As Dalena Kanouse’s sneakers hit the pavement in syncopated rhythm, the chaos of downtown Houston bustled around her. She was grateful for a break from the synthetic smell of hospital corridors and the hum of medical equipment, even if it meant honking cars and rushing buses. And Dalena knew that, as long as she stayed the course, it would lead her to a small garden shielded from the din of the city by several large trees. There were benches for rest and reflection—a kind of oasis for people like her, who were more worn out from trials of the soul than from a daily run.
On that particular day, Dalena decided to stop in the garden. Her husband’s leukemia had come back a second time, and after weeks of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, they would find out later that afternoon if the treatments had worked. They would find out if there was still time left, or if it had run out for them. Sitting on one of those secluded benches, Dalena closed her eyes and prayed. She asked Heavenly Father for a sign, but then tears came to her eyes as she was flooded with guilt. She knew she should have enough faith not to need confirmation.
Then, suddenly, a vibrant red bird appeared out of nowhere and alighted on one of the branches above her. It seemed to be watching her, and as she got up to leave, it didn’t fly off. “From then on, red birds, or cardinals, have been a symbol of hope, peace, and strength for me,” Dalena says today. “They remind me that everything’s going to be okay. We found out later that day that Sam’s treatments had worked, and we had another six wonderful months together.”
It was late September of 2009 when the Kanouses returned to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and found out that Sam’s leukemia had come back for the third and final time. Knowing it wouldn’t be long, the hospital released him so he could live out his final days at home. “For the entire three-and-a-half-hour drive back to our house, we left the radio off and just talked,” Dalena recalls. “We remembered the past and all the great times we’d had. It was as if time disappeared.”
Just a few days later, Dalena awoke to find that Sam had already gotten up. As sick as he was, she could not imagine where he could be. She walked around the house and discovered him at his computer typing up a job description for her. In the sixteen months he had been sick, they had never discussed the idea that she would take over his government contracting firm, Management and Training Consultants, Inc. (MTCI). But that morning, he made his wishes clear, reviewing every responsibility with her to make sure she understood. He had her print off the job description and read it through with him, line by line. The next day, he passed away.
At the time, Dalena had a career of own, having worked for nearly two decades as a civilian employee at the Department of the Army. For the previous sixteen years, she had served in public affairs. In the ten years since Sam had started MTCI, he would come home after work and tell her about his struggles or victories for the day, and now that he was gone, she chastised herself for not paying closer attention or taking notes. “But hindsight is 20/20,” she says. “I was determined to keep my promise to Sam—to continue his legacy and try to do the best I could at growing what he started. With that, I threw my whole self into staying the course and seeing this mission through.”
Taking over as President and CEO of MTCI meant resigning her civilian work to eliminate any conflicts of interest, and to focus her time and energy on the 130+ MTCI associates who had just lost the company’s founder, and a friend. They knew of her, but they didn’t know her, and Dalena knew there would be hurdles to overcome with the transition of ownership. To complicate matters, her husband had served 25 years in the military and had launched MTCI as an 8(a) Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business. “When companies graduate from 8(a) status, many of them go out of business because they don’t know how to operate outside of that space,” Dalena explains. “We overcame that, and the transition from Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned to Women-Owned. It was a tough time.”
Through the transition, one of the company’s contracts went up for recompete, and MTCI lost it to a lower bid. Dalena and her leadership team also took a step back to refocus and streamline the firm’s expertise. While Sam had cast a wide net resulting in forays into logistics and IT contracts, they decided to hone in on MTCI’s three core competencies of training, human capital, and program management. With excellence in recruiting and retention, the company’s mobile training teams have achieved outstanding results with the Army National Guard. They also work with the Department of Defense to assess colleges and universities who have MOUs to participate in the tuition assistance program. In this capacity, MTCI ensures that military personnel receive the same treatment as their civilian counterparts.
By strategically streamlining its focus, and by strengthening its commitment to its high-caliber associates by formalizing a competitive benefits package, establishing a bonus program, and adding Dalena’s own personal touch through small thank-you notes and gift cards, MTCI was able to weather the transition without losing any additional contracts, and without any layoffs. “We’re not casting a wide net anymore in the hopes that we’ll catch something,” Dalena affirms. “We’ve gone back to the basics, so to speak, and are really focused on doing what we do best. We’ve developed a pipeline we’re very proud of, and it’s sustainable.” On an uptrend that has brought them just under $14 million in contracts for 2013, MTCI now has 110 associates, with locations in 27 states and Belgium. And it’s those associates who have made all the difference, earning the trust of MTCI’s clients and filling in Dalena’s blind spots. “I really didn’t know anything about running a company, much less a government contracting firm,” she recounts. “I really had to dig deep into my soul to be able to do what Sam asked me to do, and I know I couldn’t have done it without our outstanding staff. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to know everything, but the truth is, we have outstanding people who do a phenomenal job. I’m so thankful for them.”
MTCI remains a successful company today because Dalena refused to quit, and the decision to persevere has been a constant theme throughout her life from the time she was a child. Her parents—a strong and lighthearted mother and a beloved gentle giant of a father—divorced when she was three, and her mother remarried a man in the Air Force. They moved frequently, spending time in the Philippines, Florida, and Texas. As the youngest of seven children—her mother’s three children, plus four stepsiblings—and an exceptionally quiet young girl, her parents didn’t notice that she was struggling in school. Even today, she still remembers the quiet trauma of being held back in first grade, of her fourth grade teacher accusing her of not doing her homework in front of her entire class, and of being the last student to be picked for spelling bee teams. But in those hard moments, Dalena got to know her own capacity for resilience. She had to work harder than everyone else to get that A, but she learned how to do it, and in the process, she learned how to persevere.
