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Dan Vanderheyden, 35

Owner and chief operating officer, Legion Systems

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  • | 3:20 p.m. October 4, 2013
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  • Class of 2013
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Military veteran Dan Vanderheyden was sick of seeing defense contractors who only cared about profits, so he and his friends decided to set out on their own.

Over beers after work, while working together on a billion-dollar contract for U.S. Special Operations Command, Vanderheyden and his friends used to joke about starting their own business. But the four men soon found their jokes turned into serious conversations about how they could make money while treating employees well. In 2011, they decided to make the leap.

The group spent a few months floating the idea with their employers so they didn’t burn any bridges, and in May 2012 Vanderheyden set out to co-found and act as chief operating officer for the newly formed Legion Systems.

With all four partners “slightly anal-retentive,” they agreed upon an extensive operating agreement and lengthy legal document that detailed all the best and worst courses of action. With military backgrounds, “we basically war game everything,” Vanderheyden says.

Vanderheyden started his military career at 19 years old with the International Guard, and joined the Navy two years later. After Sept. 11, 2005, Vanderheyden found himself exhausted by the pace of the service. He realized he had been deployed nearly six years, and he decided to transition to work for the defense industry. He worked on various intelligence and security contracts in Baghdad and Virginia before moving to Tampa to learn the business of contracting with U.S. Central Command and Special Operations.

So when the team started to draft Legion’s business plan in Tampa, they quickly realized “you can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting a small business that focuses on defense something,” Vanderheyden says. They needed to specialize, so they focused on what they did best: special operations and intelligence.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, they set themselves apart from the competition by offering the “same services with more,” Vanderheyden says. For the first year, they focused on advisory services, or consulting, while building the company’s infrastructure to become more attractive for future contracts.

Though he declined to share any names, Vanderheyden says his company has already worked with the top 10 largest defense contracting firms in the nation, all repeat customers. “We provide subject matter expertise to support the client, focusing on business development from the proposal to transition management, to the first day of the contract,” he says.

Roughly eight months ago, Legion Systems expanded its services to government solutions, or defense contracting. The company has already been awarded seven contracts to assist the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Navy’s Information Operations, the Special Ops Command’s Global Battlestaff Program, the U.S. Forces Afghanistan Information Ops task force, and the Counter- Narcoterrorism Technology Program. “You get the same high every time you win a contract,” Vanderheyden admits.

In less than a year, the company experienced 300% growth, and is now bringing in more than $2.5 million in revenue. The company consists of six full-time employees, and a range of contractors, flexing from three to 20 on a single project.

Next, the firm plans to focus on strategic applications, or helping clients such as new military equipment engineers connect with operators in the field. With a few contracts pending in Washington, D.C., Vanderheyden says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a new Legion office opening in the U.S. Capitol.

Vanderheyden says he can see the company tripling in size over the next six months, making it an acquisition target. “Due to the niche services we provide, I can foresee someone wanting to acquire us in the next five to six years,” Vanderheyden says. “I think all those things will happen.”

— Traci McMillan Beach

You can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting a small business that focuses on defense something. Dan Vanderheyden, Legion Systems



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