Member Profile: Roger Ervin, Blumont
Member Profile: Roger Ervin, Blumont
Our Member Profile blog series features InsideNGO members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. Roger Ervin, President and CEO of Blumont, Inc., has more than 25 years of experience leading and managing large organizations with complex missions, including executive positions at the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Commercial Service, and the African Development Bank. Roger joined International Relief and Development (IRD) as CEO in November 2014, beginning a period of comprehensive organizational transformation, including the official transition to its new name, Blumont, this month. I caught up with Roger in his Arlington, VA, office, where he talked about these major changes and what comes next.
Elizabeth Walsh (EW): I understand the transition from IRD to Blumont has been completed. How long has that process taken and what have been some of the biggest obstacles that you have had to overcome?
Roger Ervin (RE): It’s taken us about a year and a half. Early on in my tenure I realized that we needed to operate differently than we had been operating. We wanted to have a new business model that was more transparent, that was more nimble from a competitive standpoint, and one that represented best practices. And so we started the strategic thinking process and that eventually gelled into a definite model that we wanted to implement.
Some of the challenges ranged from the normal things that any organization goes through in the change management process: getting people to understand what we were trying to do; how to align ourselves around a new model; the work process to make the new model come to fruition; and then actually ensuring we had all the integrity and operations and testing. It’s not just a brand change. We enhanced our entire internal controls, our computer systems, our standard operating procedures, the way that HQ and the field relate to each other, and what our interface was with all of our donors. It was almost like starting a new organization. Each donor had to understand how the new model related to them, especially in respect to cost impact and performance. It's really pretty dramatic.
EW: Where are you headquartered?
RE: We are headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. We’re proud of that. We still have a large office here in Arlington, and we have a large office in Jordan. We are global, so people are dispersed and work in various ways together. We look forward to staying in the Midwest. We’re establishing great relations with the University of Wisconsin, and with industries in the Midwest. We have some pretty interesting announcements that are going to come out on partnerships with some of the largest industries in Wisconsin. We’ve got substantial partnerships along the western side of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee all the way up to Green Bay. We hope to really mine that corridor and create the kind of dynamic partnerships that I think the donors like to see.
EW: Tell me why you chose the name Blumont.
RE: It’s related to Wisconsin and the way we operate. It is a derivative of the name Blue Mounds, which are rolling hills just outside of Madison, and with the concept that mountains represent peak performance and transparency. We’re branding the idea of peak performance, and good project management systems, controls, fairness and transparency, and innovation. We have a tagline: Collaborate. Innovate. Transform.
EW: Going forward, what do you believe will be Blumont’s biggest opportunities?
RE: Our operating paradigm is that we work from relief to resiliency. We don’t parachute right in after a disaster. We come in in the recovery period more or less. We work on stabilizing communities, working with communities to manage themselves through crisis and get to a more stable transitional state. We do work in transitional period as well, mainly in agriculture, community stabilization, in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), and agricultural value-chain. We also have an engineering group that works in infrastructure and resiliency. We support a lot of climate change risk mitigation infrastructure, and other types of resiliency programs related to agriculture. So we work across the spectrum, and under the Blumont model, we’re designed to work in all three of these spaces more effectively
EW: How is Blumont structured?
RE: We have a holding company that operates three subsidiaries. We have Blumont International, which is all our non-USG work. The projects consist of work with UNHCR, DfID, the World Food Programme, DFAT (the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), and the World Bank. We have Blumont Global Development, which is our US Government work. We grants and cooperative agreements related primarily to recovery and transitional states. And then we have our engineering group, which is mainly our infrastructure and resiliency work. This group, Blumont Engineering Solutions, only operates as a for-profit. These are three different business units that are all separate and they all have their own competencies, all under the umbrella of Blumont.
EW: What are some of the operational challenges/issues you face in your organization?
