Ernst Volgenau had an idea in 1978, so he started SRA International from the basement of his home in the Hunters Woods area. In a little less than 30 years of existence, the small technological company grew from a Reston basement into a national giant.
"Business is all about people," said Volgenau, recently named Virginia's Outstanding Industrialist of the Year. A businessman should always treat people well, whether they are employees or customers, added Volgenau, a McLean resident for the last 20 years.
When he started the company in 1978, Volgenau recognized that there was a need for people who could perform computer services and who could help consumers understand computers. He said that personal computers were just starting to come out. They became more versatile, meaning they could perform more functions, more powerful and less expensive.
"An industry sprung up for companies, which resulted in the growth of [Information Technology] services industry," said Volgenau. He added that even the big companies, such as IBM, could not meet the demand of the market for computers. "They did not have enough people to show [the consumers] how to implement [the computers]," said Volgenau. His experience made Volgenau the right person for the job.
Volgenau spent 20 years in the Air Force before retiring as a colonel. While in the military, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as director of data automation for the Air Force Logistics Command. After retiring in 1976, he served as the director of the inspection and enforcement for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"The Air Force was good to me," said Volgenau. "I had wonderful jobs and lots of responsibilities as a young person. It reinforced in me the basic ethical framework," he said.
THAT ETHICAL FRAMEWORK developed on a farm in western New York where he grew up. At the age of 12 he became responsible for taking care of the farm's animals while his father was away fighting in World War II.
He said he built SRA International, today a company with an annual revenue of more than a billion dollars, on the basic ethic of honesty and service. Bill Brehm, a director with SRA International, met Volgenau in 1967, and joined his company in 1980.
"Everybody learns from a guy like Ernst Volgenau," said Brehm. "He has an intense devotion to ethical behavior and a strong sense of duty to public and the community," he added. Brehm said the company, based on Volgenau's ethics of honesty and service, goes beyond obeying the laws. "[Volgenau] sets an example," said Brehm.
Knox Singleton, president and CEO of Inova Health System, said Volgenau is an incredibly focused individual. "He helps me and everyone who observes his leadership understand the importance of keeping the main things the main things, and adhering to those priorities during the inevitable distractions and noise that any organization endures," said Singleton.
Volgenau said business has not changed much since SRA's inception in 1978. "Basic principles are still the same, not that much has changed," he said, despite the fact that technology has changed dramatically since then. His advice to young entrepreneurs who wish to follow in his footsteps is to have a good idea and be able to deliver it to a market. "There's got to be a market for what you're doing," he said.
WHILE SCIENCE AND engineering still fascinate Volgenau, he has also found meaningful work in local organizations and charities. He serves on the George Mason University Board of Visitors, the Inova Health Care Services Board, the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation Advisory Board and the Virginia Economic Bridge Board. He said he is interested in developing and working on the ethical and academic education of poor children.
Volgenau also finds family to be very important. He lives in McLean with his wife of 48 years, has three daughters and nine grandchildren. "We're a close family and we do a lot of things together," he said.
Nancy Tait of the Science Museum of Virginia said Volgenau was selected as the Outstanding Industrialist of the Year because his career and community service spell out the criteria to win the award.