Leader Profiles: A Conversation with Julian Setian, CEO of SOSi
The Foreign Area Officer Association Journal of International Affairs
Graham: If you could, just, talk about your own biography, and the history of the company, and how you came to the company, and then after that, drill down a little bit into the language/culture/Intelligence portfolio that you have.
Julian: So, first of all, the company was founded by my mother. We're actually a family-owned business. We're really proud of that fact, because there just aren't that many companies in our size-bracket in the Defense and Intelligence business that are private, family-owned businesses without any outside institutional money. It’s something that we include in our company profile when we talk about the business, because it really speaks to the level of commitment and responsibility that we have to our customers, as well as our agility and ability to react quickly to their requirements. We have been in business for twenty-eight years. We were founded in 1989 to provide foreign language and cultural advisory services to the Federal law enforcement community. Our first clients were the Department of Justice, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Customs Service – which, of course later became Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and moved under the Department of Homeland Security when it was formed. Our core expertise was to provide contract linguists to support the Federal law enforcement agencies' Title III wire-surveillance programs, collecting and analyzing, intercepted telephonic communications and wire communications, and then preparing those products for criminal trials, and testifying as expert-fact witnesses. That was our focus for about ten years. Nobody was really paying attention to us. We thought of ourselves first and foremost as a language company. Then 9/11 hit, and the fact that there weren't enough foreign language speakers in the Federal government became front page news. If you remember, the intelligence failures that led to the attacks were attributed to the government’s lack of foreign language expertise. Vast amounts of information that had been previously collected, sat unprocessed for years, because there weren’t enough qualified linguists to triage the data. So, we were catapulted onto center stage. We were hired as a sub-contractor on this relatively small contract to provide contract interpreters to the U.S. Army, which was the Executive Agent for providing contract interpreters to the entire Department of Defense. Our first assignment was to hire and deploy contract interpreters to Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq, and six or eight countries that were indirectly-associated with OEF and OIF. So, we quickly expanded between the years 2002 to 2006. We became one of the two or three largest suppliers of contract foreign language support to the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community. We had people who were embedded with units in Iraq and Afghanistan. We helped collect and analyze information across all the Intelligence domains for the Intelligence Community and the Intelligence directorates of the Armed Services, while we simultaneously continued to build our business with the Federal law enforcement community. We were one of the first and largest companies in that space, and that really gave us a platform to grow and diversify into other adjacent areas. We rapidly became known as a true “mission-support” company because we were at the tip of the spear of the military’s operations. We started branching out into immediate adjacent areas, providing direct analytical support to the Government's HUMINT, Counterintelligence and SIGINT programs. In the mid-2000s, we also shifted from being a sub-contractor to a prime contractor; we started focusing on overseas logistics and capacity-building. That’s where the level of sophistication of the business really grew. We went from supplying people to providing turnkey solutions. We were awarded a contract to stand up and manage the Counter-Narcotics and Border Training and Customs Academies in Afghanistan; we were hired by the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, to stand up a 24/7 forward media watch center supporting the Joint Staff and the regional combatant commands. We had a variety of programs supporting the military’s LLSO (Low Level Source Operations) mission. We started getting involved in information operations, doing media-related work, production, dissemination, pre- and post-dissemination assessments … and we grew quite a bit. Over the course of the last fifteen years, our compounded annual growth rate has been over thirty percent. When the military pulled out of Iraq, a good chunk of our business started to whittle, but we were able to quickly replace it. Because we’d built this expertise in providing mission support and overseas logistics services, we started to pursue business in the foreign military sales domain. Our general thesis was that, with the change in Administrations, as the U.S. Government began to pull back its overseas commitments, our international partners would step up and take responsibility for their own security. That meant more throughput in the foreign military sales program. So our focus was on providing long-range logistics and supply-chain management services to the large OEMs, to the companies that were selling boats, air defense systems, planes, etc., seeing if we could wedge our way into this niche area, providing support and a variety of other related services to foreign military sales contractors, and continuing to support the military in deployed areas. One of the other big shifts that we noticed was that the government, and the military in particular, was looking for smaller, nimbler contractors than the ones they typically had in the past. The days of the hundred thousand troop deployments were probably over, and it was more about supporting small, mobile units anywhere in the world, on a moment’s notice. So we felt like it was the right time for us to enter the market and to start to compete with some of the larger companies that have traditionally dominated that space. We’ve been pretty successful. Today, our biggest base of operation in that space, is in Iraq. We’re currently providing all the life support and logistics services to the foreign military sales contractors operating there, and we’re housing and feeding the majority of U.S. military forces in central Iraq. So that’s become a major component of the work that we do. Foreign language work still remains a pillar of the business, but, really the bulk of our work right now is actually in providing long-range logistics and base operations support, supply-chain management, turnkey medical support, fire and crash rescue, all the sorts of things that you see in those deployed environments – wholesale, retail, fuel and food distribution, etcetera.
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