Nearly a decade later, the niche now is front and center, and the Ph.D. chemist has parlayed good experience and great connections into a more recent role as president and CEO of Versar Inc., a Springfield, Va., engineering firm that has boomed along with the national obsession over chemical and biological security.
The national security breach of 9/11 and others in the days and weeks following played a big role in Versar's new visibility. The firm was one of the industry's biggest responders to the spate of anthrax outbreaks in the fall of 2001, barely able to keep up with the clamor of calls from federal agencies, media outlets, banks and other institutions for cleanups and future protection. The hoopla sent shares of the publicly owned company, normally shunned by Wall Street like other mid-sized E&C firms, through the roof. "We were trading about 100,000 shares a day," says Vice President Michael J. Abram.
|DECONTAMINATION Cleanup of anthrax-contaminated offices and mailrooms kept Versar technicians busy during the 2001 outbreak. (Photo courtesy of Versar)|
Corporate lifeand the stock pricehave both calmed down since then, but Versar has been busy building on its stock of security-related products and services to take advantage of new and burgeoning opportunities. "Our core skill is managing dangerous materials," says Prociv. That has led to new relationships with federal and corporate owners directly, and with larger engineering and construction firms on teams seeking major security-related contracts.
Versar executives emphasize that the company is hardly a Johnny-come-lately provider in the area of response to "weapons of mass destruction," better known as WMD. "We're not a 9/12 company," says Executive Vice President George Anastos. The firm boasts one of the few high-rated commercial biological testing labs in the U.S. and has a growing business in selling an array of "doomsday" products, including full protective suits and filtration systems.
Versar even had the foresight to secure rights to its Website address, www.homelanddefense.com, some two years before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made the phrase a household word, says Anastos. Prociv says that he was approached by federal officials to sell the address, "but the offers were not anything to write home about."
Through acquisition and other changes, Versar has morphed since its founding in 1969 from a technical consultant founded by Ph.D. scientists to a full provider of architectural, engineering, environmental and security services. The firm is a major cleanup contractor to DOD and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and provides design-build services to private and public clients, including a $5-million expansion of facilities at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., a research center for the National Science Foundation. "We're the only company that has homeland defense, A-E services and hazmat-trained people under one roof," says Prociv, who joined the firm in 1999 and was named CEO a year later. The firm has about 460 employees and reported revenue of $68 million last year. Environmental work makes up about half of its current business, with A-E work and homeland defense splitting the rest.
|CLEAN UP Remediation work stays active. (Photo courtesy of Versar)|
But it is the WMD niche that has Versar executives all excited. They eagerly show off the latest innovations in personal protective equipment the company has designed, including a full-size mannequin in the corporate boardroom sheathed in full protective dress and sporting an "escape hood" that they claim is superior to a respirator for those with full beards or wearing facial makeup. "It's all in the filter and in the seal," says Paul W. Kendall, vice president for national security programs. The device is now being tested at DOD's chemical weapons laboratory in Edgewood, Md. Versar has orders exceeding $1 million for WMD equipment, according to a May 2002 announcement.
The WMD expertise is centered in Versar's original Geomet Technologies Inc. subsidiary. The unit operates a testing laboratory that, after a major upgrade, is now one of only three commercial facilities nationwide certified to handle infectious biological materials up to "biosafety level 3" (BSL 3), says Prociv. "We put $100,000 into it after 9/11," he says. The only two other labs more rigidly certified are run by the Army and the Centers for Disease Control. Versar says its lab orders "have topped $1 million and are expected to grow."
Versar's resources and expertise came in handy following the anthrax scare. Executives say the firm handled more than 200 responses, which reportedly included mailrooms in congressional buildings and media outlets that were the first to be targeted. "When a customer came to us to do anthrax, we could look at the air flows. This was followed by the hazmat guys who knew chain of custody," says Prociv. "We could then send samples to the lab, which could screen them for anthrax in three hours." He says anxious customers even contacted straight from the firm's Website.
The experience has led to a specialization in performing vulnerability assessments of water-wastewater systems and structures. Versar performed one of the first assessments done after 9/11 for the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, and has since performed more than 30 others, says Kendall. Versar signed an alliance agreement last year with Walnut Creek, Calif.-based engineer Brown and Caldwell to jointly tackle the assessments and follow-up design.
Versar also was hired by numerous federal agencies in Washington, including the Pentagon, to develop safer mail handling procedures. Executives are cagey about details of some contracts, since they are contractually bound to say little. One recently won contract is for work at one 60,000-sq-ft government agency building in Washington, D.C.
|TESTING Advanced bio lab was expanded. (Photo courtesy of Versar)|
Versar's resources and expertise in security work have drawn interest from large E&C firms looking to compete in the new niche. "The big guys are being really nice to us," says Abram. "They want us to be on their teams." Another draw is the firm's designation as a small business under certain federal rules because it has less than 500 employees.
Such alliances are drawing Versar into larger contracts than they otherwise would be able to tackle. The firm is teaming with one of five existing contractors to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for two chemical and biological threat reduction task orders worth more than $200 million. The prime contractors are Washington Group Inc., Parsons Corp., Raytheon Inc., Bechtel Group Inc. and Halliburton Brown & Root, but Kendall will not identify Versar's teaming partner. Contract award is expected next month. New emphasis on global defense threats may also pull the firm onto teams that are scouting chemical and biological waste sites and production facilities in the former Soviet Union.
Expertise gleaned from Versar's work in decontamination is proving useful in design of new facilities. Using stainless steel surfaces instead of porous ones reduces contaminant absorption, says Anastos. "We know where the problems are and how to select materials," he says.
Versar also recently signed an alliance with STERIS Corp., a Mentor, Ohio, technology firm, to scale up the latter's new approaches for decontamation that are more benign to materials and equipment, says Kendall. Chlorine dioxide, used on the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., is corrosive and poisonous, he adds. One chemical technique the firms are now testing dissipates to water and oxygen and "is 1/20th the cost," Kendall notes.
Versar executives lament the current slow pace of federal security funding, but are used to being patient. "We're hanging in there," says Abram.
Click below to view more articles from this special report >>
BUILDING FOR A SECURE FUTURE