Jim McCarthy, the co-founder, owner and technical director of AOC Key Solutions, a company that helps their clients win government contracts, is quick to inform you that his company is “THE KEY” to winning government contracts. By assisting their clients in finding advantageous opportunities and then identifying the steps needed in order to submit a winning proposal, Jim’s company is their key solution.
Founded in 1983, AOC Key Solutions provides three main areas of service for their clients: opportunity identification, strategic advice on winning, and proposal support. Known throughout the industry as being extremely ethical in their way of business, the company reflects Jim’s personal values.
“We do important work,” Jim explains, “Society needs government, government needs contractors and contractors need to submit proposals to win. We help our contractors submit their proposals. So in a sense, we work with our clients to win important work. Our clients do everything from defend the country, to fight terrorism, to cure cancer, to regulate commerce, to help law enforcement, to promote justice, to educate our citizens. So we help our clients to do that work.”
Those values are working well for both Jim’s clients and his company. Setting a benchmark early in the company’s evolution to win a billion dollars a year for each of his clients, Jim has met that goal and exceeded it each and every year.
“Not only have we met that benchmark but we averaged a little over $7.4 billion a year for our clients over the past five years. Our client base is everyone from a small business entrepreneur to the largest aerospace defense contractors in the world. We work across the whole federal spectrum of contracts, but tend to focus on National Defense, Homeland Security, Energy and the Environment, and IT.”
Born in Baltimore, MD, the oldest of three, Jim’s mom was a homemaker and his father, a veteran of the Korean War, held positions as an insurance salesman and then the general manager for several car dealerships. It was during this time that Jim learned the importance of discipline and that he learned self-sacrifice, through his educational experiences and knowing that his parents worked hard for him to get that education.
While in high school, Jim’s first job was as a busboy in a restaurant. It was there that his deliberate work ethic and desire to serve others began to shine.
“I loved it when I worked as a busboy. I would hustle my tail off, and I would have the servers fighting to have me in their area. By the time I was finished they would ask me to help them wait on the tables and keep the water glasses filled. Most of the other busboys were just going through the motions – almost in slow motion. I realized that if I hustled, not only would the customers tip better, but the wait staff would tip me better. So when they started fighting over me, as demand for my services went up, so did my wages; because they would tip more because they were also getting more tips. That was the first time that I realized that you have two choices, you can go through the motions and just be average, or you can work hard and make yourself stand out.”
Jim attended Ohio University, earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Political Science. Always a political junkie, Jim spent every Sunday in his early years pouring over the pages of the local and regional newspapers and then watching the Sunday news reports. Fascinated with Watergate, Jim read every book and newspaper article on the subject. There was no doubt in his mind that, at some point, he would be in politics.
After graduating with his master’s degree, Jim began to look for work but the doors kept slamming in his face. He took a job working at a moving company, in the meantime, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding positions that he has held.
“I loved working for the moving company! It was hard work and it was outside, it wasn’t much pay, but you got to go to interesting places while at the same time helping families.”
While working at the moving company, Jim noticed that some of the workers were slacking off. One day while talking to the owner, Jim suggested that he hire someone to serve as a quality control officer to help streamline the work and to ensure customer satisfaction while the workers were on-site. Jim’s boss thought that Jim would be the best man for the job and hired him on the spot.
“I looked at it in the sense that we were the last contact that the customer would actually have from their old neighborhood to their new. In a way, they were starting on a whole new adventure; because they were moving their family. So I saw it as a responsibility to get them there and get them there safe. But other people just didn’t care… it was just appalling.”
Jim’s overwhelming desire to do important work and to help serve others is the driving force behind his incredible work ethic and his knack for creating opportunities.
“I felt like I could actually do something to help people, that I could serve them in some way… whether it’s something as minor as pouring water in their glass, but making sure that glass is always full or it’s helping move their personal belongings safely and carefully so that it doesn’t arrive at the destination all busted up. Maybe in the global scheme of things, this was minor stuff – but I did not think so.”
After working at the moving company, Jim decided to take some time off to travel across the country. When he returned he began searching for a position that would more closely align with his degree and field of interest, politics.
