Case Study: High Aspirations Key to High Performance Technologies' Success
By Mark Harbeke
The ability to weather a crisis can often determine the success or failure of a small organization. In 2003 High Performance Technologies, Inc. (HPTi), a 240-employee provider of IT services specializing in enterprise architecture, applied science and systems engineering and development, faced a tragedy and a series of aftershocks that have had defining impact on its culture. The firm not only survived but is stronger as a result.
Founded in 1991, the firm, which primarily caters to government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lost its co-founder and original CEO, Don Fitzpatrick, along with its general counsel and accountant, in a plane crash.
That incident alone dealt HPTi a severe blow. Notes CEO Timothy Keenan, who assumed the post following his partner’s death, “At the time, every person in the company had been hired by either Don or me. So we were very much family.”
However, literally adding insult to injury, after the crash HPTi’s competitors went on the offensive, attempting to wrest its clients away on the premise that it couldn’t survive such a tragedy. The firm was forced to assess and redefine its position as a midsized IT provider, in between the small and very large firms that were awarded government contracts.
However, attending to the grief of his employees was first on Keenan’s to-do list. The accident happened on a Saturday and by the following Monday, grief counselors from the firm’s insurance company were on hand at each of the company’s locations (HPTi has offices in Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Maryland and New Jersey in addition to its headquarters in Reston, VA). Keenan personally talked to each employee within the week and visited with all of the firm’s clients, assuring them that they would be quick to rebound.
And rebound HPTi did. The year 2003 turned out to be one of the firm’s most profitable ever. In fact, since then each year has been more profitable than the last. “In a crisis situation, people are capable of hyper-focusing, and we did benefit from that,” Keenan says. “But we realized that we had to put some infrastructure in place, including pushing down profit and loss responsibility a whole layer. We spent that whole year teaching people to be P&L managers.”
Keenan likes to refer to his employees as “knowledge leaders,” a take on the knowledge worker label coined by Microsoft and Intel in the 1990s. He feels the former term engenders the level of innovation the company’s leadership hopes to reap by providing each worker with the training and tools they need to make good decisions in the moment and to integrate new skills into their work. Around the time of the plane crash, HPTi instituted four tiers of training that help everyone from junior employees to senior managers communicate more effectively and take ownership over their work. HPTi also offers compensation incentives for completing technical and professional certifications.
Besides the training opportunities that the company provides, the firm’s staff benefit from peer learning through Learning Café presentations that are given every two to three weeks. Occurring over the lunch hour in a format akin to brown bags, staff members have the chance to receive in-depth training on a particular computer program (such as Microsoft Word) or even learn a skill not tied to the workplace. For instance, two weeks ago, Marty Shoup, practice technical lead and a 10-year veteran of HPTi, gave a presentation on video editing. He figured many fellow employees could shoot video from their digital cameras, but he wanted to illustrate what can be done with it once it’s been saved to a computer.
Eleni Antoniou, director of HR and a nine-year employee of the firm, attended the video editing Learning Café and has also presented several topics, including goal setting and getting the most out of performance reviews. She likes the way these presentations serve to keep workers connected. “Our employees have a lot of knowledge that they wouldn’t necessarily be using in the roles they’re in,” she says. “The idea is to share that knowledge with people who are also interested in it.”
Knowledge isn’t the only thing employees share. The firm places a premium on efforts through its work culture to give back, whether it be by sponsoring local youth sports teams (up to 14 of them in the communities where HPTi has offices) or paying $5 on National Denim Day to wear jeans to work and raise money to help fight breast cancer. Employees can also join a handful of company-sponsored sports teams.
The firm’s leadership works to stay connected to its employees and to regularly bring the organization together. HPTi holds a quarterly “All Hands” staff meeting, wherein the senior management provides business updates and fields candid questions from employees, and an annual awards banquet. As Senior Associate of Proposal Support Laura Chamberlain explains, these meetings are also a chance to recognize employees, whether by announcing those workers who have earned training certifications or advanced degrees, or raffling gift certificates to local restaurants using a computer-based random selection process.
HPTi is proof that a dark business cloud can have a silver lining. In the face of tragedy and adversity, Keenan assumed leadership of the IT firm and steered it through many immediate obstacles. One of the stories that he tells – of how, in the wake of the plane crash that killed his partner, he personally dealt with members of the media camped just outside the firm’s property – demonstrates the lengths that the company goes to in order to protect its most valuable asset: its people.
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