Chuck Hicks, chief operating officer and chief financial officer for NCI, recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz for his latest Executive Spotlight interview regarding providing a look into the company’s accomplishments over a successful 2021, his top priorities as COO and CFO to foster partnerships and company growth through contract awards as well as the unrecognized challenges of technological innovation and AI implementation.
“I knew the company culture within NCI was a great fit for me. It’s been very open and collaborative within our team and across the entire company. Paul and Bridget have a great collaborative leadership style. I was excited to get back to the mission of the government and the mission of our nation. It feels like going back to my roots.”
You can read the full Executive Spotlight with Chuck Hicks below.
ExecutiveBiz: Tell me a little bit about your background. Maybe start with NCI and go backward. How did you get into the GovCon industry? What brought you to NCI?
“I’m excited to be with NCI. I joined the company back in May 2019 as the treasurer and chief financial officer. After nine months in the role, I was promoted to become NCI’s chief operating officer and secretary as well, which occurred just as we were going into the pandemic.
Before joining NCI, I was the CFO at Cresa Global Inc., and before that, I also had executive roles in finance at companies like SC3, ASRC Federal, USIS, SAIC and Ernst & Young.
I’d worked with Paul Dillahay and Bridget Medeiros at ASRC Federal before joining NCI and had been following their work for two or three years before they called me to join the company. I thought the company was doing some great things as they pivoted away from traditional services to AI/ML. I’m excited to be a part of the team and reconnect with other folks in the company with whom I had prior experience.
I knew the company culture within NCI was a great fit for me. It’s been very open and collaborative within our team and across the entire company. Paul and Bridget have a great collaborative leadership style. I was excited to get back to the mission of the government and the mission of our nation. It feels like going back to my roots.”
ExecutiveBiz: Chuck, as we’re getting near the end of this year, can you paint the big picture of NCI in 2021 in terms of accomplishments?
“2021 has been an exceptional year for NCI. It’s all the result of the work from our incredible, dedicated and innovative team. Five years ago, Paul and Bridget set us off with a vision to change the company into a leading AI technology company and we really saw the fruits of our labor come through in 2021.
We’ve had significant success and growth over the course of the year. We started the year with the largest contract win in NCI history after we secured and started performing on the GSA DIGIT contract. In large part, we were able to win that business because of our innovation and the way we wanted to bring AI and machine learning capabilities to market.
On top of that, we already had 31 years of experience in government contracting. Another three contract wins with CMS has propelled us to some incredible year-over-year growth for the company. As of our third quarter of 2021, our LTM revenue and EBITDA growth are just over 50 percent and 200 percent, respectively.
As I look back, the first four months of the year were the most challenging. We were transitioning the DIGIT program and it’s a very large program with approximately 400 people all transitioning in a virtual environment.
We worked extremely hard with our team and the government to process that transition in a very different manner than what has been done previously. In the end, we were very successful, and I believe some of our processes have been recognized as best practices for a virtualized world that will come out of it.
2020 and 2021 were definitely challenging years, but at the same time very fulfilling and successful. Our team worked quickly to deploy innovative solutions to support the company in addressing a whole new set of business and operational challenges created by the pandemic.
For example, tackling the rapid shift into becoming a remote/hybrid workforce, and finding creative ways to support our clients in a virtual environment. Almost overnight, most of our customers had a completely remote workforce and our team had to take care of that and adjust very quickly.
We’re still working to be very flexible with our employees and agile as a company. I think our employees and customers are very appreciative of our flexibility. Our office never closed, we implemented procedures for a safe working environment for the folks who wanted to be in the office and have continued to be very flexible with remote working for others.
We want to achieve the same level of camaraderie and success across our team for those comfortable working in the office as well as those working remote or onsite with our customers.”
Visit our Executive Spotlight Page on ExecutiveBiz.com to learn more about the most significant leaders of consequence to the government contracting (GovCon) and federal sectors and their experiences driving growth, new business and capabilities in the fiercely competitive federal landscape.
