HOW I DID IT

How I Did It: John Stallworth, CEO, Madison Research

An athlete scores again.
GOING DEEP As a wide receiver, John Stallworth contributed to the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty. He's had even more meaningful impact away from football.

Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

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As told to Patrick J. Sauer

Even before the close of his Hall of Fame football career, John Stallworth was thinking ahead. In 1986, six years after catching a 73-yard touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIV and two years before he retired, Stallworth founded Madison Research with his wife, Flo, and Sam Hazelrig, a retired Army engineer he'd met at his son's soccer game. Over the last two decades, Madison--an engineering and IT company based in Huntsville, Alabama, that handles system design, modeling, analysis, logistical support, program management, facility operations, security, and network administration for clients such as the Army, the Air Force, and NASA--has blossomed into a $62 million operation with 470 employees. The funny thing is, Stallworth seems so driven to create a relaxed culture with happy employees that it almost sounds as if he's talking about a vegan coffee shop rather than a cog in the military-industrial complex.

I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was an interesting time. I was both in awe of the University of Alabama athletic program and swept up in the civil rights movement. It was a little scary--you knew there was a line out there, and you could be hurt if you crossed it.

When I was a freshman, my high school had only been integrated for three years. At pep rallies, our battle song was Dixie and you would always look out and see Rebel flags. A lot of students said it was tradition and didn't mean anything, but there was also a group that was sensitive to the implications. As athletes, we were sort of in the middle, but we forged a camaraderie between the blacks and whites on our team. We all drank from the same water bucket.

There was a certain humility to our Steeler teams. We were like partners, even more than teammates. Our success was based on the interdependency with the guy next to you. Making Terry Bradshaw look good by catching the ball was no more important than throwing a block for Franco Harris. We truly believed this, and that's how we were able to do things that had never been done before.

Early on, I felt like my being a football player was something our company had to overcome, so I didn't wear my Super Bowl rings or have memorabilia in the office. I'd go to a meeting and all they would want to do is talk football. I never brought football up because the worst perception about it is that it's not a cerebral game. I had to prove that I was intelligent and that the business was legitimate.

I decided our greatest chance for success would be starting a company that supported the federal government because it has mandated procurements for small businesses. We incorporated in 1986 and I was majority owner, Hazelrig had about 40 percent, and my wife had a percentage.

A lot of folks told me to figure out what we did well and pursue that niche. I never liked that strategy because what if the niche goes bad? I wanted our company to do at least five or six things, so I made a list of things to focus on: a combination of prototype manufacturing, IT, and logistics. It was difficult when we were starting out because we didn't have the personnel to run deep on every project.

In 1987, we signed our first contract with the United States Army for $271,000. Hazelrig was crucial in helping us get it because we were still only three people and he understood what the military wanted. He spoke their language. I was a little intimidated by the generals because of my inexperience, even though some of them knew me from the NFL. We ended up building two stands with gauges and such for testing parts on the M1 tank. We didn't make a penny on that contract, but it opened doors and allowed us to hire support personnel.

By 1992, Madison Research was becoming a recognized name and we started getting prime contracts instead of subs. In 1995 we won a $50 million contract to run a computer simulation center for the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. When it came up for bid again in 2002, nobody competed against us.

Hazelrig retired in 2000, and I've ceded day-to-day operations. I now serve as a more traditional CEO, coming into the office every day and concentrating on strategic planning, developing relationships, meeting with clients, and continually updating and implementing the company's five-year plan. My other important function is serving as a role model for company culture. We put together a list of core values for the company, which include having a place where people enjoy working because they are treated with respect. I want my people to be relaxed because then they will feel comfortable voicing their opinions. There is a time to be serious, but there is also a time to have fun, share a meal, or just talk about family. That's how the Steeler organization operated, and we have the same culture.

The worst perception about football is that it's not a cerebral game. I had to prove that I was intelligent and that the business was legitimate.

I like the public sector model because the competition is based on the best proposal and not always the cost. There's a quality of fairness to it. Sometimes the margins of the private sector look pretty good, but I like knowing we will always get paid and that the federal government is never going out of business.

Minority set-asides weren't something we thought a lot about when we started Madison, but sure, we went after the contracts and took advantage of those programs. I believe we used them for what they were intended--to help minority business owners build an infrastructure, grow, get experience, and compete with established companies. We haven't used them for five or six years, though. We outgrew them.

We've set up air defense systems in Egypt and Norway and for our troops in Afghanistan. Look at who many of our ultimate users are: soldiers. Since the beginning, I've known that we are supporting the military in conflicts all over the world. Somebody's life could depend on how this company--my company--does its job. That's very sobering.

As African American entrepreneurs, we need to be role models and speak to our young people at churches, schools, Boys Clubs, etc. We need them to understand the pain and sweat that goes into any profession, whether it's the year I missed when I broke my leg, came back for a game, and broke my foot, or when I didn't get paid for months on end building Madison Research. We need our young athletes to understand that less than 1 percent go on to play professionally. We need to define ourselves by more than catching footballs or shooting jumpers.

One day a single mother came into my office. She'd been working with us for five months and she broke down in tears telling me how much she needed the job for her family and her own sense of self-worth. That was the greatest feeling I've ever had. It rivals anything I ever felt in athletics.

I was overjoyed when the Steelers won the Super Bowl last year, especially for the Rooney family. They've done it the right way. Who else would only have two head coaches for 37 seasons? Through good times and bad, they've stood by Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. I use that belief system in running my own company. Stick with folks, and it will pay off in the end.

IMAGE: Photograph by Anne Senstad
Last updated: Aug 1, 2006




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