Joshua Hatter is president of the Charleston Defense Contractors Association, a trade group representing firms working for the military in the Lowcountry.
The shape of the Charleston area's military presence has changed dramatically since the Navy closed its shipyard here in the 1990s. For contractors, the work here now largely deals with bolstering cybersecurity and installing IT systems, not repairing ships.
Those contracts stem from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic — better known as SPAWAR — which is the Navy's Hanahan-based IT hub. And while the military forms the basis of contractors' businesses, many in the area have sought to diversify amid budget cuts and policy uncertainty.
Hatter, the trade group's newly elected president for 2017, says the local industry has a "positive" outlook under the new administration, even as policy uncertainty remains.
Q: What is a brief description of the Charleston Defense Contractors Association?
A: The Charleston Defense Contractors Association is a 501(c)6 nonprofit, its mission is to advocate for, preserve, strengthen and grow the Charleston defense industry through partnership and collaboration with stakeholders and our community. Since its inception, the organization has contributed well over $250,000 in education programs and furthering career paths in defense with IT and engineering-related disciplines. Additionally, we bring more than 1,400 defense industry leaders to the area each year through our annual CDCA Summit and 500 industry leaders to our quarterly Small Business & Industry Outreach Initiative events.
Q: How has the work of Charleston’s defense contractors changed over the last few years?
A: Since its inception in 2002, the organization has worked each year to grow its member base, which now boasts more than 280 influential businesses in the defense, technology and cyber sector. Our members range from your traditional Fortune 500 defense giants who build ships, aircraft and vehicles to niche, innovative small businesses who write code, and everything in between. We have also seen an uptick in membership from large, well-known IT leaders like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Dell and Amazon Web Services. We continue our emphasis on STEM education and have expanded our internship program, robotics program and mobile app competition, giving local schools the chance to expose their students to careers in cyber defense, intelligence and technology. We’re also working closely with our political delegation to ensure Charleston continues to grow its piece of the $19.3 billion annual defense pie that contributes to the South Carolina economy. Surprising to most, the defense industry actually has a higher economic impact in South Carolina than tourism.
Q: What kind of work do defense contractors here specialize in? Has the mix of those specialties changed?
A: With the local Navy command, SPAWAR and defense contractors, there is a big focus on information warfare, which encompasses things like cyber defense, cybersecurity, IT, electronic warfare, communications and intelligence. The mix of these specialties continues to become more and more highly technical with each passing year because of the exponential rate with which technology evolves.
Q: What is the local industry’s outlook in 2017 and under the new administration?
A: We feel very positive about the outlook for 2017. The new administration is calling for an expansion of the Navy to 355 ships from its current 274. While it remains to be seen if that full expansion will occur or not, maintaining the world’s No. 1 military in the defense of our great nation is a priority to the new administration. Cybersecurity is a priority of the new administration. We feel that bodes well for the companies and contractors of Charleston, like SPAWAR, as a major focus is cyber technologies and information warfare.
Q: Who is your favorite business leader and why?
A: Do I have to pick just one? What Warren Buffett has done with turning Berkshire Hathaway — a now-defunct textile company — into one of the largest and best holding companies in the world is nothing short of amazing. His ability to allocate capital to achieve the highest possible returns is astounding. Elon Musk’s accomplishments as one of the original 'PayPal mafia" and then with SolarCity, SpaceX, and of course the electric car company Tesla are incredible. The man doesn’t seem to ever slow down, regardless of the seemingly impossible engineering feats he achieves. In general, I tend to admire people who push hard and remain steadfast to achieve their goals, but understand flexibility and evolution are important. I also find myself drawn to people like Elon, who have done much to improve mankind and our daily lives, not just be compelling and successful business leaders.
Q: Who is your favorite leader of any kind and why?