ExecutiveBiz: How would you describe your top priorities as COO and CFO to secure contracts and foster industry partnerships to drive company growth and NCI’s financial and strategic goals in such a competitive sector? What are the key metrics of success?
“I work very hard to embody and embrace the culture here at NCI. One of our top priorities is to enable a collaborative and innovative culture, which is what we need for success. I’ve been inspired by those pillars and the priorities that we have.
We strive for and measure operational excellence in everything that we do, but we also understand that we need to make mistakes, fail quickly, learn and use that knowledge to create future success. This enables the agile business model of which we are so proud.
It’s the way we want to drive our business forward and none of it would be possible without the dedication of our team. We truly have an amazing team. They think mainly from an innovation mindset, which again, is highly collaborative and incorporates newly developed tools we have and continue to bring to the market.
This was only possible because of the team of folks that we had that said, ‘What about this?’ It comes from listening to our customers and understanding their needs and focusing on the mission they’re working to complete. ‘How can we better serve their mission through AI and machine learning?’ – this is the question we ask ourselves each day.
As a growing mid-tier company leading AI innovation in the market, we’re being approached to partner with other organizations. They are bringing their capabilities and scale and are asking us to bring our innovative tools to provide differentiated solutions. Continuing to maintain and establish those relationships and nurturing them, is critical to our growth and development.”
ExecutiveBiz: Whenever we tend to discuss innovation in technology, the focus is on the technical capabilities and other hands-on challenges. What are some of the business and financial challenges of innovation that don’t receive enough attention in our sector today?
“One of the biggest challenges is that we need to balance investing in new tools and solutions, to further develop what we can bring to the table within the scope of our financial resources. As a privately held firm, we have a commitment to maintaining a financial balance needed to ensure our success over the long term. We’ve been very fortunate with our private equity firm. They work very closely with us to understand our strategy and goals and believe in the direction we’re heading.
Four years ago, we made significant investments in what we call our ‘create lab.’ It’s the place where our team members can go and think through and develop our technologies and push our limits. We’ve continued to make large investments in equipment and software to continue improving and honing our processes for innovation. We now have a portfolio of intellectual property that we own and that enables our market differentiation.
We’ve continued to look at our internal processes, ensuring they are as efficient as possible to support the continuation of our investments in innovation. What’s great about my dual role of COO and CFO is that I get to wear both hats and can see both sides of the business. As a result, we’re able to adjust how we bring the most value to our shareholders and customers, who both depend on us.”
ExecutiveBiz: How are AI implementation and IT modernization driving more efficient solutions for your customers and their missions? What are the top challenges that most of your clients are working to solve as AI continues to impact how we do business in the federal sector?
“AI has been a significant part of the modernization discussion for a number of years. About four and a half years ago, NCI decided to take a strong, proactive position as the leader in bringing artificial intelligence capabilities to the federal government through our AI as a Service business model.
While we discovered the path of government AI adoption was going to be slower than we expected, the good news is that it is starting to pick up now with a lot of speed. It’s still not as fast as in the commercial sector, but as we continue to hear more about AI and ML at the senior level of our government. We’re seeing that those in procurement roles are embracing it more every month.
Our customers want to be more productive and efficient. They want to be more scalable and effective. Our intention isn’t to replace humans in any role but to augment and improve the human side of the workforce to improve efficiency and productivity by bringing automation tools to the table for us all to use.
Another big factor is 24/7 intelligence monitoring. As you’re implementing new tools, we want our customers to know where they are in the implementation process and to continue monitoring the bots to ensure that they’re working as efficiently as possible with the use of RPA. As a result, we can offer increased efficiency across our customers’ enterprises to not only improve throughput but also overall customer experience.
Along with these steps, we also need to improve our decision-making. One of the key goals we have is to help our customers make improved decisions based on the right information. As a result, we want them to have as much information in front of them as possible so that we’re able to make that trade-off and continually improve over time.”