If you’re a well-educated entrepreneur who loves a good challenge you’ve got more in common than you might think with the Chairman & CEO of Virginia-based global consulting giant, ICF International, Sudhakar Kesavan. The down-to-earth executive is proud to have spent the past 33 years building a business with $1.13 billion in revenues.
The father of a recent college graduate, Sudhakar reflects on his entrepreneurial journey and the importance of empowering Millennials to initiate ideas that, with sufficient merit, could be adopted company wide. He understands the power of being personally invested and mission-driven work. He shared his own story and insights with a capacity crowd at a quarterly Connectpreneur networking event in Northern Virginia.
Embrace Changes & Challenges
What has kept Sudhakar going over the years has been the changing nature of the business and the confidence and competence to take on new challenges.
“You would get pretty bored if you were doing the same thing for all that time,” he says. “I didn’t have to change my job, the company kept changing. I stayed in the same place and did different things.”
ICF’s expertise and Sudhakar’s ongoing search for opportunity led to his first major entrepreneurial experience in the 1990s. He explains:
“Suddenly we found we were positioned well for some large federal contracts. Six of them were coming out worth over $600 million. No one could do them as well as we could. I thought if we could put together all the responses in a credible way we could win a bulk contract. The first time we got a team of 10-15 people in a room and said we’ve got to bid on all six people thought it was crazy.”
He managed to convince 10-15 people to work about 90 hours a week for six months and they won six out of nine contracts. “It was a home run! That was the first time,” he says, smiling. “Entrepreneurship is making something out of nothing.”
Learn How to Learn
There are many ways motivated individuals learn how to learn. Having a great education certainly helps. Sudhakar draws on skills acquired earning an MS from MIT, postgraduate diploma in management from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and bachelor of technology degree (chemical engineering with distinction) from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur.
Sudhakar joined ICF as a consultant, got into the management of consulting, helped with a leveraged buyout and then an IPO in 2006 with a secondary offering in 2009. He says:
I’m not a finance guy. I’m a trained engineer with some public policy knowledge. I found that you could learn that [finance] stuff very quickly and it wasn’t rocket science. As you get into these things, and you push yourself, you get to learn different things in different ways…I didn’t know anything about leveraged buyouts but it didn’t take six months and you know everything you need to know if you’re in the process.
Sudhakar has also learned a lot about acquisitions since leading ICF through 13 of them in the past ten years. This is not the time for on-the-job training without bringing in the experts. He can’t over-emphasize the importance of running due diligence scenarios of everything that could go wrong in an acquisition. For example, it’s not enough to know who at the target company has major customer relationships. You’ve also got to know what happens should that person leave abruptly.
“I spend whatever money is required on diligence before an acquisition,” says Sudhakar. “What you learn at that stage is pretty consistent with what you could learn afterwards.”
Consider These Insights
Additional insights and success tips Sudhakar shared include:
- Develop deep domain expertise. Sudhakar has seen the deep domain expertise of ICF teams and consistently delivering outstanding work in key areas speaks for itself and attracts business in these areas. ICF International is known for its understanding of and work in government-regulated verticals, such as energy, health, and aviation. “Emphasizing the domain is very important,” he says. “It distinguishes your operation from everybody else’s.”
- Balance your portfolio with high-potential commercial work. ICF provides a lot of technology services, such as implementing e-commerce systems and providing digital marketing services through its digital agency business.
- Keep ahead of opportunities by observing and reading.
- Push out of your comfort zone. Apply yourself and enjoy the hustle as you push yourself and your team to figure out how to get things done.
- Listen carefully. He says: “Try to listen and learn from what people are telling you and not telling you.”
That last point alone was worth the price of admission.
Connectpreneur will be taking its show on the road in the coming months to Bethesda, MD, and Washington, DC.