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How Jack London built CACI into a billion-dollar defense contracting behemoth

By Mike Unger

Photography by Rachel Smith

Mementos from the first half of a life spent defending America and the second building a company that continues to help protect it today line the walls and shelves of the suite outside Jack London’s office.

Framed memorials pay homage to an uncle and cousin, each killed in action in World War II. Photos are everywhere, including one of him flying the Liberty Belle, a vintage B-17G aircraft, in 2006 as a personal remembrance of his cousin, and another of him with President George W. Bush at the White House. Trinkets, patches, pictures, flags — they all represent the love of CACI International Inc.’s executive chairman and chairman of the board for both country and company.

On a coffee table near a couch sits a copy of his latest book, Character: The Ultimate Success Factor. His image stares from the cover with a slight smile. When the man himself enters the room, he greets a guest with a firm handshake, unwavering eye contact and a let’s-get-down-to-business demeanor.

It’s this straightforward, right-is-right and wrong-is-wrong approach to business that has helped enable J. Phillip London, known to the world as Jack, transform Arlington, VA-based defense contractor CACI from a small consulting company into a multinational information solutions and services firm with more than $3.6 billion in revenue.

“I’m ambitious,” London says, a hint of an Oklahoma accent apparent in his voice. “Not ruthlessly so, but in the sense that I like to achieve and accomplish things. I like to build things, I like to be part of successful organizations. I like to work with people that share these kinds of attributes and values.”

London, 77, was CACI’s 35th employee when he joined the company as a program manager in 1972. He went on to serve 23 years as CEO before stepping down to become executive chairman in 2007. Today the firm has more than 15,000 employees in 120 offices worldwide, and is a member of the Fortune 1000 Largest Companies, the Russell 2000 Index and the S&P SmallCap 600 Index.

How did he do it? Industry insiders say the keys were his aggressive policy of mergers and acquisitions and his inherent understanding in the 1990s that computer applications were shifting toward networks.

“The federal IT industry is what it is today because of Dr. Jack London,” Shawn Osborne, president and CEO of the TechAmerica Foundation, said in June when he presented London with the organization’s Corporate Leadership Award. “His vision on where the industry was heading helped shape not only CACI but also the industry as a whole.”

While he is proud of his business record and policies, London points to something else as the primary reason for his success. An ideal that’s shaped not only his career in the corporate world, but his 24 years in the U.S. Navy, and he hopes, the entirety of his life.

He points to the title of his book.

“Good character is a quality we can all own that no one can ever take from you,” he says. “In our business, we are people-driven. You look at our balance sheet and you don’t find a lot of patents or manufacturing plants or real estate or gold mines. Our balance sheet is receivables, and it’s accomplished by our people. I think by bringing these values of trustworthiness and integrity, then technical competence, to the organization … that was part of the reason I had the opportunity to progress as I did.”

The makings of a legend

Jack London’s great grandfather was an Oklahoma Sooner, the nickname given to those who took part in the land rushes that opened the Oklahoma Indian Territory to settlement. It was before a University of Oklahoma Sooners football game in the 1950s that young Jack watched as the Blue Angels streaked overhead. The show piqued his interest in the Navy and, eventually, the Naval Academy.

London’s father, Harry, also went by the name Jack. He was an entrepreneur who ran a small home furnishings business.

“I learned a lot of values from being in and around his business, watching him operate, and how he conducted himself,” he says. “He had vendors and suppliers that would provide him with his product lines. He would negotiate with them. I would often watch them stand and talk about the deals. They would shake hands — that would be it. Maybe someone would follow up with a letter 10 days later, but it was all done with a handshake. It wasn’t U.S. Steel or General Motors, but those folks in that type of business in those days, their word was their bond. It was an interesting experience that I reflect on these days.”

London did earn that appointment to the Naval Academy, graduating with a bachelor of science in naval engineering before going on to serve 12 years of active duty and 12 years in the Navy Reserve. Among the highlights of his career was his membership on the airborne recovery team assigned to pick up astronaut John Glenn after he orbited the earth on Feb. 20, 1962. Glenn ended up overflying the planned recovery zone and was picked up by a ship rather than a helicopter, but London still remembers the momentous day vividly.

He retired from active duty in 1971 (and from the reserve, with the rank of captain, in 1983) and landed a job with a Rockville-based engineering firm. That company was sold within a year, precipitating his move to CACI, where he was afforded the opportunity that would shape his career and a large part of his life.

