Sunday, February 29, 2004

Diversitech is diverse

Having a range of specialties works best

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

Lucretia Askew, CEO of Diversitech, and her husband, James Askew, president, inside James' office.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN

SPRINGDALE - When the two Mars Rovers landed and began their reconnaissance work on the red planet last month, a local firm had reason to rejoice. Its intensive testing of the Rover's airbag landing gear helped ensure that the robotic explorers touched down undamaged.

Testing the landing system is just one job that Diversitech Inc. has done for NASA, the Navy, the Air Force and other federal entities. During its 10-year history, the company has grown dramatically and increased its technical capabilities by going after varied federal contracts. True to its name, Diversitech has propelled itself past its beginnings in aerospace engineering, developing a range of specialties.

From the start, the company built complementary facets. The first was the partnership between its founder, James Askew, and his wife, Lucretia. A former engineer at the GE Aircraft Engines plant in Evendale, James Askew wanted to develop a company that could do research and development, testing and engineering. Lucretia Askew, a recreational therapist by training, gravitated to the business side of Diversitech. She is now the company's CEO.

"I oversee everything; I'm the big-picture person," she explained. "I also help to manage our growth."

So while James Askew, his retired GEAE boss and a couple of part-time engineers honed the company's technical capabilities, Lucretia Askew kept a critical eye on project timelines, resources and profitability. She also made sure that the company's work stayed on track. That has become her niche.

Diversitech has benefited from the area's engineering and technical professionals.

"We have a pool of retirees we use, which is critical," James Askew said. "That kind of experience enhances your team real fast."

In putting together crews for various projects, he has blended retirees with younger members, promoting what he calls a "transfer of knowledge."

"Our strategic plan is to hire experienced people," his wife added. "With each division, we hire experts. We hire good people and give them full rein."

Dave Hill said Diversitech's pairing of younger professionals with more experienced ones works very well.

"We mentor our younger employees via real time or formal training," said Hill, Diversitech's vice president, whose team provides engineering and oversight for NASA's aerospace test facilities in Sandusky, Ohio.

The company's initial work came from GE but was soon supplemented with a few small contracts from the Air Force and from NASA, for whom James Askew had worked previously.

From its original focus on engineering and testing, Diversitech branched out first into technical support and then into construction and environmental management services.

"Right now, we can go to a customer and say, 'We can build your facility and manage it,''' James Askew said.

"I believe our strategy to be a 'cradle to grave' type company has a lot to do with our success," Hill said. "For instance, our development, operation and maintenance of systems and facilities has provided a diversified skill base that also can be used in construction."

Diversitech's expansion into complementary specialties came in response to a company crisis.

"In 1997, we had 25 engineers in this office, working on a couple of projects which were renewed year to year," Askew said. "In 1998, those projects went away. We had really good people and tried to hang on to them. It almost put us out of business.

"Experts tell you not to put all your eggs in one basket. That's easy to say. To get new business, you need full-time business developers, but small businesses don't have that resource."

Despite more expert advice on the value of having a specialty, the Askews decided that they couldn't afford to define their mission too narrowly. They began to develop new specialties that flowed logically from their original ones. They also targeted customers who could provide stability for the company.

While Diversitech has dealt successfully with the federal government and large companies that have long-range plans and well-established procedures for subcontracting to small and minority-owned companies, it has often been frustrated in its attempts to land contracts with a few local entities.

"Some of the initiatives that have been going around the city - by the time we got to the table, they have already outsourced some of the work we could do," he said.

To survive and thrive, Diversitech has developed a host of complementary relationships, Lucretia Askew said.

"While we try to go after as much as we can by ourselves, some of these contracts, the multimillion-dollar-a-year contracts, they're huge and they have bundled-up contracts. You have to know who are the players, and go in as a team. A small company can't bring everything that's needed. Building relationships is very important."

Those key relationships extend to lending institutions, James Askew said.

"What's limiting us is our capital resources," he said. "A lot of financial institutions don't understand federal contracts. We're working with banks outside Cincinnati right now, and using our profits to help fund our growth."

While Diversitech has landed on Inc magazine's list of 500 fastest-growing privately-held companies for the past two years, Lucretia Askew said the company's growth must be focused.

"We have already identified where we're heading," she said. "We want to avoid accepting jobs that don't take us where we want to go."


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