Parsons: How Adaptability Turns Eight-Employee Company Into a Global Behemoth
Founded by Ralph M. Parsons in 1944, Parsons Corporation is a company that has quietly transformed our global standard of living by serving the defense, intelligence, and infrastructure markets. Headquartered in Centreville, Virginia; having more than 16,000 employees across 24 countries; the company deserves its ranks #11 on Engineering News-Record’s top 500 design firms list.
Parsons Corp and Its Strategic Acquisition
Nobody would blame executives at Parsons Corp. for resting on their laurels as the firm listed at No. 45 on Washington Technology’s Top 100 companies list. However, there are still some wonders about the short-term-and long-term expansion potential for the firms in global infrastructure market.
In 2017, The Engineering-News Record called the construction design services market “healthy” but said it had “concern about the future,” citing a less than robust economy, political turmoil both at home and abroad and other trends that portended a potential slowdown. The publication also pondered the disruptive potential of developments like the Internet of Things and smart devices as these technologies become increasingly interwoven into the brick-and-mortar infrastructure business.
In response, Parsons executives said they have had made a noticeable shift over years to account for these trends, seeking out complimentary technological components in cybersecurity, missile defense and smart buildings to its repertoire. In interviews, high-level executives recounted their efforts to leverage outside acquisitions and internal restructuring to change the way the company is perceived in the marketplace.
“I would say if we’re talking about our legacy reputation and brand, it’s that we do large complex problems very well,” said Virginia Grebbien, Parsons’ former chief of staff responsible for corporate strategy and government relations. “Moving forward, the metamorphosis that we’re moving towards is that we provide solutions to large complex issues. That’s a big difference, moving from projects to solutions.”
That subtle change in messaging was in line with the company’s overall strategy to become more technology focused. Evolving from an engineering and infrastructure firm to a “technology-driven engineering services firm” was, according to executives, both necessary for survival and a forward-thinking business strategy in line with the company’s desire to be an innovator.
Carey Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer at Parsons Corporation, elaborated on the distinction and cited the need to stay ahead of market trends. “If you look at where the market is going in the future, it’s basically converged security: combining cyber and physical security into solutions,” said Smith.
Indeed, for more than 75 years, the firm continues to grow through organic expansion and strategic acquisition. In recent 2 years, we can cite the purchase of three companies as illustrative of the company’s acquisition-based business strategy: Echo Ridge LLC, BlackHorse Solutions and Braxton Science & Technology Group. Each firm served a distinct purpose.
Acquisition #1: Echo Ridge LLC, 2021
Echo Ridge complements Parsons ‘recent acquisitions, expands this firm’s full-life-cycle space systems provider offerings, and extends its product offerings acquired through QRC and Braxton Technologies. This acquisition provides the Virginia-based firm with new capabilities in position, navigation, and timing devices (PNT); modeling, simulation, testing, and measurement tools; and deployable software defined radio (SDR) products and signal processing services — all critical capabilities its customers need as it helps them create the future.
Acquisition #2: BlackHorse Solutions, Inc., 2021
BlackHorse Solutions was another strategic acquisition of Parsons about technology mission. The addition of BlackHorse Solutions increases its scale in the areas of cyber, electronic warfare, and information dominance, enhancing Parsons’ position to pursue and win upcoming large joint all-domain contract opportunities, which is a key component of its national defense strategy. BlackHorse expands Parsons’ customer base and brings differentiated best-in-class capabilities in cyber, digital operations, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and full-spectrum operations.
Acquisition #3: Braxton Science & Technology Group, 2020
This $300 million deal has increased Parsons’ solutions, products, and capabilities in the space, cyber, and intelligence markets. As BSTG operates at the forefront of satellite operations, ground system automation, flight dynamics, and spacecraft and antenna simulation for the U.S. Department of Defense and Intelligence Community; the transaction is consistent with Parsons’ strategy of acquiring high-growth, defense, and intelligence technology companies with software and hardware intellectual property that enhance its technology and transactional revenue growth and margin profile.
Parsons’ Five Keys to Success
Showing its commitment is to enhance and optimize its core business as well as improve financial performance, in addition to acquiring high-growth, defense, and intelligence technology companies, Parsons’ strategies mainly focus on cross-selling and technology investment. Here is one of the flow this firm actualize those strategies.
#1. Setup & Innovate System
One major project, the California I-405 improvement, illustrates Parsons’ successful approach to project delivery across five key areas.
Parsons implemented a cloud-based operation management solution called Oracle Aconex to manage the $1.9 billion design‐build project. The company also took advantage of their experience using this tool on other projects, including Denver International Airport, to implement Oracle Aconex at the I-405 project inception and configure the flexible system to best serve the complex project.
The solution’s ease of configurability has been key for Parsons. On the I-405 project, Parsons processes 1,000 different work packages per year over the six-year project. These work packages in many cases require their own specific workflow involving the designers, program and construction management teams, stakeholder cities and permitting agencies; to name a few.
“Usually, workflows take a lot of time to put into action and run. In Oracle Aconex, it takes just a matter of minutes.” – said Ashish Sharma, Solutions Architect, Parson. Using the outsource tool, the company can not only minimize the risk of information crisis but also reduce the time in operation.
