By Sandra I. Erwin
In the cutthroat world of government services contracting, the lowest bid generally wins the project. That trend has driven a cadre of technically specialized firms to reposition themselves in the market so they can compete less on price and more on the value of particular skills and knowledge.
This shift is especially apparent in sectors like defense, space and intelligence that depend on contractors for highly complex missions. Companies that have the technical expertise are carving out niches where they can dominate and be less vulnerable to price wars.
Lynn Dugle, CEO of government services contractor Engility Inc., said the company has been moving in that direction for the past couple of years, and the plan going forward is to focus more acutely on projects that are awarded based on “best value.”
“We are positioning our defense business to be more like our space and intelligence businesses, where we can differentiate the work we do in higher end services and engineering,” Dugle told National Defense.
Dugle is finishing up her first year as CEO of $2.1 billion Engility. The company was spun off nearly five years ago from top defense contractor L-3. In 2015 it acquired the services contractor TASC and doubled its size.
Engility initially sought to compete in broader categories of federal support services that are awarded to the lowest bidder in so called “lowest price technically acceptable” contracting. Over the past eight months, only 5 percent of Engility’s bids have been for LPTA contracts, Dugle said. Now almost all the company’s proposals are “best value.”
LPTA is widely despised by companies in the defense industry and viewed as a race to the bottom. There is now a growing consensus that LPTA contracting works for nontechnical services like maintaining government facilities or staffing mess halls. Dugle has seen the Defense Department walk back from LPTA for engineering support and other “mission support.” Defense agencies frequently found that companies selected based on LPTA were technically unqualified.
“The market has shifted,” Dugle said. “Customers got burned on those higher end contracts with LPTA. Competitors bid really low and then they couldn’t staff the jobs.”
Engility is moving to hire specialized talent to shore up its defense expertise. “We are close to naming a senior VP for defense,” she said. “We need a certain percentage of our leadership to have operated and been successful at pursuing big programs, and at best value proposal writing. That’s a different skill than competing on price for smaller projects.”
The shift to higher end services appears to paying off. Engility reported an $11 million loss in 2016, but that was an improvement over $235 million of red ink in 2015. The numbers are “encouraging,” said Dugle. “Four contracts we won were over $200 million. That requires getting the right people with the right experience.” Engility has submitted at least 10 bids worth over $100 million that are still in source selection.
“We want to be primes in large jobs,” said Dugle. The company’s government work today is 40 percent defense. Dugle predicts that share will increase. “The market itself in DoD continues to get more attractive,” she said.
Like other industry executives, Dugle is bullish but cautious about the anticipated spending boost to defense and veterans programs projected by the Trump administration. Even if the increase materializes, every agency in the federal government including the Defense Department will be squeezed. A new Trump executive order requires agencies to conduct a “thorough examination” of its operations and to recommend “where money can be saved and services improved,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. That could result in layoffs of government workers but also in cutbacks in the use of contractors.
The message for contractors is that “we have to be prepared to respond,” said Dugle. “We do a lot of thinking about scenarios and how we can be prepared. Services is always a challenging business. It’s not a technology play, it’s a people business.”
Dugle is especially optimistic about the possible privatization of parts of the Federal Aviation Administration. “We just won the largest contract with the FAA, the largest we’ve ever won, to help them modernize their systems.”
Trump’s budget has been widely rejected on Capitol Hill and many specifics remain unknown so Engility, like other defense firms, has been conservative in its future earnings and sales guidance to Wall Street. “It’s premature until we know the program details of the FY18 budget,” she said. “We believe we are more advantaged than disadvantaged in a Trump administration but we did not want to put that in a plan.”
The industry also will be watching congressional action led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. The committee is drafting a procurement reform bill to accompany the 2018 national defense authorization act. On the list of Thornberry’s targets are services contracts.
The 2017 NDAA sets limits to the use of LPTA in defense procurements. Thornberry has pushed Pentagon officials over the years to more precisely articulate the military’s needs for contracted services and how services vendors are selected.
“One of the big challenges is the definition of requirements,” Dugle said. That is partly the reason DoD has had to re-evaluate its use of LPTA contracts, she noted. “If you just write a requirement that you need five people with 10 years of experience with a particular degree, that is when people default to price.” Conversely, the government could make the requirement to accomplish a desired mission, and leave it up to the bidders to decide how to staff the job. “If you are relying on systems engineering, you have to write good requirements.”
Photo: Lynn Dugle, CEO of Engility (center)