Billion-dollar behemoth

Founded in 1962, CACI went public six years later, but still was a “tiny” company with “only a few million dollars in revenue” when London joined it.

“The major thing we did in those days [was] transition from a consulting type of company to a systems-oriented company,” he says. “I brought the idea that we could make a bigger company out of it, without having to have phenomenal luck. You can be entrepreneurial and creative, but typically, to be successful you also have to be able to lead a team of people in an effective way. I’ve found that people that are very inventive couldn’t lead another person to the bathroom without having a fight. Attitude is a big deal. I guess I realized in the last 10 or 15 years, as we got to be [a] larger company, that [it] was key to empower people.”

London steadily rose through the ranks, and in 1984, three years after being elected to the board of directors, he was named president and CEO. His natural leadership abilities, some of which he picked up from the men he worked for in the Navy, were evident.

“I wouldn’t for a second contend that having served in the military necessarily correlates to being successful in business,” he says. “[But] I had the opportunity to serve under some people I thought were big thinkers. That was an epiphany. The people that I worked with were high-integrity, four-star admirals that were the best of the Greatest Generation. I saw what real leadership was all about. There was an attribute that they tended to share — the ability to commit themselves to some kind of activity and not think of necessarily what will happen to them. They had an emotional capability to detach. They were willing to do the right thing and make a commitment to it, even if it caused them some unfortunate backlash or problem.”

Once he was at the helm of the company, London wasted no time imparting his philosophy of character-based decision making.

Gregory Bradford is president and chief executive of CACI Limited, the company’s United Kingdom operation. He joined the firm in 1979 and met London a few years later.

“[Jack’s] a guy with a tremendous amount of energy and ambition, and he has instilled in everyone who has reported to him this ambition to build the business,” says Bradford, who reported to London for 22 years. “He’s got a collaborative management style. I always kind of thought he was my partner as opposed to my boss. We would brainstorm and debate things. There were only a few instances in my career where he told me to do something.”

A changing world

In the early 1990s London sensed a changing world. Networks were on the brink of exploding, so he launched an ambitious mergers and acquisitions program to reposition the company for the new landscape.

It worked. Revenue jumped, and the company’s workforce and government contracts grew exponentially. Since 1992, CACI has closed more than 60 deals, acquiring communications and network services capabilities, and entering the intelligence domain.

“[Jack] has this lifetime experience in how to handle these things, how to talk to the Street — investor relations are an important part of it — and how to deliver the messaging about the acquisition,” says Navy Admiral (Ret.) Gregory Johnson, a CACI board member. “He is willing to take prudent risks. It differentiated us and gave us unique capabilities, all the kinds of things that Jack has learned are key to the success of our company.”

While the company has had some close calls, there have been no catastrophic acquisition failures, London says.

“Our whole mergers and acquisitions program is living proof that you can take a capital structure in a cash flow world and transform it over time,” he says. “We’re looking for organizations that have technical or marketplace specialties, uniqueness, special market sense or customer sense. The initial thing we look for is a culture of values — an attitude toward the customer. We’re looking for organizations that will basically fit our culture. They have to have a willingness to participate in a degree of loyalty to what we’re trying to do in supporting the U.S. government in very high-value, important areas.”

Of course it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In 2004, CACI was accused of involvement in the mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. London vigorously defended the company and wrote a book called Our Good Name: A Company’s Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib.

Early last year, CACI’s board of directors replaced ex-CEO Dan Allen with current president and CEO Ken Asbury. Allen’s abrupt departure — he had been on the job less than a year — raised eyebrows among those in the industry still astounded by the level of power London wields. Inside CACI, however, the troops closed ranks.

“It took a lot of courage to say, okay, we need to look at a change here,” Johnson says. “I think Jack and the board handled it very well. At the end of the day it was Jack’s leadership and wisdom that smoothed the transition. It’s been a successful transition in what arguably could not have been a more difficult time.”

London describes his role in the company today as a confidant and safe haven for Asbury, and a strategist and public face for CACI. When the company acquired intelligence contractor Six3 Systems last year for $820 million, London was integral to the approval of the deal. His office suite is next door to the board room. It’s clear his fingerprints remain all over the firm.

