For the first several decades of his life, Duane Piper navigated without a real clear sense of direction. Perhaps for this reason, he didn’t spend much of his young life with lofty dreams of the future. But often, all it takes to transform a life is the uncovering of a trailhead—that point at which one’s passion is sparked, and the right road becomes clear.
For Duane Piper, military service was that trailhead. His experience in the Air Force, and a subsequent life spent providing defense contracting support, changed everything, transforming the trajectory of his life so profoundly that he is now a cofounder and Managing Partner of PiperCoughlin, LLC (PiCo). The Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business offers multidisciplinary intelligence analysis and program analytics to U.S. government defense, intelligence, and civilian customers, with a mission to give back to the defense community that has allowed Duane to experience success.
Drawing on his background in business operations and mission support, Duane partnered with Pete Coughlin, a colleague and friend with an extensive and successful history in military intelligence and counterintelligence, to form PiCo. Orienting its vision around these two technical verticals, the duo built on their relationship and on the success of their past performance together at SAIC and then Silverback7. Collectively, Duane and Pete have a track record of winning and managing over $1.5 billion worth of intelligence programs for the Department of Defense, speaking to their strengths. PiCo also specializes in back-office mission support services, including program management, resource management, budget analysis, and logistics.
Just as integral to the company’s framework is its commitment to corporate social responsibility. “From the very beginning, Pete and I agreed that our company would be committed to giving back to the military community, and veterans in particular,” Duane says. “Personally, I’ve made a point where and when I could to mentor veterans who are looking to start their own businesses, and I wanted our company to donate to organizations supporting the veteran community. Beyond this, we’re setting up a corporate social responsibility program for our employees to sow philanthropy into the very fabric of our daily operations.”
For Duane, PiCo is the product of the best and most transformative forces in his life, including Kandi, his soul mate and the woman he has spent the past 31 years with. “I asked her to marry me when she was only 19 years old, so her parents weren’t big fans of me back then,” he laughs. “She’s been my biggest cheerleader, and I know I wouldn’t have been this successful without her there. Although she does joke with me that there should be a plaque in our old high school that honors me as the guy most unlikely to succeed.”
While he may have lacked direction in his younger years, all that changed when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1988. Duane was assigned to serve as a nuclear weapons system specialist working systems aboard the FB111A aircraft, and was sent to Plattsburgh, New York, the Air Force’s nuclear weapons standoff mission.
In 1990, just before the outbreak of the Gulf War, Duane was chosen to participate in a selective combat competition known as Giant Sword. He knew nothing about the program when he was chosen to enter, but he spent the next five months in a training curriculum that required all participants to spend their training time without rank insignias. Without the telltale hardware, Duane had no idea that he had spent part of that time alongside a four-star general. Something about Duane had a marked impact on the general, who later provided an endorsement on his annual performance review.
This helped change the course of Duane’s remaining career with the Air Force, and had a profound influence on how he would progress in the private sector. When Plattsburgh AFB was selected for closure under the Base Realignment and Consolidation authority, Duane was offered a choice of duty assignments and locations at which to continue serving. After discussing the future with Kandi, he decided he wanted to switch tracks and go into the business field so he’d be more marketable in the civilian world. With that, he chose to become a Contracting Specialist, laying the foundation for his career in government contracting.
On their new track in life, Duane and Kandi moved to Panama City, Florida, where he cultivated an expertise in large dollar procurements with a particular, initial focus on construction projects. He soon realized, however, that his rapid advancement in ranks meant he would be stuck at his current rank for quite a while. “I had made Staff Sergeant in just over three years and put the stripes on my sleeve in four, which in my new career field was considered well below the average line for promotion to Staff Sergeant,” he says. “But what it meant for the foreseeable future was that when it was time to re-enlist, there was zero chance for promotion within the next term of enlistment. It would have been mathematically impossible for me to get promoted, given how the promotional points system works in the Air Force. For this reason, I decided to separate and try my hand in the private sector.”
Duane continued his college education during his six years in service, and when he decided to leave, he went to work full-time for a small company in Columbia, South Carolina, while taking classes part-time to complete his undergraduate degree in Business Administration. Gone was the underachieving young kid who didn’t care to work hard; in his place was a self-motivated, disciplined man ready to take on the world.
Making the Dean’s List in his last years pursuing his baccalaureate degree, Duane went on to obtain a Master’s in Business Administration from the Keller Graduate School and fine-tuned his education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School by way of its executive education program. “Now, I believe very strongly in the power of education, whether it is formal or self-study,” he affirms. “I encourage everyone that wants to learn something new to get a book and read about it and apply it to their life. I’m so thankful that I went back to school, and only wish I had valued it sooner.”
Duane learned just as much from his current employer, a mentor who took the time to help him understand how the regulations that drive the federal contracting process can affect the performance of work. Duane started out rigid in his decision-making, wanting everything to fit nicely inside the box as he had been trained to do on the other side of the table. Then one weekend, his boss drove up from the company’s headquarters in Panama City, Florida, to meet him at a construction site where he was helping to oversee work to redo utility lines on an Army base. “He threw me some hip waders and made me get down in a ditch to pour concrete for the rest of that weekend and most of the following week, opening my eyes to what it was like to be out in the field actually doing the work,” Duane says. “The project was a bit behind schedule, and the experience made me realize that my bureaucratic decision making in the office wasn’t really useful or realistic. I appreciated the lesson and think of it often.”
