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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 23, 2012 5 years ago

No Barriers

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A government consulting duo turns rejection into a multimillion-dollar business. Using its employees' expertise to find new opportunities, it's poised to grow.
by: Denise Kalette Editor/Tampa Bay

With its sparse furnishings, a folding table and half-empty bookshelves, the spare bedroom loft of a home in Tampa's northern suburbs isn't the most likely base for a company that has grown to $7 million in annual revenue. But the owners of Wittenberg Weiner Consulting LLC — Lauren Weiner, founder and president, and Donna Huneycutt, executive vice president — long ago broke the mold for military contractors.

From their headquarters in Huneycutt's home, they fly to Washington, D.C., or Djibouti, a country bordering Somalia in northern Africa, or Sicily, where the Naval Air Station Sigonella supports operations of the U.S. 6th Fleet.

The business partners have built a consulting firm that boasts 65 employees, many with credentials that a billion-dollar enterprise would envy. Their ranks include a former director of operations for a high-level command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, a veteran adviser to federal budget and State Department officials, and a military strategist experienced in U.S. Navy and Defense Intelligence Agency projects, among others.

The staff's impressive resumes help the consulting firm earn worldwide contracts with clients from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and the State Department. Often, the firm's experts are able to spot needs or inefficiencies in government agencies and military departments, and find ways to help them operate better. As a consultant, Wittenberg Weiner develops policies and management strategies for government operations including logistics, anti-terrorism and security management, as well as personnel regulations.

The firm sprang from an unexpected situation for the two highly credentialed women — unemployment. In 2004, when each was newly married, Weiner and Huneycutt abandoned lucrative jobs to follow their spouses to a U.S. military base in Naples, Italy. With Weiner's work at the White House, where she oversaw policy development for a number of federal agencies for the Office of Management and Budget, and Huneycutt's experience as a corporate attorney, they thought getting a good job on the base would be a breeze. Not so. No one would hire them.

Weiner was turned down for every executive position she pursued, says Huneycutt — the two have worked together so long they finish each other's sentences and know each other's life stories by heart.

“She was told, 'You are by far the best qualified candidate, but you are 30 years old, you are a woman, you just got married, and I won't hire you because you are going to have babies.' No— that's not legal,” says the attorney, who faced the same response, along with other lawyers in her circle. “We were all told that we could be legal secretaries.”

Fighting back
Over eight years, the two parlayed that rejection into energy to form and grow their own company. “If somebody puts a roadblock in my way, I'm going to find a way around it,” says Weiner, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from Dartmouth College.

The two began teaching a Master of Business Administration program at the base in Italy, where Weiner founded the consulting firm — Wittenberg is her maiden name — with Huneycutt's legal help. The firm's first business, however, came from an unlikely source.

Around that time, Weiner accepted a technology work assignment at the base, where she calmly disregarded cutting comments about her Ph.D. from the man who hired her. When the manager refused to come to her aid after she became locked in a security compartment at the base, an Italian national helped free Weiner. Huneycutt says Weiner simply returned to work: “She didn't quit, she didn't throw a fit, she didn't cry, she went straight back to work.”

Her response caught the eye of the head of the anti-terrorism enforcement protection office, who worked nearby, says Huneycutt. He offered Weiner a consulting deal, and the company had its first contract. That was in late 2005.

In its first year, the company earned $70,000 in revenue from a brief, three-month contract. The following year, revenue rose to $700,000. An early project, part of a larger military program that was later scuttled, involved developing biometric access to the military base in Italy, a project that encountered resistance because of Italian privacy laws.

Another project involved an analysis of anti-terrorism strategies at military bases. For instance, which pop-up barriers might prevent an intruder from storming onto a base in a vehicle. They also studied water barriers such as underwater gates that keep ships or swimmers from invading waters close to a naval base.

Their work has led the company to several years of 100% growth, says Weiner. “We have done a recent calculation where on a year-over-year basis, it's a 40% growth rate every year, averaged, which is fairly impressive for the industry.”

Employees are so important to their growth strategy that when the owners spot someone with special skills or traits, they may track the candidate long-term. “We had one woman we recruited for two years, waiting for the right time. We heard she was a '50-pound brain.' We needed to talk to her,” says Huneycutt. Now the woman, Melissa Copp, is the company's director of defense intelligence agency practice. “She has been phenomenal for us,” adds Huneycutt.

The consultants discovered another expert through a classmate of one of Huneycutt's children. A parent lamented that his boss was retiring, and noted that he was the best boss the parent ever had. “When we heard that, we wanted to speak with him,” Huneycutt says. Ten months later, Joe Osborne joined the firm as head of its special forces business.

Underestimated group
Two core beliefs have inspired the women. First, they believed in and tapped the abilities of an underestimated group — military spouses. And, they were not deterred by job descriptions beyond their own experience: The partners were willing to take on, and learn from, complex new projects. In doing so, they cautiously monitored quality, and learned from the experts who helped them carry out new missions.

The owners manage the firm by dividing responsibilities: Weiner charts future strategy and growth, while Huneycutt oversees daily operations.

As the company grew, the new hires themselves became paths to growth, for their skills brought new agencies and tasks that needed better project management. The employees are sharp enough to recognize opportunities. For instance, a former nonprofit executive hired for basic database work in an overseas military location heard office workers talking about the headaches of implementing a massive new personnel management program developed and rolled out in the United States.

Local regulations made the system hard to implement in Italy, especially given the number of foreign national civilians who would be subject to the new rules.

“She came to us — and this is exactly what we encourage our employees to do — and said, 'Can I help them?'” recalls Weiner. “A bunch of our employees ended up being program managers for the National Security Personnel System for the entire Europe region rollout.”

Encouraging outlook
Nonetheless, managing 65 employees globally isn't easy. The owners use an online chat room, a newsletter, frequent conference calls, and even electronic “town hall meetings” to stay in touch. “We have on-the-ground oversight in each area,” says Weiner.

In Djibouti, for instance, where the firm has six employees, it has an oversight person. But Weiner and Huneycutt also fly to their contract sites to meet with employees, and bring them to Tampa for conferences at the loft that sometimes last two or three days.
With all their global success, why keep their headquarters at Huneycutt's home? “Because it keeps our overhead down,” explains Weiner.

And restraining expenses allows the company to pay employees bonuses that can amount to 10% to 17% of their base salary, says Weiner. She adds that for some, the bonuses can be substantial enough to make major purchases, such as a car.

The two believe a growth spurt is imminent, since the company recently achieved 8A status, leading to a faster track for government small business contracts. “It allows us to do something like a sole-source, no-bid contract,” explains Huneycutt. “We've had a lot of clients who wanted to work with us, but because of the contracting hurdles haven't been able to do so. Over the next year, I think we will see very quick growth.”

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