Over the past few months, Gary Slack has been asking himself one important question: What’s next? As of January of 2012, Gary is the former president of US Combat Systems, a subsidiary of BAE Systems Inc. and a division of the largest producer of combat vehicles, artillery and other weapon systems in the world. Since leaving US Combat Systems, Gary has reflected on the journey not only as a way of preserving the past, but also as a means of maximizing the route forward. It is, and continues to unfold as, a story of entrepreneurship, natural leadership, and methodical, relentless drive.
It all began with a television. Eleven years old and a Northern Virginia native, Gary wanted a color television for his bedroom. His parents both worked hard enough to provide a stable household for him and his three older siblings in the small community of Sterling, Virginia, near Dulles Airport, but a personal color television set was out of the question.
Gary can still remember the conversation with his parents. “My folks said, ‘Son, we have one television, and it’s not going into your room. If you want one of your own you’ll have to find a way to pay for it yourself.’ So I did,” he explains. Gary found an ad in the Washington Post for selling donuts door to door. During the week, Gary would walk door to door and take orders from his neighbors. On Saturday mornings, he would receive the donuts from the store and deliver them himself. “I suppose this was my first exposure to profit and loss,” he laughs today. “I would sell the donuts for twenty dollars, and owe the bakery ten dollars. That’s when it registered that, if you sell something for more than you paid, you reap the benefits.”
Gary eventually bought the television, but only after taking on a paper route with his brother in Sterling, Virginia. He made enough for the television and then some, starting a savings account and, before he was even twelve years old, saving for what was next: a brand new bedroom set. “Just like the TV,” Gary says, “I saved up and bought the bedroom set, which I still have. I still remember going to the local furniture store, ordering the pieces, and having them delivered to my room.”
The Slack family was certainly comfortable, but there was never extra money. His father, who didn’t graduate high school, worked at Carderock Naval Research Center in nearby Maryland and took on interior and exterior painting jobs on the side to help pay the bills. Gary’s mother, a high school graduate, worked in retail. Gary recognized that his family didn’t have the discretionary cash that some of his neighbors did, with their new cars or backyard pools. He saw his friends go to the movies with their parents’ money. He worked hard to be able to join them, but in earning that pocket money he learned, more importantly, that he loved the feeling of independence that working for himself brought.
It wasn’t long before he and his brother started talking about owning their own business. A strong athlete, by fourteen years of age, Gary was spending some of his hard-earned money on gear at a local sporting goods store. Gary and his brother liked the store’s business model. “We were good at sports,” Gary said, “and I was very good with people. It seemed like a fun job, but we knew even then that it wasn’t enough for us to just work there. We wanted to own a store like that.”
While the desire to start a sporting goods store eventually faded as Gary entered high school, ownership was an idea that would never leave his mind. He was always thinking, “What’s next?” The television came first, then the bedroom set. While his first lessons in business came from the simple desire of a young man to furnish his room with his own belongings, in high school Gary began self-directing his own studies and taking control of his future. He took an accounting class, in which he excelled, and joined his school’s DECA club, an international marketing and entrepreneurship organization for students.
Gary was also heavily influenced by a man who would eventually become his father-in-law. “I met my wife in junior high,” he explains. “We started dating when I was a sophomore, but we’ve known each other since we were thirteen or fourteen years old.” Her father was a banker, and he became a strong influence in Gary’s plan to get into business. “My own father was extremely supportive of me,” he continues, “and he was always supportive of me going to college. But where my father’s support was more of a spiritual and emotional nature, my father-in-law, who had gone to college and worked in banking, was able to advise me on a different level.”
Gary’s wife’s family also grew up on limited means, and his father-in-law was a frugal man. “He lived within his means and saved for his future,” Gary says, “and he is very comfortable now. That has stayed with me in my personal makeup.” Gary was the youngest child of four, and his father was 40 when he was born. When Gary was 23, his father passed away. He was already very close to his wife and her father, and Gary’s father-in-law is still today an important part of Gary’s life. “On the business side, because he was in banking, we could have discussions about tax planning, how people were lending money, and that sort of thing,” he details. “These conversations gave me the confidence to be a business person myself.”
After graduating from high school, Gary attended Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. He was drawn there in part because of the business curriculum the school offered. His DECA teacher in high school, Jim Stone, had prepared Gary for a career in business. “Jim Stone was such a supporter of mine,” Gary affirms today. “Between his class and the accounting class I took, I knew I could be a business guy. From looking at what I’d learned in the past, I could look toward the future and see that my financial acumen and my expertise in marketing and sales could certainly be applied to the workplace. I don’t know where Jim is now, but he was so supportive in helping me to see that.”