RE: One is getting people to understand how to operate three entities [laughs]. I think that’s the biggest change management issue. We are trying to operate a more flat organization, and I think the “globalness” of our organization—having our people work together in global teams—is something that is probably more perfected in the private sector than the NGO space; we’re trying to get people to work that way.
We want people to find better ways to utilize technology in our space and I think that the industry is a little bit behind even though Blumont is probably a little bit ahead of other organizations. Global internal controls, IT systems, being in the cloud. We’re in the cloud everywhere now. That’s actually an important differentiation point for Blumont: How do we utilize the cloud, access the cloud in low bandwidth environments, and then what’s achieve measureable performance of our efforts? What kind of knowledge are we deriving so [that] we can learn how to operate with fewer people—have technology do what technology does best, and people do what people do best. At the end of the day, we’re a people-to-people service so we don’t want to supplant that attribute, but at the same time, there’s a lot of manual things that people in development do that could be automated.
EW: So how are you bringing people along? Because a lot of what you’re talking about is behavior change.
RE: It is. And behavior change is really tough. We know that it’s not going to be instantaneous; it’s going to take years for Blumont to work as we’d like it to work. We do a significant amount of training and there’s more we could do. We try to do at least three regiments of training: one is face to face in-house; sometimes we subcontract training out, and there’s InsideNGO which is really important to us; and the third is online training programs.
One thing that we’re actually in the middle of now is customizing training in local languages… We found that we can do all the training we want in English but even if people say they understand, sometimes they don’t. Converting the ‘government speak’ of this industry into Arabic or Pashtun or Spanish or French is a bit of a challenge, but that’s our goal, to really customize things. One of the advances that we are rolling out is with our Costpoint system. We’re converting to an SAP system. SAP gives us the ability to expand globally, for example, and to have English speaking internal controls on one side and local language controls on the other side.
EW: How many people are working for Blumont now worldwide?
RE: About 1,200.
EW: Blumont is implementing significant programming for refugees and IDPs, particularly in the Middle East. What distinguishes your work in this area?
RE: One, in terms of compliance and controls, verification, delivery of goods and those kinds of things, I think that we have state of the art capabilities and we are always looking at this to see how we can do it better. So not only best practices but continuous improvement. That’s a critical goal for us.
Second, we are letting people know that we’re still an NGO but also a government contractor. We’re an NGO with a certain mission driven, public purpose and we operate as a government contractor and we reach for solutions, including many private sector solutions to get the job done. Our mission is still to help people.
Third is project management. What we do, especially in the Middle East, really hones the idea of good project management. With the type of work we do, project management saves lives.
EW: Given the current overall sense of ambiguity and uncertainty we in the sector are facing as we move toward a new administration, do you have any advice from the perspective of leading your own team through a period of ambiguity and uncertainty early on in your tenure?
RE: We still want to do what we do best and work with the donors to do those jobs and hopefully those principles won’t change in the US agencies that we work with… I doubt there will be much change there. There’s no way that we can pull back on helping refugees or helping people in crisis… Now, the emphasis may change slightly, more Syria than Iraq, marginal changes like that, but we’ll deal with those. At the executive level, I think we’re just in a wait-and-see period. You really can’t be in our business and get off balance by these changes.
EW: What do you perceive as the value of InsideNGO membership for your organization?
RE: We happen to be a government contractor that’s an NGO. We’re in this business to help people. And so that means that we have to be highly focused on operations and while we want to have an emotional connection to our beneficiaries, we also have to have a realistic view of how and why we’re in this business. What I like about InsideNGO is that it is focused on operations. It exists to help us do our jobs better. That to me is really something that we want to be able to help you [InsideNGO] to continue to improve your services, so that you we get the best results… I think if we work together we can all look at doing things differently and better for the whole entire community. Even though we’re competitive, I think there’s a lot of things that all of us do that are relevant to each other. We can all be looking at where those best practices are, where those insights are, where the challenges are, and really at least all try to achieve a higher level of performance. I think we’re not doing enough of that as a community.