Edwards Performance Solutions Continues to Grow
Breaking New Ground
By Gregory J. Alexander
Feb 01, 2018
To take a small business to greater heights, sometimes you have to be bold – shake things up a little and invest in expanded offerings. As a business solutions consulting firm that advises clients on improved efficiency, professional development and operational performance, Edwards Performance Solutions (Edwards) specializes in how companies can make key changes to achieve improved and greater success. The Howard County-based company illustrated this willingness to “practice what it preaches” when, five years ago they began a campaign of investments to improve itself, which included a bold decision two years ago by founder Steve Edwards to hand over the day-to-day operations to Gina Abate as President and CEO.
“Every company as it grows and evolves will hit plateaus, a glass ceiling of sorts. When it does, the owner can make one of three decisions: divest the company and sell; invest in the company and grow to the next level; or try to convince yourself that you can hover where you are. The third option I’ve never seen work; you are either growing or shrinking, but never hovering,” says Steve. “So, when I saw the company heading toward a plateau, it was a decision point for me and since I was not ready to walk away, I knew it was time to invest and grow.”
Gina, who joined the company, then known as Edwards Project Solutions, in 2013 as a Senior Vice President and was named President/CEO in May 2016, recalls that many of her colleagues advised her against joining the company when she was contemplating the important career change.
“When I was considering coming aboard, I had colleagues say, ‘Don’t do it.’ They had gone to companies to take over from a founder, and it was very difficult because founders can have difficulty in letting go of the reigns. I truly believe the reason I said yes was the fact that Steve and I knew each other so well and our core beliefs are very similar. Even though we don’t always agree on things, we at least know that the other one is approaching it from the same direction. If I had come to a company where I could not be honest and talk openly with the founder, it would be tough, so our long-time relationship has made it easier,” says Gina.
Gina adds that she and Steve have worked together over the years on many contracts. “Steve and I first met almost 20 years ago when I worked at Wang Federal Systems. We brought Edwards in on some project management training efforts, and hired the company on several contracts to augment what we were doing, so I knew what the company was focused on and their processes. Over the years since, as my role changed and I moved to other companies – some through acquisition and others through choice – I continued to engage Steve’s company to support our contracts in law enforcement and IT infrastructure to help us better manage our projects,” she says. “Over the years, we have also stayed in touch, having lunch together occasionally and bouncing ideas off each other.”
In addition to the excellent working relationship Gina and Steve have cultivated, having Gina lead the company’s overall strategic direction, and day-to-day operational, financial and business development functions is allowing Steve to focus on broadening the company’s visibility in Maryland and beyond.
“Steve is focused on cultivating community business and outreach relationships with organizations such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, various tech councils and economic development offices. When you are running a growing small business and expanding what the company offers, you have limited time to focus on outward facing relationships within the business-to-business community. With me running the day-to-day, Steve now has time for that critical part of the business.”
Steve agrees. “I am now able to go out in the community more and put a face with the name of the company and increase our visibility and name recognition, which helps with branding. We were known in the community with the training we have done and have long-standing relationships with our clients – some have been a client for as long as 19 years – but we were not as well known in the various chambers and some of the organizations outside of our industry focus,” he says.
With new leadership sometimes comes a new perspective – and new opportunities for growth.
“One of the reasons Steve brought me aboard was so that I could look at what we currently do and how we could grow the business,” Gina says. “We did not want to lose track of the heart of what we do, which is to successfully manage programs and projects for our clients, but we did want to open up the aperture to see how we could expand the business.”
After careful consideration, Gina targeted a burgeoning field that presented an opportunity to grow the business and seemed to already provide a natural fit for Edwards Performance Solutions – cybersecurity.
“One of the things that became very clear in the past few years is that when we are working with clients to make them more productive, make deadlines and stay on budget, if we are not also looking at cybersecurity, everything they do could be put at risk. We look at cybersecurity as a true business risk – it’s not just an IT problem. If you are ignoring cybersecurity, it will impact your business. We are very good at helping customers improve operational performance, so cybersecurity has to be a key piece,” Gina says.
While many in the business community still hold the misconception that cybersecurity is only for high-tech companies to handle, Gina instead saw cybersecurity as an area where Edwards could thrive. “We are not trying to be something that we are not. Instead, we bring an expertise of being able to come into a business and evaluate what it’s doing right, what needs to be fine-tuned and what needs to be changed … if we ignore cybersecurity as part of that process, we are doing a disservice to our customers.” Steve adds, “When many companies are asked about their cyber vulnerabilities, they point to the server room or think they need a better firewall. Well, that’s probably about 10 to 15 percent of your vulnerabilities. People represent 85-90 percent of a company’s cyber vulnerabilities, so that’s where our focus is.”
Gina and Steve agree that one of the biggest issues in cybersecurity is the assumption by small- or medium-sized businesses that hackers won’t go after them. However, especially for those small companies that are suppliers, hackers see them as a conduit – an easy way to attack a large entity.
One of the keys to Edwards’ success in cybersecurity was the March 2017 merger with Evolved Cyber Solutions. Brian Hubbard, Evolved’s founder, is now Edwards’ CISO, as well as its Director of the Commercial Strategic Business Unit and Cybersecurity Solutions. “We knew the direction we wanted to go with cyber, but Brian brings us enhanced credibility, given his 35 years of cyber experience,” says Gina.
