The Business of Defense

How to succeed in transitioning from the government to federal contracting

When Richard Manley left the government to join a defense contractor, he had spent more than 29 years working in the Army, much of it leading data center operations for the Army Medical Logistics Command.

He doesn’t regret his 2014 move to Thompson Gray, but Manley acknowledges that he definitely learned a thing or two transitioning from a successful career in the government to one in industry successfully supporting the financial needs of Defense Department...

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“When I left federal service, I had an executive officer. I had a dedicated admin. I probably hadn’t done a travel voucher in 10 years or longer. Now, I do my own expense reports.”

When Richard Manley left the government to join a defense contractor, he had spent more than 29 years working in the Army, much of it leading data center operations for the Army Medical Logistics Command.

He doesn’t regret his 2014 move to Thompson Gray, but Manley acknowledges that he definitely learned a thing or two transitioning from a successful career in the government to one in industry successfully supporting the financial needs of Defense Department organizations.

“It was not difficult for me, but it is different,” Manley, president of Thompson Gray, told Rich Brady, CEO of the American Society of Military Comptrollers, during ASMC‘s The Business of Defense podcast on Federal News Network.

How did Manley make the move seamlessly to the private sector? How did he help grow the company he joined, which had begun as one-woman shop dedicated to training Army organizations implementing the servicewide General Fund Enterprise Business System, an SAP-based enterprise resource planning system? What advice does he offer other feds making the leap to the defense industry?

Here are five takeaways Manley shared with Brady that he believes are key for federal employees transitioning into federal contracting.

Takeaway #1: Be ready to embrace change

“You have to be prepared to do things maybe differently than you have done them in federal service,” he said, adding that would be the biggest message he’d share with people weighing a move from government to the contracting world. It applies whether someone’s retiring from federal service after 30 years or accepting the private sector job when they’re only in their 30s, he said.

But it’s especially true if you are in a senior role in government.

“When I left federal service, I had an executive officer. I had a dedicated admin. I probably hadn’t done a travel voucher in 10 years or longer,” Manley recalled. “Now, I do my own expense reports. It won’t hurt you. It’s just part of what you do when you’re working at a good small business.”

Takeaway #2: Recognize your role in the defense ecosystem

It’s also different to shift from being the customer to being a service provider, he said. Although most federal employees who move into the defense industry recognize they’re no longer the customer, it’s still a mindset change. “We’re providing the service, and we have to make sure that we have that kind of attitude in approaching our customers.”

Manley said he’s big on relationships because they offer former feds a way to distinguish themselves and the businesses that they work for — by showing how well they understand government operations and the unique things that matter.

He credits Thompson Gray’s founder, Sheila Thompson, for smartly pairing SAP experts with former feds to drive growth of her financial consultancy.

“She went and hired some really good consultants and experts who had done SAP in the commercial world. … She complemented those people with hiring people who understood Army financial processes, how the business process worked from the creation of the budget, through execution, through closing out, through joint reconciliation — all the major steps in the Army budget process,” he said.

To foster continued growth, Manley also applied that synergistic approach with a twist: hiring young and mid-career feds and training them up on the technologies and capabilities that Thompson Gray provides so they can, as he said, slide into a federal customer’s “formation” and effectively do the work.

In 2008, Thompson (who passed away unexpectedly in 2018) was the sole employee. When Manley joined the company in 2014, there were between 20 and 30 employees. Today, the company has a team of more than 200.

Takeaway #3: Understand what’s expected of senior corporate managers

While it might seem obvious, it’s a lot different to move from a job where the entire focus is mission to one that’s driven by company vision and revenue.

“You’re now responsible for profit and loss,” possibly for the whole company if it’s a senior management role, Manley said. “You know, income statements, balance sheets, those kinds of things, negotiating with insurance companies about benefits, negotiating about management of the 401K — all those kinds of things you kind of have to work on.”

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Business transition from public to private sector

“If you’re working under a T&M, you might be able to make a little more money than a cost-reimbursable contract or a firm. And if you’re working under a firm-fixed price task order, you’ve got all this risk that you have to account for in pricing. Learning those kinds of things is important as you transition because you can win work, or you can end up with work, and still not make money.”

Takeaway #4: Be smart about the type of contracts the business works on

It’s critically important to understand contract types, which Manley said he often schools young managers about at Thompson Gray. For instance, it can matter to the business’s bottom line and how it manages a program for a customer if the deal is a time and materials contract versus a cost-reimbursable contract or a firm, fixed-price contract.

“If you’re working under a T&M, you might be able to make a little more money than a cost-reimbursable contract or a firm,” he noted. “And if you’re working under a firm-fixed price task order, you’ve got all this risk that you have to account for in pricing. Learning those kinds of things is important as you transition because you can win work, or you can end up with work, and still not make money.”

Takeaway #5: Realize how the company affects people’s daily lives

Working in the government, it can be easy to become distanced from the value of money, Manley pointed out.

“I’ve thought about this, and not to be disingenuous at all, but sometimes as a federal employee, we would push money around and we would just think, ‘It’s just a stack of paper’ ” tied to a specific mission need, he said.

But now, Manley sees it quite differently. Not that the funds weren’t important, even potentially affecting life-and-death decisions in government, but the value of the money was more abstract.

“Now, today, I’m dealing with real money that pays real people. And I’m very conscious of the fact,” he said. “If we have 220-odd people working for our company, multiply that by a conservative number of three people in a household, that’s over 600 people that are depending on us — for food, shelter and income. You have to take that very, very seriously when you are making that transition from federal service to industry.”

To listen to the full discussion between Richard Manley, president of Thompson Gray, and Rich Brady, CEO at the American Society of Military Comptrollers, click the podcast play button below:

Discover other The Business of Defense podcasts here.