A: I love innovators that see a problem and continue to innovate until they find a product-market fit. I’ve talked about a few internationally known leaders already, but let me reference a local leader that has had a positive impact on my life. Tony Romeo, founder of KWKLY (which he successfully built to acquisition), has constantly pushed me to focus on stretching my personal and professional goals. He’s always asking me about all my projects and pushing me to think about how I’m reaching my goals for those projects. I deliberately try to surround myself with people like Tony, as they hold me accountable to continue pushing myself. If I fail, as is sometimes inevitable, I want to fail quickly and learn, iterate and continue until I get a project or concept right.
Q: What is the best leadership advice you’ve received?
A: I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first professional mentor — Mark Gadomski, a former CDCA president — would not just become my voice of reason professionally but a father figure to me personally. The best leadership advice isn’t a single cliché or phrase. It’s in the way someone lives as a role model and mentor to those around them, pushing individuals to contribute to their utmost potential so that their teams can achieve goals they didn’t think possible on their own — to push people to focus on their strengths and not worry about their weaknesses. Mark has been that person to me now for nearly 15 years, and I’m incredibly grateful for the role he has so willingly played in my life.
Q: What is the best leadership advice you could give?
A: Discover your passion as early as possible and seek to achieve excellence in it by surrounding yourself with positive influences. Remember that you are the culmination of the people you keep in your life as well. If your inner circle isn’t pushing you to achieve your potential while being your most positive and steadfast supporters, then you need to reevaluate your closest confidantes. I know that’s a tough choice to make, but in my opinion, only once you love yourself, know your true passion and have built a strong positive support system can you truly focus steadfastly on achieving your hopes and dreams.
Q: What is the best book on business or leadership that you’ve read and why?
A: I think my favorite book on business is "The Hard Thing About Hard Things" by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. There are so many amazing concepts and nuggets of wisdom I’ve pulled from this book over the past few years. "Truly great leaders create an environment where the employees feel that the CEO cares more about the employees than she cares about herself." If you haven’t read it, check it out. Life is struggle. "Embrace the struggle."
Q: What other business publications do you regularly read?
A: Although we all struggle with busy schedules, I make it a point to always scan The Wall Street Journal and CNBC a couple times a day when I have a few minutes. I look for game-changing headlines and scan through those articles for anything that might affect my industry or life.
Q: What are the most important decisions you make as a leader at your business?
A: I think it depends on your business. For my day job, it’s important to stay informed about major policy decisions that affect our local defense industry or that may impact the Lowcountry. As a leader for the CDCA, I am surrounded by brilliant people wanting to make a difference. I feel it’s my job to help outline the overall strategic goals of the organization, but allow all directors to drive their committees and pieces of the puzzle. This can be a difficult task for leaders, to allow their team members to grow and meet goals on their own. I think it’s incredibly important to remain positive and realistically confident even in the face of adversity because adversity is always around the corner. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Reality is always somewhere in the middle.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing business leaders today?
A: Embracing discomfort. If you’re uncomfortable, that means you’re doing something you aren’t used to, which likely means you’re growing as a person or leader — and more importantly growing your business. I think many businesses rest on their laurels during times of success and forget the hard work and innovation it took to get them to the good times. Before too long, those companies fade away.
Q: What was your biggest mistake as a leader and what did it teach you?
A: I’ve lost contracts in my career mostly because I’ve taken competitors for granted. The mistake is not paying attention to all those key factors in pursuing new business like who will compete and what they are willing to do for the work. I’ve learned to pay more attention to what we should be doing for business and how it will impact those involved. Everyone hates to lose, but losing incumbent work is particularly painful. As a business developer, sometimes you can seemingly do everything right, but the current acquisition environment is so competitive that another company may come in and drastically underbid your proposal.
Q: What was your biggest success as a leader and what did it teach you?