The small company was very successful, and when it was sold to a larger competitor, Duane chose to make the move to Northern Virginia to work in the Contracts Department at SAIC. At the outset of what would become a combined ten-year tenure there, Duane was young, energetic, and interested in learning his job, plus the jobs of those that worked in close proximity. Several senior level executives acted as diplomatic mentors to him, teaching him how to pursue his desired professional growth and development without disturbing the waters politically.
Duane was a VP and Director of Contracts when the 9/11 tragedy struck, and within days of the attack, it was clear that his organization would play a role in the nation’s security response. “We did national security work within my Group with a chemical and biological defense organization, and we had several pieces of business with retired military law enforcement officials and specialized military units, doing contracting for the Departments of Defense and Justice, the U.S. Marshall Service, and several other agencies,” he explains. “In this capacity, we quickly began supporting the federal government in its post 9/11 efforts. We were asked to do some pretty unique things with some pretty unique latitude.” During his last three years with SAIC, Duane served as a business and programs director, becoming somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades by serving a Senior VP who led a $400 million operation doing intelligence business.
While he enjoyed his time at SAIC, and is today proud of what he learned and was able to accomplish, Duane received a call from the staff member of a retired Army Major General he had worked with earlier in his career, ultimately recruiting him to come work for General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) as the Vice President for Contracts and Ethics for one of its larger divisions. At first Duane wasn’t interested in leaving the P&L role at SAIC to return to an administrative staff position, but after several meetings and some persuasive final discussions, he made the switch.
During his last three years at SAIC, Duane had taken on some buy-side M&A work, helping with due diligence and integration planning. Through that exposure, his curiosity and entrepreneurial flame was stoked for the first time. “I used to be very risk-averse,” he says. “I had a comfortable life and secure jobs, and it didn’t seem to make sense to take a chance. But the M&A work gave me the opportunity to look behind the curtain of a company, learning where they come from and the struggles they go through to build a business platform from A to Z. It struck me that maybe I could do it, too.”
He understood, however, that he had much to learn before taking that plunge. After his experience with GDIT, when the founders of Silverback7 asked him to come aboard with an equity stake in the business, he again sat down with Kandi to talk about the risks and opportunities. “I would take over all things business operations, including the financial, contractual, risk, legal, M&A affairs, and banking work,” he explains. “I knew this move would force me to learn. I wanted to do it, and I committed to capitalizing on the opportunity for its value to my future opportunities.”
With that, Duane accepted the position of Chief Administrative and Financial Officer in March of 2008, taking a leadership role in the small team of about 15 at a business that was doing a little more than $3 million annually. Over the next three years, the company grew more than 800 percent. It reached solid financial footing, setting itself up to transition from a small to a mid-tier business and compelling Duane to create relationships with the banking, legal, accounting, and financial entities needed to help the company accommodate its growth. “Taken together, the seven-year horizon of my time at Silverback7 was extremely defining, professionally,” he says. “I learned so many things about operating a business that I would never have learned otherwise. I developed a great network, and most importantly, I overcame my fear of being an entrepreneur and taking a plunge.”
After working ten years at SAIC and two at General Dynamics, Duane had come to appreciate the flexibility that a small business environment provides. Then, in 2013, he began thinking for the first time in earnest about starting his own company. “Through the M&A work I participated in and the insight gained through my relationships with outside business providers and advisors, I came to understand what was important to those folks, and how to access the money it would take to get a business started,” he reflects. “I knew it was time to start thinking forward.”
When he thought more about the future, however, he realized a gap in his plans. He had the capabilities to sell to the federal government and to operate a business, but he didn’t possess the firsthand product or service technical background. This realization compelled him to partner with Pete Coughlin, a colleague whose skills, approach, and goals were complementary to his own. It took some amount of coaxing to get Pete onboard, but ultimately it clicked. The two visionaries started developing a business plan of their own, committed to structuring the company as a 50/50 split, and began marketing it around to obtain the startup capital they needed to lay the groundwork for successful execution.
Now, Duane’s easygoing nature but hard-driving pursuit of excellence has helped build a strong, results-oriented business platform to give team members a vision to follow and the space and resources to execute. His excitement and passion for the work shines through the culture of the company, and he has advised young people entering the working world today to pursue something they find equally engaging. “You’ll spend many of the waking hours of your life working, so pick something you enjoy,” he says. “Don’t chase the money, or that pursuit will define your life. If you’re doing the right job the right way, and if you show your commitment and loyalty to your organization, the money will come.”
Beyond that, Duane’s journey reminds us to never say never. “I came from a family of modest means, and I didn’t understand back then that there was a way to build a better future, and a way to find the road that was right for me,” he says. “But I learned through my experiences that if you’re willing to work for it, it’s out there.”