Leveling the playing field

Insights and strategies gleaned from business seminars created for the U.S. Navy have contributed nearly $2 billion in savings since their inception in 2011.

A navy pilot works on one of their planes
150710-N-EH855-342 TIMOR SEA (July 10, 2015) Lt. Zachary Holbus, center, and Lt. Keith Ferrell, center-right, launch an E-2C Hawkeye from the "Liberty Bells" of Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 115 from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) as part of Talisman Sabre 2015. Talisman Sabre is a biennial exercise that provides an invaluable opportunity for nearly 30,000 U.S. and Australian defense forces to conduct operations in a combined, joint and interagency environment that will increase both countries' ability to plan and execute a full range of operations from combat missions to humanitarian assistance efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bryan Mai/Released)

A business seminar tailored for the U.S. Navy has provided insights and strategies that have resulted in substantial savings

In 2010, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley started the second year of a nine-year run leading the Office of Research, Development and Acquisition, he called on Carolina for help.

Senior Navy officers in the RDA office were responsible for negotiating the best deals they could get for everything from aircraft to ships to submarines. But there was a problem. Early on, Stackley realized his team was competing on an uneven playing field tilted in favor of the defense industry.

To get help leveling it, Stackley turned to the people he knew at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Executive Development, said Kirk Lawrence, a retired U.S. Army colonel who, since 2012, directs the program at the business school’s Rizzo Center.  

Soon afterward, Robert A. Connolly, an associate professor at Kenan-Flagler whose research interests include financial markets and real estate development, was asked to develop a program to meet the Navy’s needs. Connolly worked with retired Navy admiral Harry Quast to create a unique seminar for a select group of students called “Understanding the Business-Acquisition Relationship Executive Seminar.”  

As part of the foundational work, Connolly spent days poring over Navy and Congressional Research Service reports that provided details analysis on Navy acquisition programs and government acquisition rules. “I read everything to be found on ship classes, radar systems and all the rest,” Connolly said.

A record of results

Since their inception in 2011, more than 600 senior leaders have participated in the seminars, said Allison Stiller, the principal civilian deputy of the RDA Office. Students include all functional areas in a program office such as contract specialists, program managers and logisticians.

For these students, the goal was not to get good grades or collect credits toward a degree. Their sole objective was to develop a business strategy to get a better deal for weapons systems they were about to buy where billions of dollars would be at stake.

And they have done it. To date, Stiller said, the insights and strategies gleaned from the seminar have contributed nearly $2 billion in savings across many Department of Navy programs.

“Seminars such as these allow the student to look at their program with a different lens, and having that perspective yields a new way of approaching a procurement,” Stiller said. “Working with UNC over these past six years, we have embraced student feedback so that no two courses have been the same.”  


Each week-long seminar kicks off with an assembly at the Rizzo Center in which top-level Navy officials join with leaders of the program to lay out the challenge — and opportunity — at hand. When the assistant secretary of the Navy is behind the initiative and expresses his support at the start of each seminar, it sends a message to senior staff that he expects this to work, Connolly said.

One unique dimension to the Navy-Carolina work are the “deep dives” where Kenan-Flagler faculty join with Navy executives to develop the foundations for an acquisition strategy for a specific weapon system the Navy is about to buy — and for dealing with the corporations they will be buying them from. The aim is to devise a detailed negotiating strategy to drive down costs. These sessions are outside of the week-long seminars and are focused on a specific acquisition program.

One of the reasons the week-long program has worked so well, Connolly said, is because Stackley understood, at a deep and profound level, the myriad challenges his office had to overcome. “The first challenge was simply knowing what things should cost,” he said.

Another daunting challenge that the seminar has addressed is to close the wide gap between what defense industry executives know about how military and government systems operate, compared to what government procurement officers know about the world of finance. “The focus on financial incentives for firms often led to many ‘a-ha’ moments for program participants,”Connolly said.

During sessions he has led, Connolly said he often used the language of game theory, which looks at the strategic interaction between two or more players in a bargaining setting, to get that point across.

“I’d say, ‘Look guys, this is a repeated game. They are playing it like a repeated game. You are not and that is why they always best you.’ That usually led to spirited discussions that moved the room because we were suddenly neck deep in the real serious business of asking, ‘If we do this differently, what would happen?’”

It is standard practice for defense companies to hire away the most experienced government civilians and military acquisition professionals who know how “the system” works, then leverage that information to maintain a competitive advantage to maximize their profits. In contrast, most acquisition professionals serve their entire career with the government and are not familiar with what motivates defense industry executives to behave, posture and negotiate in a profit-and-loss world. 

“The problem is that government acquisition professionals, as a group, do not understand where the leverage comes from dealing with a private-sector firm,” Connolly said. “What we are telling them is, ‘If you want the upper hand in a negotiation, this is the place to look. ’”

The defense industry also contributes to these seminars by sending executives to participate in panel discussions and offer industry perspectives, Lawrence said. Participants include Raytheon, Huntington Ingalls, Leidos, Boeing Defense and General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Spreading the savings

Kirk Lawrence, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is a program director at the UNC Kenan-Flager Business School’s Executive Development, joins with Allison Stiller, the principal civilian deputy of the RDA Office, during the kick-off of a seminar last month at the Rizzo Center.

Lawrence sees an opportunity to build on the program’s record of success with the Navy and has already reached out to other military branches about offering the seminars to them. “Other business schools across the country work with the military, but I am not aware of any school that does what we do at this high of a level for senior officials,” Lawrence said.

That success has continued since Connolly left the program in 2015 and was replaced by Rob Lippert, a financial economist at Emory University who has held corporate, consulting and academic positions in the areas of strategy and finance. 

Like Connolly, Lippert tells his students that the only way to level the playing field in the procurement game is to find out all they can about the people and companies they will be dealing with and use that knowledge to their advantage in the same way the other side already does.

“Few of the folks who are running most of these procurement campaigns come from a business background and that puts them at a disadvantage when they are dealing with people in business who do this 80 hours a week,” Lippert said. “The Navy folks are smart, but just have never been given the tools — until now.”

Along with Connolly and Lawrence, Lippert sees the potential to maximize the impact of the program by expanding it to other military branches. “I think it could become a full-time offering across all the military because the return on investment is extremely high,” Lippert said. “If we can save 2 or 3 percent on multi-billion-dollar contracts, this program pays for itself many times over.”

Stiller said the support in her office for the seminar continued after Stackley left in August 2017. On Oct. 21, Stackley’s successor, James F. Geurts, was at the Rizzo Center for the kick-off of the next seminar to discuss his perspectives on dealing with industry with 50 senior-level Navy acquisition professionals.

“Seminars such as this one provide the student with different things to consider when determining an acquisition approach on a program. Each tool added to the toolkit is an asset to the program team,” Stiller said.