“My parents concentrated on the problems my older siblings were having, so nobody really emphasized the importance of education for me,” she remembers. “They didn’t know I was having trouble, but I kept on trying. Now, education is an important part of my legacy. I was determined to give my children all the attention and education I possibly could so history didn’t repeat itself, and I’m on the board of Smart Beginnings Greater Prince William to help kids get a great education before school even begins, during the most formative and critical years of life.”
Dalena spent her junior high and high school years in Killeen, Texas. By that time, her mother had gotten divorced again, and her older siblings had moved away, she focused her time on playing basketball and working. She was 16 years old when she met Sam Kanouse, one of her coworkers at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The two fell in love and were married the following year, in 1976, when she was still in high school. Sam joined the military, and Dalena graduated early. Aside from brief stints in Germany and South Korea, he was stationed at Fort Hood, so Killeen remained home for them. They had their first daughter, Domonique, when Dalena was 19, followed by a second daughter and a son by the time she was 25. Sam joined the National Guard, and Dalena started taking courses toward her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.
The Kanouses moved to the Northern Virginia area in 1993, where they remained for 12 years. Thanks to the time and stability, Dalena was able to land a public affairs job at the National Guard Bureau, impressing her employers with her work ethic and determination. As she worked her way up the GS schedule to a GS13, she finished her bachelor’s degree after 13 years and then immediately began working on her master’s in Public Administration. “I was one of the first in my family to get my bachelor’s, and the only one who went for a masters,” she remarks. “Aside from simply wanting to do the best job I could with my education, my children and my husband were my drive. I wanted them to be proud of me, and I wanted my kids to see that it’s important, and that it’s possible. Now, all three of them have gotten their bachelor’s and gone on to get their master’s. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Sam launched MTCI in 1999 in the unfinished basement of their home in Manassas, Virginia, with only a desk, a phone, a computer, and a very large whiteboard. He had just retired from his position as the Recruiting Retention Sergeant Major for the Army National Guard and wanted to give back to the organization that had given so much to him: the military.
Sam was born in South Korea. When he was twelve years old, his mother married a military service member and moved to the U.S. Even though he knew no English, he never let it stop him from succeeding. He dove into all the opportunity his new country had to offer. He became a member of the National Honor Society in high school and was admitted to West Point, though he turned it down to marry Dalena. He started MTCI with the goal of giving back to the military, and his first contract allowed him to hire four people. Today, the company still holds that flagship contract, which has now expanded to a 29-employee-project.
When Sam and Dalena returned to Texas for his thirtieth high school reunion, they remembered how much they loved it. They decided to move back, so Sam relocated the company’s headquarters, and Dalena got a job at Fort Hood. It was there that Sam was diagnosed with leukemia, and there that Dalena saw the red bird in the garden.
After Sam’s passing, Dalena moved back to Virginia, whose state bird is the cardinal. Tasked with finding a new local bank for MTCI, she set up a meeting with the bank that had believed in Sam from the very beginning, Cardinal Bank. “They wanted to meet me before we solidified the relationship,” she recalls. “I had to pass that test, and I was nervous, but as I walked through the door for the meeting, I realized their mascot was a red bird, and it filled me with that same strength I felt in the garden. I knew everything would be okay.”
Now, Dalena and the MTCI team are looking toward the future and embracing change. Domonique, who helped Sam through the company’s early years and then sought to broaden her experience by working at other contracting firms, now serves as MTCI’s Senior VP of Business Development, and is a true driving force behind the company. She recently revived a selling tool for recruiters that Sam created, called Step by Step to Success and refurbished it into a holistic recruiting and leadership training program called Road Map For Success that will be piloted in 2014. MTCI is also looking to expand its services to other arms of the federal government, like Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and Office of Personnel Management.
MTCI also remains a leader in its community of Prince William County, partnering with the Prince William Chamber to sponsor events like the Salute to the Armed Forces, the Women’s Leadership Conference, and Valor Awards, which recognize first responders. They support the Military Spouse Employment Partnership Program, the Military Child Education Coalition, and the Association of the United States Army. Dalena, herself, serves in the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation – Joining Forces Mentoring Plus program, sharing her experiences to help women veterans and military spouses make their way into the world of business. “Resiliency has been a constant thread through my own life, and it’s at the heart of MTCI’s culture,” Dalena avows. “Not only do we provide resiliency training through Central Texas College to our Soldiers at the Wounded Warrior Transition Brigade at Fort Hood, but we support organizations that encourage resilience. What’s more, we’re part of Virginia Values Veterans—73 percent of our associates are veterans, and 18 percent are family members of veterans. In 2013, we won the SmartCEO GovStar Award for supporting our military. It’s an honor to be recognized for something that comes naturally. And as we continue Sam’s legacy in this important way, we are reminded that MTCI’s narrative is, itself, a story of perseverance. In 2010, the year after he passed away, the company was named to the Inc. 5000.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Dalena emphasizes the importance of self-improvement all through life, regardless of one’s age. Her example shows that it’s never too late to pursue a degree, because you never know what demands life might place before you in the future. Her story is also a testament to the power of her perseverance, which is rooted firmly in her faith. “It takes a lot of strength not to give up, but it also gives you a lot of strength,” she affirms. “I truly have stepped outside of my comfort zone to carry this torch, and I’m better for it. Sam always believed in me and told me I could do anything, and in rising to meet the challenge of continuing his legacy, I’ve shown myself that he was right. Life is short, and by persevering and never giving up, we make it the best it can be—and we become the best we can be in the process.”