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September 27, 2018

Local tech firm among region’s fastest growing

Photo/Lawrence Emerson
From left: Joan Pearson and CFO Anne Pappalardo talk with Chairman/CEO Jodi Johnson at Titania Solutions Group’s headquarters.
The government services business is very complex and difficult, especially in a company’s first three years.
— David L. Young, Titania co-founder
Titania Solutions Group Inc.
• What: Government technology services contractor.

• Where: Headquarters at Vint Hill, with office in Arizona and employees in Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Washington, D.C.

• Employees: 105

• Revenue: $14.5 million in 2017, up 48 percent in year, earning spot last month on Washington Technology’s “Fast 50” list.

• Clients: Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration.

• Leadership: Chairman/CEO Jodi L. Johnson of Warrenton

• Website:
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
The numbers sound glitzy: Seven-figure contracts. Year-over-year growth of 48 percent to $14.5 million in 2017 revenue.

That trajectory earned the Vint Hill-based federal services contractor a spot on Washington Technology’s “Fast 50” list, announced in August.

But, “I’m not a fancy person,” Titania Solutions Group Chairman and CEO Jodi L. Johnson insists. “I’m a dig-the-ditches person.”

Ms. Johnson and her husband Dale, who live near Warrenton, could have retired comfortably after selling their former business for $170 million in 2008. Employees and investors shared in the proceeds.

After expiration of the sale agreement’s three-year “not-to-compete” requirement, however, she grew restless.

The couple began to discuss the possibility of starting another company to provide technical services to government agencies and the military.

“I was still jazzed,” Ms. Johnson, 56, recalls. “I told Dale, ‘I think I can build another company’.”

Her husband, “a quiet, Midwestern engineer,” as she describes him, “picks up a quarter and hands it to me. ‘Heads, we do it. Tails, we don’t’.”

The quarter hit the floor, tails up. She wanted a do-over.

“ ‘Then why are you even asking me?’ ” Mr. Johnson responded with a smile.

So, Titania — named for the largest moon of Uranus — sprang to life in 2012. It had a few employees, no revenue and mainly the reputations of its founders.

Along with experienced contracting executive David L. Young of Culpeper, the Johnsons over five years had built Oberon to 700 employees and $560 million in contracts. Also named for a Uranus moon, Oberon started at Vint Hill in 2002, and Stanley Inc. bought the company six years later.

Networking intensely to launch Titania, Ms. Johnson contacted former customers and bigger companies that needed subcontractors.

She attributes the new company’s early success to “customers who want to see you again and (former) employees who want to come back.”

The year after its founding, Titania earned revenue of $3 million. The total more than doubled to $7.2 million in 2014, and double-digit growth has continued.

“The government services business is very complex and difficult, especially in a company’s first three years,” says Mr. Young, who has built and sold several firms over four decades. “You end up being a subcontractor the first three years to build credibility and get on bid lists.”

Budget cuts and “sequestration” have made the industry even tougher since the entrepreneurs ran Oberon, which did much of its business with the military, including work on a “biometrics automated toolset” and other “cool and sexy” systems that supported national security, according to Ms. Johnson.

Titania has a different mix of contracts, with health care accounting for half its business and about a quarter each from the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense.

One of the Washington region’s fastest-growing tech companies rents 18,000 square feet of a gray, two-story building that also houses a day care center at Vint Hill. The location, which costs far less than office space to the east, means Ms. Johnson gets up at 4 a.m. and drives about three days a week to client meetings at L’Enfant Plaza, Crystal City and the Pentagon.

Half of the company’s employees work at Vint Hill. Titania also has an office at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and employees “on site” for clients in D.C., Maryland, New Jersey and Texas.

“We lost money in the early years and took no salaries,” Ms. Johnson says of the company’s founders. “We have less infrastructure but more experienced folks . . . . And, we’re all willing to take out the trash if we have to.”

Titania spends about $60,000 a month on employee health insurance and an equal amount on 401(k) contributions.

Ms. Johnson has hired well-compensated talent earlier in Titania’s evolution than she did at Oberon and already has given about one-fifth of the company stock to the staff. Of the company’s first 30 hires, 25 previously had worked with her.