But there’s another reason Gary attended Longwood. “My wife wanted to go there to be a teacher,’ he reminisces. “One day she and her father said they were going to visit the school and asked me to join them. So, I went along for a ride and really liked what I saw. It was a great fit for me, and I loved going there. I joined a fraternity, learned a lot, and did some great things.”
To afford college, Gary worked in the dining hall, where he got his first experiences as a supervisor and was able to hone his skills in dispute resolution. He also took a job working for a contractor that did painting and other handyman jobs.
After graduating, Gary worked briefly for the Virginia Department of Taxation before realizing that he could never be a long term civil servant, and subsequently stepped for the first time into the corporate world at Honeywell Federal Systems. “Looking back, I realize now that I was in my element at the time,” Gary avows. “I knew that if I was interested in it, I would be successful, and I became a supervisor after a couple years.”
During that time, Gary enrolled in a accounting courses and eventually got CPA certificate, taking that with him to his next role at BDM International, also in the government contracting space. Within the first twelve months of working for the company, the company was acquired by the Carlyle group. In the upper management shakeup that followed, Gary, now 27 years old, found himself among a group of young executives who stayed through the transition.
“I remember,” Gary says, “one guy coming to me and saying, ‘Gary, you can go anytime. This isn’t what you signed on for, all this chaos.’ But I told them, I’m in for the long haul. And I cut my teeth on so many things over the next three to four years. I knew people that were my age and were still sitting behind a desk doing accounts receivable, while I was involved in an S-1, getting experience in everything from bank financing to pension plans. I had the invaluable opportunity to get involved with everything that made this business tick from the top.”
Gary credits his natural curiosity for the fact that he could learn so much so quickly. “I would go into a situation with a particular job, and I would do that job and do it well,” he explains. “But I didn’t stop there. It was the extra things that were going on. For example, this was around the time that PCs were first being incorporated into our work flow. No one had PCs, but we had one. There was a fellow my age that, during lunch breaks and in the evening, would go to learn how to use the PC. I could have easily just gone home at the end of the day, but I was so curious. I had to understand.”
Gary learned how to use Lotus 1-2-3, and suddenly, tasks that used to take days took half an hour. Still, he worked long hours and was always looking for what was next—for the other ways he could optimize processes and perfect his interactions with employees and colleagues. “I didn’t shy from hard work,” he says. “If I needed to work through the night, I did. I would get so caught up in what I was doing that I would look up and it would be ten PM. My wife and I have conversations about those days. We were raising young children, and she was working at the time too. Looking at that 27 years later… would I have done things differently? I’m not sure I was capable of changing the way I was doing things, because I had such a yearning, a curiosity. And ultimately it did help me at a very young age to get into heavy responsibilities that many people don’t get involved in until they’re my age now.”
Gary’s drive and curiosity helped him not just to survive, but to capitalize on further acquisitions, restructurings, and management shakeups. BDM was sold to TRW, where Gary stayed until he left to become a Vice President and Controller at Marconi, a North American company owned by a British parent. Marconi then merged with British Aerospace, and there, Gary became involved in mergers and acquisitions and strategy, assuming a leadership position as head of the pension committee. Eventually he became CFO, and ultimately assumed the role of President of US Combat Systems. The company was reorganized again in 2011, however, and the group that Gary had assembled was eliminated. Gary was asked to stay on in a transitional role, but he declined, and now finds himself in a position that is both liberating and extremely challenging.
“Do I have any regrets?” Gary asks himself. “No. Would I have done things differently? Honestly, I’m not sure I would have. What I want to do now, going forward, is apply what I’ve learned from all those experiences. But my family has to now take the number one seat. I don’t regret the commitment I’ve made to my career the past, but now there must be balance. Looking back, I probably didn’t have to do every single late night. God bless her, I’ve had a supportive wife through thick and thin.
“My kids are very well functioning,” Gary continues. “They’re productive, good citizens. I’m able to spend a lot of time with my youngest daughter, who is 15 and plays volleyball and soccer at a high level. I love spending time with her.”
As Gary contemplates the road ahead, his characteristic curiosity and zest for new and enriching experiences continue to be a North Star for him, and the myriad of skills he’s developed over the years leave virtually no road blocked. “I’ve thought about everything from starting a restaurant, to a services business, to a car dealership,” he says. “But knowing what I know today about what the pitfalls of starting a business are, I’m looking for more of a solid footing. I would much prefer getting involved in a private equity group to buy the right company.”
Gary has also considered a non-profit or a pursuit oriented toward charitable giving. But whatever it is, it won’t be long now. “I’m a driven guy with a passion to lead and I won’t be able to sit on the sidelines forever,” he says. Until then, he’s keeping his eye out for that next television.