff in many cases to ensure that we understand complex terms and conditions and develop a risk mitigation approach. Finally, the procurement staff are also involved in many of our efforts to ensure adequate support and pricing for subcontracting actions or acquisition of any materials.
ExecutiveBiz: How does your Air Force experience giveyou insight into the procurement process and how does it aid you in your current and past executive roles? Do you have any examples of how it has helped you?
Thurman: My government background has aided me immensely; providing me invaluable experience and the understanding of how the government operates that enables me to better lead my organization.
For example, when we submit proposals and we’re going through the discussions and the Evaluation Notices (EN) phase and responding to questions, just having the knowledge of knowing what they’re going through on their side is extremely helpful as we prepare our responses to meet the customers’ needs.
When frustrations or questions arise during the process, I’m able to explain to my staff why they may have taken a certain course of action, or how they’re going to evaluate our bid. So if you’ve never worked for the government, you wouldn’t have that key insight.
I think the financial side is probably the biggest gap in understanding the difference between Government and contractor perspectives. When I was a government contracting officer, I really thought that I understood profit, labor & indirect rates, and how industry operated. But I can tell you, when I retired and went to work for industry I realized right away that there was so much that I didn’t know. For example, when we use our own money and go at risk, when you’re on the government side, you don’t see that as a huge thing for the industry to do – “deep pockets – right?” But I can tell you from an industry perspective, when we decide that we need to go at risk, that’s often a long discussion with our leadership to ensure we understand the associated risk, particularly in terms of the potential of not getting that money recovered from the contract. Another example, Days Sales Outstanding (DSO), was a word I rarely heard of when I was on the government side and yet one that is so important to industry. Cash is king and DSO is key to getting paid quickly for work performed.
Also relationships are key to most things and still having good relationships with my former government colleagues often times allows us to solve problems quickly during the solicitation phase or during contract execution. It’s always easier to solve issues when you know the person, have a good relationship, meet with them face to face often and build that trust. I constantly encourage my staff to establish good customer relationships, both internal and external. If we’re all working together to make sure that we’re meeting the requirements of the contract, that we’re delivering what the customer has asked us to deliver and that we’re all working together towards the same goal then everyone succeeds.
ExecutiveBiz: You were also at TASC and ManTech how did that aide in your executive development as well to where you are now at URS?
Thurman: When I retired from the Air Force, I was at the National Reconnaissance Office and I hadn’t worked with TASC because I had been working with some of the other larger satellite developers and Research & Development companies so I didn’t know a lot about them. But I discovered, it was a good place to begin to learn all the things that I’ve talked about in terms of the differences between being on the buying side as opposed to the selling side, in fact I found that time to be an excellent period of learning the nuances of working on the contractor side of the fence.
Soon after Northrop Grumman acquired Litton in the 2002 timeframe I was offered the opportunity to move into the VP of contracts, pricing and procurement role. I served in that role for a couple of years before I left with a nice foundation to understanding the aspects of the business. I joined ManTech in 2005 and assisted them with maturing their contracts organization. Specifically, I implemented a contracts management system, helped them get their approved purchasing system, realigned the contracts staff to ensure better support to the operations staff and managed many of the same activities that I’m doing here now at URS.
ExecutiveBiz: To continue in that vein of positions you have held, can you talk about about your roles at NDIA and NCMA? Why are those associations important to your career?
Thurman: There’s a lot of industry and government staff who participate in the NCMA events, therefore it’s a perfect opportunity to network, meet your government customers and at the same time get the training that you need to keep your certification.
NDIA is an organization where there are a lot of corporate members as opposed to individuals; I actually started with NDIA back in 2005. Within the Procurement Division they have various subcommittees like legal, finance, and contracts that operate under the policy planning committee. I attend the contract acquisition management subcommittee meetings and was the vice chair of that committee, which is an elected position, for a couple of years before I moved up to be vice chair of the procurement planning committee last year. Recently, our chair resigned and so I’ve now moved up to serve as the chair of the policy planning committee for the next two years. One of the things that I like about NDIA is that they aren’t a lobbying organization. Through the procurement division, we develop position papers based on proposed legislation and provide that feedback to the acquisition leaders in the government to ensure everyone understands the impact certain legislative changes might have on industry, or the government, both positive and negative.
It gives us a great opportunity to be able to share our thoughts on behalf of industry and work closely with the government leadership to make sure that the legislation they’re proposing, contemplating or implementing is well thought out. Working with the NDIA companies is a great opportunity to have an impact and be able to help shape what comes out in terms of legislation and it keeps me current on the many new legislative topics at the same time.
ExecutiveBiz: How do the current budget uncertainties change the focus of your job?
Thurman: The current budget environment is impacting everybody, both government and industry. We’ve been working for the past several years under the continuing resolution – which has become the norm – so we’ve become accustomed to expecting that funding on our contracts is going to remain very tight. Now we have the issue of sequestration and budget cuts so we have to very carefully look at our contracts, try to determine the highest risk contracts and develop mitigation strategies where possible. . The current environment definitely requires us to reconsider terms that we may have considered the normal way of doing business with the government in the past. In the current environment, we are working more closely with our customers as we support their missions and meet the contractual requirements. I hear people say ‘this too shall pass’ and ‘we’re in this cycle and I’ve seen this cycle before’ and perhaps we have seen some of these things in past. But, I think this is a time where things are different than they’ve ever been before. And I think they’re going to be that way for some years to come…
There is a lot more oversight now and there’s been an incredible amount of legislative changes implemented. The job has just become very intense in terms of making sure that you’re complying with the legislative changes. We’re going to have to learn to live within the requirements, live within the regulations, figure out how to manage continuous change, figure out how to mitigate risk as much as we can, and work with our government customers to ensure success. They’re struggling with some of the same issues as we are, particularly with lack of resources and trained staff, so we all need to work together more so than ever. In our NDIA group, we routinely meet with many of our government counterparts and they often come in and speak to us and share their concerns. Certainly, they are feeling the same impacts and they’re struggling with how to make things work as well. This has made the contracting career field much more complex and much more difficult to operate successfully within. The individual skills required now are much broader than in the past and requires much more training for our staff to be effective.
I think the more we can work together and work as a team, the better off we’ll be in terms of being able to move forward into the future to make sure that we all do the best we can to meet the mission requirements. When it comes down to the bottom line, the one thing that we all have in common is mission first and supporting the war fighter and making sure that we do the right thing to meet those needs.
ExecutiveBiz: What are you most excited about moving forward in your position in the industry or your company?
Thurman: I’m excited to be here at URS. It’s a great company. There’s a great ethical culture here and a lot of very talented people, so I’m learning a lot. URS has a very diverse portfolio, which is definitely a positive in the current environment, and I’m learning more about contracting for construction and infrastructure work that I hadn’t been exposed to as much in the past; so I’m having fun. I have a great group of employees who are dedicated, hardworking and are having great success in many areas daily. I also enjoy working with the other Division and Corporate executives and I’m learning a lot about our core capabilities as we collaborate across the company.
I’m also looking at ways to provide better support to my staff, so we’re looking at implementing a contract management system as one new initiative. Implementing an archival database for all of our contractual documents will certainly streamline our audit processes and allow for better access to data across the division and the corporation to those who need it.
From my perspective, there are many things to be excited about here at URS and I look forward to helping the Division continue to grow and prosper. As we’ve discussed, there’s a lot of uncertainty for sure right now, but that’s always true, so I’m looking forward positively to what’s around the next corner to help URS continue to be successful for many years to come.