A: Nine years ago, the company I worked for bid on a large multimillion-dollar single-award contract. Nowadays, a contract of that size has to have multiple awardees, and projects are competed individually, but back then, the government was still doing single awards. The team we built was so strong that the original six competitors we anticipated either dropped out or joined our team as subcontractors. We won that contract and were the only bidder. Shaping bids early in the process with the right team and right technical capability can produce amazing results, and I consider that win one of the greatest I’ve been a part of. I think success in business and in life is a team sport. It takes a great team striving to reach a common goal to accomplish great things.
Q: What are you doing to grow the next leader in your company?
A: Mike Resler, another former president of the CDCA, once told me that great leaders always have three levels of relationships — protégé to a mentor, mentorship of colleagues and being a mentor to a protégé. My true mission is to positively impact everyone I am fortunate enough to meet in my life. Time is the one commodity in life we can never get back. I value it immensely — more than any other asset. But if someone shows potential to impact the lives of the people around them in a meaningful way, I will always devote time to doing everything in my power to help that person achieve success — however it is that they define it. Growing leaders involves helping people make the right connections with the right people to hone the skills necessary to achieve their goals. Everyone hears the old cliché that it’s who you know not what you know, and there is something to be said for that. If I’m fortunate enough to meet someone that recognizes their own strengths and refuses to let failure stop them from achieving their goals, I do my best to give them the tools and people to realize their dreams.
Q: How do you define a great business?
A: Great businesses and organizations focus on building great teams to solve problems in a way that positively impacts society while earning a profit. I’ve learned a lot from local restaurateur Greg Bauer, who owns the restaurant CO downtown. It’s been amazing to watch this former Marine build a brand of Asian fusion restaurants from an idea to a very successful chain across three states in the span of just five years. The man’s work ethic is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I think a great business starts with a leader like Greg who has a clear vision but adapts constantly in how he executes that vision as he continues to grow his brand and his fantastic core management team. Great businesses have employees who love the company with repeat customers who can’t get enough of a product or service, and CO is definitely a great business.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about doing business in this region?
A: Charleston provides a work-life balance that makes happier and more productive employees. However, I also think there’s a new hunger for new business opportunities and desire to build a new economy here. Our communities are growing and attracting more outsiders who are bringing new opportunities and the best of where they have been, which is a win/win for the Lowcountry. There’s nothing like being in a city that’s about to pop. When it comes to finding its business footing, from technology to defense and tourism, Charleston is coming into its own.
Q: What is your least favorite thing about doing business in this region?
A: The positives vastly outweigh the negatives, but many refer to Charlestonians' way of life as the "Slowcountry," meaning companies move at their own pace and lack a sense of urgency to meet business goals like other cities. I don’t have those issues with the network I’ve built since I moved to Charleston in 1999, but I understand the frustration.
Q: Name one thing government could do to help your business?
A: Two-way communication with industry is key for many reasons. The CDCA is working harder now than ever to open the lines of communication with elected officials at both the federal and state level to ensure the defense community here is no longer Charleston’s best kept secret. We need government influencers and representatives to engage us for input and ideas as they develop their position on issues, communicate key decisions that can impact our industry and carry our message further up for us. There is a great opportunity here to bring jobs and continue building technological capabilities at more competitive rates than locations like Washington, D.C., and streamline facilities in a way that saves the government money while contributing to Charleston’s continued growth. If all parties are talking in an open manner, Charleston can play a crucial role in innovation that meets government needs in a way that other cities can’t or haven’t before.
Q: Name one thing government could stop doing to help your business?
A: Cutting or closing facilities that don’t make the most sense for growth and business. The government often focuses on relationships when it comes to considering base closures and reassignments. We’d like to see it be more about fiscal responsibility and what continues to make our defense industry strong, but lean and efficient. These things can be accomplished by looking to places like Charleston which offer a remarkable combination of increasing technical talent, affordable facilities, innovative companies and a lifestyle that workers appreciate. We’ve been voted the No. 1 place to live by Conde Nast for several consecutive years now, and the quality of life here can’t be beat.