Townes-Whitley: SAIC must ‘look up and look out’ to drive growth

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Toni Townes-Whitley doesn’t sugarcoat the challenge ahead of her as the new CEO of Science Applications International Corp.

She started the role in October at a $7.4 billion-annual revenue company that has struggled of late with several lost recompetes. Customers apparently aren’t seeing a differentiated offering from SAIC, but that is an issue several companies in the market face as well.

While Townes-Whitley has high praise for SAIC’s capabilities, she sees them as too often dwelling in pockets around the company and not being applied across the entire organization.

“I came in with a hypothesis around not one big silver bullet strategy but tuning in multiple areas,” she said in an interview with Washington Technology.

Townes-Whitley does not see a company in need of a big shift. She praised her predecessor Nazzic Keene for “setting the table.”

“Everything that is needed is here,” Townes-Whitley said.

But she has also identified some trouble spots:

  • Revenue growth hasn’t kept up with peers.
  • Neither has profitability
  • A portfolio that lacks differentiation

Townes-Whitley is focused on what she calls four pivot areas: SAIC’s portfolio, go-to-market strategy, brand and culture.

The portfolio is one of the first areas she has taken on by asking questions like these: “Is our portfolio differentiated? Do we have point solutions? Do we have enterprise capabilities?”

Townes-Whitley is also looking at delivery models because, in her words, “You start to win or a lose a recompete on day one of the contract.”

SAIC’s roots are very entrepreneurial, but Townes-Whitley has been asking if that is still the case.

“Is our culture still entrepreneurial or have we become order takers?” she said. “I had questions about the culture and I had questions about the brand and what it stood for.”

Those questions have led to several actions such as flattening the organization.

“I wanted to get a lot closer to the customer and I wanted my leaders closer to their customers, so I took out a management layer,” she said.

She now has five business groups that report directly to her as well as functional leaders that include those in charge of business units for the Air Force, Army, Navy, space and intelligence, and civilian.

To focus on the company’s portfolio, SAIC has brought in Lauren Knausenberger as their first chief innovation officer. She is a former chief technology officer from the Air Force. Her job is to drive innovation throughout the organization.

The moves all have a focus on bolstering SAIC’s ability to win recompetes and capture new business, Townes-Whitley said.

“Here’s the conundrum we found: You can get phenomenal CPARS (customer assessments of a contractor’s performance). You can max out your award fee and be green on your assessments and still lose the recompete,” she said.

The performance may meet the requirements of the contract, but the customer doesn’t see you as a partner moving forward.

“We are doing things systematically. Every differentiation we have has to show up in our day-to-day delivery to our customers,” Townes-Whitley said.

“Are we bringing the best of SAIC to every contract?” is the question she is asking.

SAIC is also investing in its business development and proposal operations, but there too the focus is on drawing solutions and innovations from across the company.

“You have to write rock solid proposals,” she said.

The cultural element that Townes-Whitley is driving aims at changing the mindset of SAIC’s approximately 25,000 employees.

“The mission that we’re serving is larger than SAIC and larger than any one program or contract,” she said.

Prior to joining SAIC, Townes-Whitley led the global public sector business at Microsoft. Her old office is next door to her current office at SAIC’s headquarters in Reston, Virginia.

“We would look at SAIC and salivate over being able to touch mission critical data the way SAIC does every day,” she said. “But does SAIC know that they’re in the room where it happens?”

She wants her employees to be focused on the customer, while also being able to “look up and look out.” What the employees see can identify new solutions and innovations for their customers and help them be that partner for the future, as she sees it.

The timing couldn’t be better to shift SAIC’s focus.

“We are benefiting from the trends happening in the market,” she said.

One is technology convergence. The talk used to be about tech by sector but technologies such as cloud, artificial intelligence and machine learning cut across all sectors.

A technology that is primarily for defense usage, such as counter unmanned systems, also has applications at the border with Mexico. That can include the identification of contraband such as fentanyl and other opioids that are coming across.

“We’ve always talked about transferable or repeatable technologies but now they are truly portable and it requires organizations to talk across themselves or they are never going to understand the opportunity,” Townes-Whitley said. “We have got to operate differently.”

That approach is what brought Townes-Whitley to her four pivots for SAIC.

“We are going to harden our strategy and put together a multi-year growth strategy, five to six years with a couple of horizons,” she said. “Our first horizon is every much focused on organic growth.”

Step one is building an enterprise mindset.

“SAIC brings technical knowledge of a mission. That’s core to SAIC, but we don’t trade as SAIC Huntsville or SAIC El Segundo. We trade as SAIC,” she said. “We need to rebuild our peripheral vision.”

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