“I remember it was a Friday afternoon in mid-September and I knocked on the door of someone who was running for Congress. An aide told me that they didn’t have any openings and when I asked if I could leave my resume, she slammed the door in my face,” Jim recalls.
But fate and the congressional candidate did not agree and called Jim three days later.
“He told me that he had fired his campaign manager and gave me the job. I didn’t have any campaign experience and the candidate hadn’t even met me, but I was working there the next business day. I asked, ‘What do I do?’ and he said, ‘Well, you do two things: you have to get me elected and raise money and do them in reverse order!’ Then we won and that’s how I ended up on Capitol Hill.”
Jim’s rise once he landed on Capitol Hill was rapid. First serving as a speechwriter and then within a week he was appointed Press Secretary. Jim was then asked to serve as the Legislative Assistant and finally the Chief of Staff; all within two years.
Although Jim had proven himself, the competition on The Hill was cut-throat and one day, without warning, one of Jim’s subordinates called Jim into his office and fired him – because he now had the job. Jim did not fight back or even speak with the Congressman, he just quietly asked a colleague in the IT department to send out his resume to all of the members of Congress, informing them that he was now available for hire and his phone was ringing off the hook. Four days later, Jim was hired as the Chief of Staff for another Congressman from New York.
Jim eventually found himself working in a contractor support role at the White House, under the Reagan Administration, for the Deputy Press Secretary. After working in the West Wing of the White House for almost three years, Jim decided to move on.
“I imagined that I was a hot commodity. I had worked on the Hill and at the White House. I thought I was ready for even greater challenges. It was time for me to make my big move and make some real money, or so I thought. I was going to become a lobbyist or work for a government relations firm. So I left.”
Unfortunately, Jim’s decision to quit initiated a three year journey of unemployment. Jim calls this the darkest period of his life. Only his wife provided moral support and helped him through the struggle.
“Believe me, I thought I was hot stuff; but I’m not and I wasn’t. Only years tell me how foolish I was, but even now looking back on it, I was such a small cog in a big wheel that it’s laughable that I thought otherwise.”
After that time, Jim was approached to do some freelance reporting, covering Capitol Hill, for a magazine called Congressional Digest. His editor came to realize that he was a talented writer and asked Jim if he was looking for another project to work on.
“He asked if I had ever written a government proposal. I guess I realized that government contractors had to submit something to get a contract but I had no idea, at the time, that there was a whole industry that did this. I had never done anything like that. He told me about a friend of his who was bidding a large contract in Houston, Texas. The company paid for my airfare and expenses and somehow I stumbled into the field.”
Jim ended up writing resumes and other materials to support the company’s proposal and was making more money than working with Congressional Digest. About two years later, he and a friend found a third party investor and started a company dedicated to supporting government contractors. Thus, AOC Key Solutions was born.
Jim’s message to new graduates is to throw away any sense of entitlement, no matter their credentials, and prove themselves by showing that they have merit, distinction and can work hard.
In the community AOC Key Solutions sits on the board of the Community Foundation, an organization which helps address pressing social issues in Northern Virginia. The company is now also affiliated with George Mason University where Jim helps small businesses grow by winning government contracts, and they serve on Leadership Fairfax. Jim also serves on advisory boards for both Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax, VA helping those counties expand commerce through contracts with the federal government. Additionally, Jim serves as an instructor at the nation’s only Veterans Institute for Procurement. There he trains veteran-owned businesses in the art of capturing government contracts.
Also, Key Solutions utilizes a Malcolm Baldridge-based incentive system as part of its review process for bonuses, which factors in community involvement as one of the indicators.
“Robust incentive compensation is an important part of attracting and retaining the ‘best of the best’ in the proposal industry,” Jim remarked.
Jim McCarthy, a visionary with the desire to serve and make a difference, has spent his life helping others. Whether it’s ensuring that a customer’s water glass is full or that a top client wins their next multi-billion dollar contract, Jim McCarthy has proven that creating opportunities and serving others is a sure path to success.