The business remains rooted in family and relationships to the Johnsons, married more than 29 years. They have hired some people met through their connection to Highland School in Warrenton, where she served on the board and to which they donated $1 million toward a new middle school library that opened six years ago.

Mr. Johnson oversees accounting, finance, facilities and security.

“She does things I’m not good at, and I do the things she’s not good at,” the 57-year-old Wisconsin native, who grew up on a dairy farm, says of his wife.

Her oldest son, Charles McCormick, oversees human resources. The Johnsons’ two other sons have worked in the business and her parents, who have moved to Fauquier, also have helped.

In an industry rife with acronyms and certifications, a new one has grown increasingly important to DOD contracts: LPTA — “lowest price technically acceptable.”

That has made it more challenging to “take care of people, which is the basis of my business,” says Ms. Johnson, who puts the company’s profit margin at 6 to 8 percent on most of its work. “If you can’t pay people well and provide benefits for them and their families, they aren’t happy.”

It takes happy employees to perform well, making clients happy, she adds. Most of the company’s employees at Vint Hill live in or near Fauquier, allowing them to avoid the challenging commutes of others who work in government contracting.

The area has “a tremendous pool of talent,” Ms. Johnson says.

The Army brought her, a Connecticut native and then a single mom, to Vint Hill Farms Station in the mid-1980s. Working as an intelligence senior operations specialist, she also met David M. Johnson, a Department of the Army civilian employee, there when he came by her desk for a temporary security badge.

After leaving the Army, Ms. Johnson went to work for a Manassas-based defense contractor purchased by Mystech Associates, which Mr. Young and others owned. She stayed, learned and moved up to Mystech’s vice president for human resources. She remained for a while after a publicly-traded corporation bought Mystech.

“She was young and energetic,” Mr. Young recalls. “As I got to know her, I saw a lot of talent.

“She’s got great people skills . . . and a whole lot of common sense,” he adds. “I don’t know why they call it common sense, because it’s uncommon.”

Invested in a range of other businesses, Mr. Young serves primarily as a Titania board member and advisor. He suggests that Ms. Johnson has the skills to run a Fortune 500 company.

Hard work has a lot to do with her success. Fitting classes around her career, Ms. Johnson took 18 years to earn her bachelor’s degree in organizational development from the University of Maryland in 1989. She devotes about 60 hours a week to Titania.

The company has seven contract proposals in process and considers about 25 a year, Ms. Johnson says.

But, if a company waits for government agencies to announce bid solicitations, it seldom has a chance, she explains. The business requires deep understanding of clients and their needs to anticipate those announcements.

Ms. Johnson adds that the next year will be “really compelling” for Titania, with most of its contracts up for “recompete.”

Although it will get “harder and harder,” she expects double-digit annual growth to continue, with the potential to add as many as 50 employees a year. The founders have invested heavily in executive talent to ensure they have the ability to staff up quickly.

“There’s no one way to run a company. I lead this team the only way I know how, with my sleeves rolled up,” Ms. Johnson says. “We work hard and I expect others to work hard. I’ve always found that if you tell people what you want, they will try very hard to achieve it . . . .

“I’m very hands-on. That doesn’t mean I can do everything. I’m not a software engineer . . . . I think I like to lift people up. I like coaching.”

Titania’s leadership devotes a lot of attention to communication with employees, team-building and charitable work in the communities where it operates.

“You see what kind of good things you can do, such as the donation to Highland,” Mr. Johnson says of the work’s rewards. That — along with his wife’s drive — influenced his agreement to launch Titania.

As for the long term, Ms. Johnson says: “I would like to get to a point where I can take a little more time” to spend with their two grandchildren and on vacation. “I’ll find out if I’m the type of person who can do that.”

> CLICK here to watch a video in which Jodi Johnson and Dave Young talk about building a business.

You can contact Lou Emerson at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-270-1845.

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RKS RPIC · September 28, 2018 at 1:10 pm
Titania is a great place to work; a great working environment.
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