#2. Provide Secure Data Workspace
Parsons fostered a culture of trust and collaboration by implementing a secure workspace for each organization on the project without the conflict of one party administering the system for others. This format drove system adoption and helped ensure a complete project record—a valuable resource considering the long life of this public infrastructure asset – as the project owner benefits by having access to the project-wide system throughout the project, along with maintaining ownership of its data in an accessible and useable format throughout the life of the asset.
#3. Take Executive Sponsorship
Parsons recognized the imperative to adopt and integrate technology into the very fabric of their organization – and did so long before Boston Consulting Group coined the phrase “bionic company.”
The consulting group states: “Leading companies in multiple industries are combining the strengths of humans and technology to create superhuman—bionic—capabilities.”
Parsons demonstrates this very type of innovative leadership. The company assigned a corporate principal program controls manager to oversee the system setup, leveraging best practices from previous projects and appropriate technology implementations, to help ensure the success of I-405. The company ensures efficiency and success for itself and its clients by taking a corporate-wide view of project management rather than managing each project individually.
#4. Offer Timely Training
This Virginia-based firm offered training to ensure everyone understands the data governance and structure of the project. Parsons also provided straightforward, accessible system training on how to use the tool on the I-405 project to all organizations as they were onboarded to specific tasks. In addition, the company improved process efficiency and data quality by implementing the system to meet the specific needs of both owner and project.
#5. Ensure Accurate Information
Parsons configured the Oracle solution for the I-405 project to make individuals’ jobs easier and more successful. Each organization owned their own secure space on one central system, eliminating the need for multiple redundant systems – and the extra work, cost, and potential for errors that can result.
Each organization can use their own secure Oracle Aconex site to collaborate internally before easily sharing, transmitting, and reviewing project information with the broader project team. The combination of structure, training, and ease of use drives adoption, helping Parsons and the project owner ensure complete and accurate project information.
The Positive Result
By ensuring everyone was working from the same information, Parsons has reduced potential errors, having all parties on the project access one central platform. This cross-project transparency increased the number of issues that were identified and resolved at the 60% review rather than the 90% review. Resolving these issues earlier in the project saves the project time and money.
The level of automation and ease of information access for project managers and engineers has also reduced the number of document controllers needed over projects. The existing document controllers can work on more valuable activities, such as improving processes, rather than spending so much time on administrative tasks.
A Safe Hands-on Approach
In addition to business operations, this firm also pays attention to integrating with environmental, health and safety management in its project. That the company’s stability and organizational transparency provided Parsons Corp an edge to 2019 award by the National Safety Council.
“Our outstanding team is the lifeblood of our organization.” stated Parsons on its website. People have always been at the center of Parsons 75-year history of excellence and performance.
As Campbell Institute Senior Program Manager Katherine Mendoza recalled, both characteristics were especially evident after inclement weather postponed the visiting Campbell Award assessment team’s travel plans during the spring of 2019.
Unable to use a previously prepared onsite assessment location as a result of the delay, Parsons officials barely blinked, readying a new location on short notice.
“In this case, they had no preparation time, so what we were seeing was very raw,” Mendoza said. “It made it even that much more impressive when we went, and we saw a situation that was incredibly positive. It had great culture at the location.”
To Parsons Chairman and CEO Chuck Harrington, the key to streamlining efforts while helping ensure safety on the job starts with maintaining direct and consistent communication between supervisors, workers, and contractors.
“EHS (Environmental, Health and Safety) is a common value that all of our employees share, regardless of the industry they serve or the language they speak,” Harrington told Safety+Health. “Our leaders lead by example, demonstrating a hands-on approach to EHS while also empowering and setting expectations for our employees to be accountable and responsible for their personal safety and health, the safety and health of their colleagues and stakeholders, and protection of the environment where we operate.”
A major factor in Parsons’ cultivation of an award-winning safety culture is the “OWN ZERO” initiative, which took root in the mid-1990s. According to Parsons’ award application packet, submitted in May 2019, the organization has observed a decline in its total recordable incident rate over the past 18 years, including a 31.4% reduction between 2008 and 2018.
Harrington said Parsons remains committed to “continuous improvement” and the notion that achieving zero incidents is possible. Five core attributes that have been instrumental in the evolution and success of OWN ZERO:
- Everyone has a duty to provide EHS feedback to others, regardless of position or title.
- All stakeholders must pause work when necessary.
- Everyone takes EHS practices home.
- EHS perspectives must be included in all planning phases of contract execution, from presales to contract closeout.
- EHS ownership begins when individuals hold themselves and others accountable to a goal of zero.
“The principles of OWN ZERO can be applied to an organization of any size,” Harrington said. “With leadership that reflects the importance of EHS and encourages direct employee engagement, our EHS practices could easily be scaled for different organizations.
The Bottom Lines
In many aspects, Parsons’ evolution can be described as the company’s technical reaction to constantly economic changing and political context. However, dipping into the firm’s strategy, we can also see how market adaptation and leadership could turn a start-up consulting business with eight employees into a formidable global organization.