2014 Minority Vetrepreneur of the Year
Spartan Business and Technology, Inc.
U.S. Air Force
Lorenzo Downing personifies how the skills and attributes ingrained in military service provide a perfect recipe for civilian leadership success in corporate America as well as entrepreneurship. Downing enlisted in the U.S. Air Force immediately following high school as the Vietnam War was coming to a close.
After he finished his enlistment, he went to the University of South Carolina and joined the ROTC program. After earning his degree in business administration with a focus on business economics, Downing was commissioned back into the Air Force. Following his more than 24 combined years in the Air Force, during which time he earned a master’s degree from Harvard, Downing leveraged his skills as an acquisitions officer to a lucrative post-military career in corporate America.
In February 1998, Downing became a senior manager with KPMG and progressed rapidly. After several years he accepted an offer to work as a senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers. In 2004, the leadership at KPMG then asked Downing to come back as a director and a partner.
“I had been successful in my first tour with them [KPMG] and with PWC and made a name for myself in the marketplace for delivering good services, developing businesses and taking care of people in the right way.”
Taking the Leap
In 2007, the entrepreneurial drive to launch his own company became overwhelming.
“I just had this burning desire to develop a company from the single sheet of paper, basically from the ground up,” Downing said.
Through hard work, dedication and taking advantage of his skills learned through both his time in the Air Force and corporate America, Downing, with the help of Ava Eckl, his first paid employee who still serves as the company’s facilities securities officer, made the dream a reality and launched Spartan Business & Technology in 2010.
Downing grew Spartan from grossing barely more than $59,000 in revenues at the end of 2011 to more than 160 full-time and contract employees and more than $8 million in revenues by the end of 2013.
“We’re set to do really well next year,” Downing said. “I expect this growth to continue. It’s wide open for small business and wide open for veterans.”
Downing attributes much of his success to his core belief about leadership: listen to what the customer needs first and respond in integrity. He strives to give each employee the certainty that no matter what happens, he will put the people that depend on him first.
Downing’s continued success has earned him the honor of NaVOBA’s 2014 Minority Vetrepreneur of the Year. We asked Downing to share his perspectives on his business, how the military fits into his success as an entrepreneur and what advice he can share with other veterans looking to achieve some of his success.
Tell us a little bit about Spartan Business and Technology, Inc.?
Lorenzo Downing: Spartan provides superior professional services and proven solutions, at the best possible value. At the core, Spartan delivers quality solutions to its client organizations in the essential professional capacities that matter most to them such as IT portfolio management, business process re-engineering, organizational development, systems development, acquisition, and logistics, program and project management, IT infrastructure improvement, training development, performance- and evidence-based budgeting, organizational change management and governance, compliance, and performance.
So where did the name come from? Why Spartan?
Downing: When I was thinking about the company, I wanted it to be something that would be easy for folks to remember, but I also wanted it to symbolize something that we stand for. We are few in numbers right now. We are also very efficient. We pay close attention to detail. And if you look back at historical accounts, that’s what the Spartans were; they were tenacious and few. They were very diligent and very good at what they did. And that’s what we try to do. We get the best and we treat people well. We take care of our clients. We take care of our professional family here at Spartan. They are well-equipped, they are well-trained and they are highly motivated and that’s how we approach the marketplace.
What is the value proposition of your business?
Downing: Through the smart use of new technology and management best practices we cost effectively maximize business operations for our clients. Spartan’s proven reengineering, management and development solutions improve the bottom line for government agencies and private industry clients nationwide.
Who are your primary customers?
Downing: Serving clients that serve people is our business. Our clients include the Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Interior, Department of Labor, Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Communications Commission, Office of Personnel Management, Food and Drug Administration.
Tell us how you started your business?
Downing: After experiencing the good and the bad, the highs and the lows of climbing the ranks at one of the nation’s “Big Four,” I started Spartan with a vision to create a company that would be the ultimate experience for employees and would provide premiere professional services. I pooled together my personal resources and I began Spartan as the only employee working out of my basement. I began aggressively tapping into my industry connections and looking for the open door. Soon I had my first contract, a few loyal team members and enough capital to begin building.
How does your time in the military fit into your career in Corporate America and as an entrepreneur?
Downing: My military experience provided invaluable experience that prepared me to be a business owner. As an Acquisition Financial Officer I worked on strategic aircraft and communications systems. Managing such large-scale programs and projects strengthened my leadership and management skills. My success as a commander solidified my confidence in my ability to lead in a highly visible role. My military background equipped me with the skills I needed to be a successful CEO from day one.
What were some of your concerns when you started your business?
Downing: Failure was never an option for me so my biggest concern was the timeline that I set for myself. Managing my time and resources to meet my personal goals for the business was important.
What were some of the challenges in getting your business started?
Downing: One of the biggest challenges faced was raising enough working capital to maintain until I was able to land a contract that would cover expenses and support growth. Convincing agencies that Spartan could provide quality service that matched its larger competitors at a fraction of the cost was also a challenge.
What is the key to your success?
Downing: My core belief has always been that if I “listen to what the customer needs first and respond in integrity,” that I had the recipe to start a business that would successfully exceed the expectations of what a small business could do in the marketplace. So it is with veracity, courage and confidence in the business model I’ve created and the core values that Spartan embodies that I continue to forge ahead, seeking the next level of success.
What advice can you share with other veteran business owners to help their business succeed?
Downing: It is important to recognize the talents of your employees and team members. Realize that their greatest asset may not be noted on their resume. Look for their hidden talents that can benefit the business, as well as stretch and grow your employees’ capabilities. Also, be willing to share resources with fellow veteran firms. Lastly, know that as a business owner, there is a different skill set required aside from your technical expertise. As a CEO you will have to manage great risk, as you are responsible for all facets of business and paving the forward path for your company’s success and your employees.
What pitfalls should other business owners avoid?
Downing: Avoid making assumptions about business operations and processes. Always thoroughly research all aspects of your business and those things that affect your business and industry both directly and indirectly. For instance, funding is a pitfall for many as owners realize that banks don’t lend money because you have a contract. You’ll need to prove your ability to collect on that contract and pay on a loan. That requires a substantial infrastructure and a deep understanding of risk.
What is the most interesting thing about you and/or your business?
Downing: I believe that my ability to motivate people to dream and imagine greater than they thought possible is a unique characteristic. I have always been inspired by much more than just my own personal success. It’s natural for me to put people first. I enjoy helping them realize their individual dreams and goals through their experience at Spartan, through my mentorship and being an example.
Do you include other VOBs in your supply chain and/or procurement efforts?
Downing: Yes, we look for veterans first in joint ventures and making purchases. We currently outsource security services from a VOB and more than half of our subcontracts are with veteran partners.
Is there anything else about your business you would like to add?
Downing: Spartan believes in giving of its time and resources to create a positive impact on the world. Our enduring commitment to fulfill our public responsibility to serve others is why we support local and national charities, non-profit organizations and outreach programs. At Spartan, all of our employees have adopted our corporate citizenship motto, which simply believes it’s our civic duty to give back to the community. Spartan is proud to support a number of charitable organizations with the generosity of its employees and partners. We are proud to support: Each One Feed One, Inc., Operation Interdependence, The American Cancer Society, The Hoop Dreams Foundation, Inc., The Wounded Warrior Project, Toys for Tots Foundation, and Valentines for Soldiers.