Morard’s Qualis Family is Growing Fast
By Steve Byers
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Her peers and rivals are already drawing comparisons to Nancy Archuleta, Bobby Bradley, Irma Tuder and the half-dozen or so other female entrepreneurs who built successful federal contracting businesses in Huntsville and eventually sold them at a huge profit.
Qualis Corp. CEO Elizabeth Morard seems genuinely surprised to be mentioned in such elite company – “That’s extremely flattering” – but also stresses that she has no plans to sell the business she co-founded with Mary Engel 15 years ago.
“We have long-term objectives to operate as what I call a ‘large small business,’ and if some offer came today,” she says, “I still hold to the objectives we want to reach. This is a true team, and we’re having fun doing what we’re doing now.”
That team includes her husband, Michael, who serves as Qualis’ vice president and chief financial officer, and 328 other employees, up from 50 just a few years ago. (Engel now works part-time.) Revenue has shot upward, too – Morard projects more than $40 million this year.
Morard moved to Huntsville in 1969. Her father was a computer technician on contract at Marshall Space Flight Center, and she recalls listening to his reel-to-reel tapes of Walter Cronkite narrating the Apollo missions and moon landing. She graduated from Butler High School and then Athens State University with a degree in business administration, working her way through school.
She met Engel and Engel’s husband, Carl, while working at federal contractor Remtech Inc. They soon decided “across the dining room table,” as Morard says, to launch a company that provides engineering and technical services to the government. Qualis initially worked mostly on NASA contracts but now does more business with the Pentagon.
Business Editor Steve Byers spoke with Morard, 42, recently in her office in Cummings Research Park. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
Did you start Qualis with specific goals in mind? In other words, at the end of year five, did you want to have X number of employees and X amount of revenue?
Our approach was conservative growth. We had some targets, and we went after business through relationships. It was only seven years ago that we still had maybe 15 to 20 people. It’s just been in the last few years that we’ve taken off.
What’s behind the surge?
We owe much to the alliances we’ve made with our prime contractors, mainly Jacobs (Engineering). We developed a mentor/protege relationship with them under NASA, and we learned a lot through that. When an opportunity came with another branch of their business at Eglin Air Force Base (in Florida), they selected Qualis. They knew that we knew how to work as an integrated team, that we managed our costs well and that we were good people to work with. Those are the things you want to hear. It led to an opportunity there – 30 more people at first, then 60 people, then two years ago another 100. That’s how we’ve gotten to 330.
Now I understand that the companies have reversed roles on a contract. How did that happen?
We realized some time ago that we needed to diversify, so last year we were awarded our first major prime contract, for the Joint Program Office for robotic systems (at Redstone Arsenal). We have about 40 people under the contract. Turnabout’s fair play, and we knew how to work with Jacobs, so we hired them as our sub.
Growth comes with occasional setbacks. You said that a month ago your work force numbered 360, which means you had to let go about 30 people because you lost a contract. Describe that experience.
It was a very sad time. We had scheduled an all-hands meetings for that particular group, and it happened to come right after we found out we had lost the recompetition for the contract (at Marshall). Some of them had worked with us almost seven years. After the meeting there were lots of hugs and ‘if you ever want to come back to work for us…’
We were sad, but everyone understands the nature of government contracting when contracts turn. Luckily, they went to one of the companies on the winning team that was a teammate of ours on another contract, so we knew they would be taken care of.
Does shifting from sub to prime contractor require major internal changes?
Yes, infrastructure. Going after primes, we need a business development team, a proposal team, a contracts team, an HR team. We have multiple people in areas now where we may have had one person wearing multiple hats before. And we’re still improving our accounting systems and processes. We will continue to be a woman-owned subcontractor, but we want to balance ourselves by having some prime contracts as well. I’d also like to do more commercial work, but we’re a government contractor first.
One person Qualis added as it expanded was your husband as CFO. How has that worked out?
Very well. In fact, our offices are beside each other. I’m right between operations and finance, so I try to keep the peace between them. As for family issues, we try to split our time and schedule who picks up (our daughter) from school, so that one or the other can schedule late meetings or early meetings. From a personal standpoint, it’s improved things, because you know you can’t take it to work. Now work does come home, but we wind up joking, ‘OK, wait a minute. We’re not supposed to talk about work anymore.’
Even with your husband’s help, it must be tricky balancing your various roles as CEO, civic leader and mom.
I won’t make the mistake of totally focusing on the business and ignoring my child, my family. I try to strike a balance. There are things in the life of my child that I’ll miss, purely because of things that can’t be avoided from a work standpoint. But at the same time, since we’ve grown our infrastructure, there are times when I can step away and do the things for my family I need to when I need to. Sometimes you have to make the hard decisions, and I think I’ve done fairly well with our daughter.
One of the many leadership positions you hold in civic circles is that of vice chair, small business for the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Committee. Tell me what that role means to you.
The chamber has a very capable small-business staff, and I just provide a perspective, since I’m a small-business owner, and I’m at their disposal as they develop ideas. In that role, I chair the Small Business Council, which is a group of people representative of all industries. They identify issues for small businesses, particularly those the chamber can help with.
Training is a big issue. The chamber has monthly training opportunities for small businesses on a variety of topics. In fact, I was a user 15 years ago. I used (the chamber’s) services on training and developing business plans, so I understand how valuable it is for small businesses. And the Small Business Awards dinner the chamber hosts every year is huge. This year they have already received double the amount of nominations from last year (the deadline is Friday) and sold out the event (Aug. 21 at the VBC).
What drives you every day?
One thing that makes this so fun for me is that we have pulled together a group of people who are excited. When we meet challenges, and the team works together, I just feel like, ‘What can stop us?’
You talk a lot about the team and family atmosphere at Qualis. Are you afraid of losing that as you continue to grow?
I’m prepared for that to happen, but as much as possible, I’ll maintain the quarterly visits to our sites and meet with employees in groups and one on one. We’re there to give the employees the sense of being part of a company.
That’s tough in government contracting, where people change with contracts every few years, it seems. Our goal is to remain engaged with our employees. That’s very important, because we’re a company of people. We don’t make things. We provide services.
Copyright 2008 The Huntsville Times. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the Huntsville Times.
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