Staying Agile in an Ever-Changing World
There is no disputing that for any company to survive and hopefully thrive in business – regardless of size or industry – it must remain agile and have the ability to respond and adapt to changing market conditions. Edwards is no exception.
“It’s been a tough federal market for the past six to eight years, so we’ve taken that as an opportunity to take a step back and look at rebranding. We changed the company name from Edwards Project Solutions to Edwards Performance Solutions, to change the perception that all we did was project management. The new name better reflects the broader scope of the services we provide, to include Enterprise Management, IT Services, Learning & Development, and Cybersecurity. We want to be seen as an innovative company that is always looking for solutions and services that complement our existing offerings,” says Gina.
Abate Named Board Chairperson of Cybersecurity Association of Maryland
In November, Gina Abate, President & CEO of woman-owned, Elkridge-based Edwards Performance Solutions, was elected the new chairperson of CAMI.
“Gina is an experienced CEO with exceptional growth leadership skills. We are delighted to have her lead CAMI in our quest to help our cybersecurity industry increase sales and bring tens of thousands of new jobs to Maryland,” says former Chairperson Art Jacoby.
“Gina is savvy and results-driven. We have great expectations for the future under her leadership, and I am excited to have a female at the helm of an organization in an industry traditionally dominated by men. Gina is a terrific role model for our younger generation of girls seeking cybersecurity careers,” states Stacey Smith, CAMI’s Executive Director.
Despite Gina’s tough federal market references, federal government work still represents about 90 percent of Edwards’ work. Steve says that the company has weathered the ups and downs of the federal market by being involved with multiple governmental agencies, across all areas of the federal sector (civilian, DoD and intel) – aiming to land contracts with even more agencies.
Another key company focus is to expand their commercial work. “Adding commercial customers improves balance and lends more credibility to our federal customers to show our diverse services,” says Gina, adding that Edwards has current customers in health care, law enforcement and the intelligence community, and is targeting the financial and energy industries, among others, for future growth.
Edwards has also greatly expanded its Learning & Development offerings this year to help organizations meet business needs and their staff’s professional development goals through classroom, video-teleconference and web-based platform training. “The heart of our solutions still maintains a program and project management discipline, but we wanted to expand into leadership and engineering training to better serve our client’s needs. Our recent large contract win in the intelligence community has more than doubled the size of our Learning & Development offerings and given us those opportunities,” says Gina.
Steve says training has always been an integral part of the company’s success over the past 20 years, as he saw early on how the industry could be improved. “I took a lot of training early in my systems engineering career, and I knew what was lacking – usability when I got back to my office … the ability to translate the training within my specific role and utilize it in my job,” he says. “Our instructors have worked in the field and bring real solutions to trainees’ problems. They share their own experiences and ways they solved a problem instead of just reading from the script,” Gina adds.
Another key to the company’s success is its Enterprise Management services – increasing operational performance and efficiency by providing an external perspective to determine how well an organization is “really” doing. Edwards provides a fact-based framework to evaluate people, processes and technology – allowing for a smart, cost-effective and executable improvement plan.
“Sometimes the CEO has a feeling something is amiss in the organization, but they need us to come in as an objective partner – helping to determine what issues prevent them from achieving success and what changes need to be made to make an impact in a positive direction,” says Gina.
Staying connected and engaged with employees is manageable when you are a small company, but with growth comes the challenge for leadership to stay well informed of its employees’ needs.
“Employees like to feel connected and be involved in the business, so we embrace it as a key piece in encouraging our employees to grow with us. We are currently looking at our workplace strategy and structure to accommodate the growth we are experiencing. This has resulted in a series of workplace planning sessions where we are asking the employees to provide specific working needs and desires so that we can incorporate them into the overall strategy,” Gina says. Steve adds, “I always wanted the company to be a place where I would want to be an employee. Sometimes it’s necessary for us to ask, ‘If I were an employee here, how would I feel about this new policy or leadership decision?’ Based on the answer, sometimes we [leadership] need to rethink the decision.”
Gina states company growth has added employees in the Arlington/Crystal City/Washington, D.C., area, to their multiple Maryland locations, so they have invested in more web-based platforms to stay connected to employees. “Having that constant interaction with employees gets exponentially more difficult as we grow, so more effective and timely communication is even more important than ever.”
In addition to employee connection, Edwards is dedicated to community involvement. “One thing we’ve always done is identify charities we want to support through walks and fundraisers; however, in 2017, we decided that we wanted to do more,” Gina says. “So we teamed up with Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center here in Howard County.” Grassroots is a 24-hour resource to individuals and families in need of immediate assistance with a personal, mental health, family, or shelter crisis. In addition to providing a 24-hour crisis hotline, they provide three meals daily for more than 55 shelter residents.
“When we work with Grassroots to prepare and serve meals, it brings us all together as a company and the employees can see the tangible impact they are having,” says Steve, who adds the company also assisted in helping rebuild Historic Ellicott City after the devastating floods and just started working with Year Up in Baltimore City, which offers young adults professional coaching, hands-on skill development and internships at some of America’s top companies.
“We look forward to being part of this important internship program – giving urban young adults experience and support that will help empower them in reaching their true potential is exciting for us,” says Gina. I95
Editor’s Note: I95 Business adheres to the AP Style rule of using individuals’ last names on second reference, but for the sake of clarity, for this article we used first names since the company name ‘Edwards’ was the same as one of the main sources’ last name quoted in the article.