2013 Thought Leader John Heller

Monday, January 6, 2014

By the time John Heller (MBA '90) was recruited to become CEO of the federal contractor Pacific Architects and Engineers Inc. (PAE), he had already been a president, chief executive officer, managing director, senior vice president, founder, and chief operating officer (twice).

To ascend the executive ranks, Heller leapt at new opportunities, particularly those accompanied by unfamiliar responsibilities. In November 2013, he shared his personal story of risk taking and executive leadership as the featured alumnus speaker of the 2013 Thought Leader in Business forum, sponsored by the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration. The annual forum is designed to put students in front of executives with globally relevant business insights.

"The best way to handle risk in your career is to get a variety of career experience," Heller told the roughly 60 students and alumni who packed a Mervis Hall classroom for his one-hour presentation. "To be at the top in your field, to rise to the top in organizations, you need to face risks and take on challenges."

At the time of Heller's presentation, he was chief operating officer at Engility, and in this role he was responsible for managing the company's day-to-day operations and reporting them to the CEO. Established in July 2012 as a spinoff of L-3 Communications, Engility provides government services in engineering, professional support, and mission support to a roster of federal clients that include the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

In December 2013, Heller became CEO of PAE, an Arlington, Va.-based firm that provides integrated mission support to clients including the U.S. government and its allied partners. The company currently employs approximately 15,000 people in over 60 countries. 

His Journey to Becoming a Well-Rounded Executive

Although Heller has risen to the top of his profession, his career did not begin with a business focus. He majored in mathematics at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point and served in the Army as a logistics officer following graduation. After earning his MBA from the Katz School, Heller was hired by Deloitte in the firm's consulting unit. He exceled and quickly earned two promotions. But something was missing. "I wanted to push myself and challenge myself to do something different," he says. 

The opportunity presented itself in Germany. Thanks to Heller's military contacts, he had the chance to start a Germany-based venture in which he would sell BMW vehicles to U.S. military personnel and diplomats stationed overseas. "Making that first choice to leave my comfortable life at Deloitte set me on a path. I said I'd look for a challenge and not be afraid," Heller says.

The vehicle sales were good, but Heller still had that itch for a new experience. His next chance came via a startup founded by a group of KPMG consultants, Answerthink Consulting. Within two years, sales topped $250 million. Employees grew from 150 to 2,500. Serving as the managing director of one of the company's business units, Heller learned an important lesson. "We are all part of business development. A business is always about sales," Heller says.

Heller was recruited out of Answerthink to become the president and CEO of Rentport. He accepted this role despite the fact that RentPort had significant financial and operational performance problems. RentPort had difficulty with its product and it wasn't until Heller made the decision to purchase another company, one that possessed the right technology, that the business was saved.  "You need to be willing to take a 90-degree turn if you know it's the right move," Heller says.

After leaving Rentport, Heller became president and CEO of a company that during his tenure went by the names Wam!Net, NetCo, and MultiMax. Despite the company's solid assets and potential, it was struggling, and Heller identified members of the senior management team as part of the problem. He brought in his own people and, following several significant new business wins, convinced investors to fund a major acquisition. "I learned that an executive's No. 1 job is talent management. This is your responsibility. There is a lot of talent out there and you have the responsibility of making a change if you need to," he says.

Thanks in part to his changes the company turned the corner and the revenues poured in. Soon the company was sold to Harris Corporation. The remarkable change in fortune taught Heller another valuable lesson. "I learned we were so successful because of our cash flow. So much attention in business school goes to marketing and other areas. It would be nice if there was a wing in business schools called, 'Cash Flow,'" Heller says.

At Harris, Heller became the president of Harris IT Services, a business unit with $1 billion in annual sales. This was his first experience working for a company of this magnitude, and Heller came to appreciate the immense importance of long-range planning and capital investment decisions. "In a big company, strategy really matters. To run a company well, you must do two things really well: operate the business and, at the senior executive level, invest the money well," he says.

Even In Football Losses, a Lesson

The Pitt Business Thought Leaders in Business forum, established in 2005 by Katz alumni Shekar Narasimhan (MBA ‘75) and Ed Hurley (MBA ‘78), has exposed hundreds of students to executive-level insights from leading business thinkers. Past speakers have included senior executives from Starbucks, PNC Financial Services, Minerals Technologies Inc., and BNY Mellon. The forum is made possible through the financial support of Narasimhan and Hurley.

Heller learned many lessons from his career moves, and he also never forgot what he learned on the football field. In college, Heller played defensive end for the Army football team and drew the unenviable assignment of squaring off once a year against Pitt tackle and future No. 2 NFL pick and four-time Pro Bowler Bill Fralic. "I wore a lot of colors from his helmet on my chest," Heller joked. 

The Army team valiantly grinded out its games, but struggled against successful opponents like Pitt and Notre Dame. "I learned that in some situations, you can't turn it around with the current resources and strategy, so don't be afraid to make significant changes to ensure success," Heller says. "This applies to organizations, too. Business is about winning."

Heller emphasized to the students that the Katz MBA program is giving them the tools they need to be successful. Each student is armed with the power to blaze their own professional path. But nothing will be handed to them. The responsibility is theirs to take risks when the opportunity presents itself.

"I'm no different than you guys," he told the students. "My start was here in this classroom, just like you, 23 years ago. What drove my career are the choices I made and the challenges I took on."