One of the pioneers of the Washington tech scene is back in the fast lane—so fast we had to catch up with him over breakfast at the zippy McLean Hilton rather than the more leisurely Tower Club. For the last year, Ed Bersoff has been CEO of systems integrator Advanced Technology Systems: “ATS.” He's brought on more than 200 employees, made a couple acquisitions, raised revenues to $125M, and says he’s instilled a culture focused on growth.
Ed gets a call from his 17-year old grandson.
Sound familiar? Ed is fond of running companies with three-letter acronyms, having come to fame with BTG, which he founded in '82, took public in '94, and grew to $588M in revenues, doing things like IT for the Navy. A big success, it was sold to Titan in 2001 (then Titan to L-3 in 2005).
He could have retired, but the NYU PhD in him wouldn’t stand it. So he found a post-dot com start up to re-route emails which he ran and sold; then became an investment banker—so diligent he took his Series 7 exam sitting in a row of carrels with a bunch of 20-somethings, sweating that he’d get his results immediately and have to head back to the office where colleagues knew exactly where he’d been; it was okay, he passed. But then he was approached by entrepreneur Tom McMillen to do a “blank check” company where you raise money from Wall Street without specifying how you’ll use it. It intrigued him, but Tom’s idea was hardware for national security, and Ed was more interested in BTG-like services, so with other investors he ended up raising $126M and using it to buy ATS.
Naturally, the New Yorker ordered a bagel.
Now he’s determined to make it again as a medium-size contractor. When he saw a Post piece recently claiming how tough such businesses have it—not getting the special set-asides of small business, yet lacking the resources of the larger firms—he fired off a witty retort to the editor that the Post printed. "If you do 100 million in revenue, you don't have a plight," he said. His secret: playing up your advantages. He introduces himself to three star generals who approve awards, even giving them his home phone number.
Ed shows us his headquarters, across the street from the Hilton.
But he’s busy in other ways. He interrupts our talk to check his Blackberry for the second time. The message he's waiting for isn't from a client: It's his grandson, who might need a ride home from the dentist. Ed and his wife, Marilynn, have raised him since birth, and he's now 17. That could be an exhausting prospect for anyone, but try running after a little kid when he learns to ride a bike and you’re in your 50s, Ed reminisces.
Still, he’s not about to run out of energy. At 8 a.m. when we sit down for breakfast, he's been up for hours. His ritual is to rise at 4:30 a.m. and work out, mixing his routine between treadmill and bike. What else keeps him going? He loves taking trips to his native New York to meet with investors (ATS was backed by boutique hedge funds). Sometimes his wife comes along for the ride, and after the pair decide whether it's going to be a "jeans weekend or a tie weekend," they end up fitting in a trip to Stage Deli and a Broadway show (these are the Phantom freaks who saw "El Fantasma de la opera" in Madrid in Spanish). And (we don’t know how to explain this one), Ed’s well on his way to meeting his goal of visiting all of the world's exotic casinos to play craps.
Last thing on our mind, which we’ve always wondered: What did BTG stand for? He says he used to claim Bersoff Tech Group, and that employees joked Better than Good, or Bill The Government. But the truth can now be told, he says: Nothing. Just some initials he thought sounded cool.