Ron Houle builds a bridge to the Capitol

Ron Houle works for defense procurement funding at the highest levels of U.S. government.

“To be successful in defense procurement it’s important to understand what the Department of Defense (DoD) needs, how to design to that need, how projects get funded and how they are justified in Congress,” says Ron Houle, vice president of government relations, DHS Systems, Orangeburg, N.Y. “If you’re going to be in the business of providing products to the government, you need to understand all those pieces and how they fit together, or hire someone who does.”

After 25 years as a career Army officer, Houle retired in October 2000, spending his last three years of service working in the Pentagon. “While there I became very familiar with the legislative process and how the Hill works, especially as it pertains to defense procurement,” Houle says. “I also became familiar with how the Pentagon decides to fund procurement programs.”

Shortly after Houle’s retirement, DHS Systems, which manufactures mobile tactical shelters and mobile power and environmental control units (DRASH—Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelters), was experiencing significant growth. The company recognized the need for a permanent, full-time presence in Washington, D. C., if the company was going to take full advantage of the opportunities in defense procurement. Though Houle lacked experience in specialty fabrics, his experience in the military, with Congress and in the Pentagon, made him the perfect candidate for the job. In 2004 DHS hired him and he began learning about the company’s products and how they can meet the needs of the military. “I adopted my own little professional development program, if you will,” Houle says. “I had some of the manufacturing staff and some of the business development staff teach me about the products.”

Understanding the need

It is Houle’s comprehensive understanding of how the elements come together that makes his role particularly effective. He understands the needs of the Army, how it develops requirements for certain products, how those requirements are assigned to program managers, and how procurement funds flow to those program managers. He then defends the program in Congress so that it can survive the legislative process without being decremented or cut. “Basically, I defend the programs by addressing the needs of the Army,” Houle says. “I make it clear that this equipment is critical to the mission-readiness of the units to which it’s being assigned.”

Houle’s faith in the products and the company’s attentive ongoing customer support give him ammunition for making the case for ways the products meet military need. During Houle’s years in service, he never had the opportunity to use DRASH products, which contributes to his understanding the need for them. “As a former field commander who had a responsibility for laying out his command post systems, I could certainly relate firsthand to how these products were truly revolutionary in their field,” Houle says. “We had previously been working with shelters and power generation that had essentially remained unchanged for 50 years. Tents that weighed hundreds of pounds and were very labor intensive to put up and take down. And they’d get wet and be even heavier and would mildew.”

Houle points out that the field staff—retired soldiers who were end users of the products—are deployed throughout the country to provide customer support. That support is a critical part of what the company offers along with the shelter systems, and is part of what Houle communicates to clients, the DoD and Congress.

Predicting procurement

Among Houle’s responsibilities is monitoring the national budgeting process as it pertains to DRASH products, which means staying abreast of the DoD budget and the Army’s level of funding—and how those budgets are faring as they make their way through Congress for final approval. “Currently, the defense procurement environment is completely unpredictable,” Houle says. “Having to operate under a continuing resolution for the last two fiscal years, and now facing sequestration, are the most pressing issues we face because those budget tricks make the government’s purchasing strategy very lumpy and uneven.”

Addressing the defense procurement challenges means increased communication with stakeholders. “There’s no magic bullet to handling this,” Houle says. “We just catch what comes down at the end of the procurement pipe and try to mitigate the effects by staying in close contact with our customers and program managers on nearly a daily basis to determine what it is they’re going to be purchasing in the coming weeks and months.” Houle also tries to give the business development team and manufacturing team an idea of how much money will finally be falling down to them, how and when it might flow, and how and when the orders might come in.

Putting the pieces together

In addition to Houle’s roles on the Hill, he also facilitates and manages relationships with large integrating contractors—companies that produce complementary products to those produced by DHS. One such integrated contractor is Raytheon Co., producer of the Patriot missile system, for which DHS provides the command post component. “As a part of my business development role, I identify programs that would require our family of equipment,” Houle says. “We come up with the right relationship, whether it’s a teaming agreement or something else, to provide what products they need from us. Then I monitor that relationship as their main program moves along.”

Houle’s role for DHS, multifaceted as it is, is largely about building bridges—between his company, the government, the military and other manufacturers—and it requires a broad view, with an awareness of detail. “I’m the person in the company who has a comprehensive view of the customers down at the far end, and can weave their needs through the highest headquarters of the Pentagon, through the halls of Congress, and everything that goes along with that,” Houle says. “I know what it means to be both up and down that stream—and that gives me some valuable insight.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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