“I was new to the company,” Asbury says. “Going through the process of what kind of information is necessary to get to the board, doing all the banking things, he’d been through it a number of times before. I got to go through a very short learning curve because I had somebody with a tremendous amount of knowledge and a fundamental willingness to share it.”

Since arriving at CACI, Asbury, a longtime Lockheed Martin veteran, has supported London’s emphasis on communicating the company’s culture to employees on a continuing basis.

“At the end of the day, there’s nothing magic about it, it’s just common sense,” says Asbury, who also spent much of his childhood in Oklahoma. “It’s about not taking shortcuts and doing the hard thing when it’s the right thing. Jack can be as detailed as anybody you’ve ever met, but he also has the capacity to see big picture. He sees big picture and he can take it down to as small a detail as you want. I [have] got to keep on my toes. I’m very prepared every time I go in to see Jack, because I don’t know whether I’m going to get the 10,000-foot question, or the six-inch question.”

A legacy founded in character

Writing a book called Character requires a boatload of confidence (and some would say at least a dash of hubris). For London, who started working on it about four years ago, it was less a finite literary project than the culmination of a career spent shaping CACI’s culture.

“It started off to be a small, 50-page paper for our employees,” he says. “It didn’t take me very long to realize that I really had a hot topic that was radioactive in some ways. I started reflecting on Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, the VA tragedy. It’s unbelievable.”

In conversation, London is fond of quoting everyone from George Washington to Roy Disney to Jack Welch. Along with his philosophies, the book is peppered with quotations from historical figures, business leaders, entertainers and coaches, among others. Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, wrote the foreword:

“A good test when contemplating taking an action is to ask if you would mind if your mother watched you doing it,” he writes. “For those not fortunate enough to have a mother who lives to be 105, Jack London’s book should be required reading.”

All royalties from the book go to CAUSE, a nonprofit that organizes programs to promote recreation, relaxation and resiliency for members of the armed services recuperating from injuries received in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. CAUSE is one of several military and veteran-focused groups London supports.

“For a guy who’s a [leader] of a huge defense-related corporation, watch how he’ll focus on smaller issues,” says Todd Creekman, executive director of the Naval Historical Foundation. London serves on its board. “One of the things that Jack has brought to us, as a businessman, is a sense that you’ve got a bottom line. It doesn’t matter how noble your mission is. Even if you’re a nonprofit, you’ve got to perform.”

London’s father worked into his late 80s, and the son of that small-town Oklahoma entrepreneur, a man who built a billion-dollar company by following what his gut told him was right, has no plans to retire anytime soon.

“I’m a pretty determined type of person. I have a little bulldog-type of mentality in me,” he says. “I will do something to stay involved.”

Not to do so would be out of character for Jack London. CEO

Mike Unger is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

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WHAT DOES JACK LONDON LOOK FOR IN AN EMPLOYEE?

1. When I’m looking to build a team, the most important attribute in bringing on leadership people — as a matter of fact, anyone — is attitude. People have to have a positive, constructive, get-it-done type of attitude.

2. I always look for integrity. Honesty, ethics, how people behave and comport themselves in doing the right thing. Do they have an instinct in that direction? They don’t have to talk themselves into being honest.

3&4. What’s their level of conviction and determination to achieve? I’m not interested in people who are just here for the ride and the paycheck. To build a successful organization, people have to have a belief in what they’re doing.

5. Last but not least is competence. A technical competence and expertise.

Very interestingly, about 10 or 15 years ago, when I was reflecting on some of this with one of my board colleagues, a former chief of staff in the Air Force, his recruiting criteria or officer selection criteria were almost identical.

TAP INTO THE MIND OF JACK LONDON

Jack London served as president and CEO of CACI for 23 years before becoming the company’s executive chairman and chairman of the board. Along the way, including his upbringing in rural Oklahoma and his military career with the Navy, London amassed insight into life, character and the business of leading a multinational corporation that any CEO could learn from.

Our Good Name: A Company’s Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib
(Washington, DC: Regnery, 2008)

In 2003, evidence surfaced of the brutal, degrading treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. London’s book chronicles CACI International Inc.’s crisis management after it became implicated in the scandal through a leaked U.S. Army report.

Character: The Ultimate Success Factor
(Jacksonville: Adducent, 2013)

Real, long-term success is not created by skill or luck — it’s a result of acting with honesty and integrity, London posits. What you believe in, and how you act on those beliefs, determines how far you will go in life.