Manish Agarwal

The Culture of Collaboration

As a teenager, Manish Agarwal would stay up until two or three in the morning with his friends.  Yet, while this seems typical for someone of that age, he was not out partying as so many of his peers were doing; nor was he locking himself away from the world to pour over his school books. Instead, Manish and his friends were dreaming.

These dreaming sessions consisted of brainstorms that sprung new possibilities.  They sounded business ideas off one another and challenged each other’s creative thinking.  “That’s where the best ideas came out,” Manish remembers today.  “You experience so much every day, and through those conversations, we were able to process those experiences, synthesizing them and coming up with what we wanted to really do with our lives.  Today, I think it’s hard for young people because they don’t have an easy outlet to express those thought processes.  I look back now and see I learned so much from those conversations.”

It was during those late-night brainstorming sessions that Manish first conceived of the dream of one day starting and running his own company.  Now the President and co-founder of Attain, a management, consulting, and IT services company focused on facilitating the ecosystem of innovation throughout the D.C. metropolitan area, it was a dream he transferred to reality.  “There are federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health that put billions of dollars a year into medical research, and then you have universities like Johns Hopkins and Mayo Clinic that are also doing research to find cures,” Manish explains.  “There’s an ecosystem between these organizations, but no one to facilitate it.  That’s our niche.  Our customers are the top 70 research institutes and the federal government, and our business is streamlining to render more effective the efforts of everyone.”

Attain was registered in January of 2009 by Manish, Greg Baroni, John O’Neill, and Mark Davis, all four of whom had met in 1992 as co-workers at KPMG.  In March of 2009, the company BearingPoint, which was KPMG’s consulting business, filed for bankruptcy.  While Manish had left KPMG before BearingPoint was created, he and his coworkers were heartbroken to see the demise of the hundred-year-old company where they had spent some of their best years and learned so much.

In an effort to help the sinking company, they attained part of BearingPoint’s assets in August of 2009 and put them toward the new company.  “We learned over time that this was our chance to really do what we wanted to do,” Manish explains.  “With this in mind, in creating a business structure, we focused not on what would make us the most money, but instead on what would allow other people to share in the wealth as well.  We wanted everyone involved to be successful.  We wanted to build a company that would last so that, when we go, new people can take over and everyone can contribute.”

While Attain is still young, its success is evident through the massive growth it has experienced, employing 250 people and generating $55 million in revenue in just three years.  The road to its creation, however, was not as easy as simply dreaming up a great idea as a teenager and waiting for the opportune moment to arise.  Throughout his childhood in Bombay, India, Manish was surrounded by successful family members who all owned their own businesses.  His father, an engineer, had his own company, as did most of his aunts and uncles.  After he attained his bachelor’s degree in Engineering from Pune University in India, his family assumed he would either open his own computer company or, as the only son of three children, take over his father’s business.  His father was the only one who saw something different for him.  “My dad always told me that, if I wanted to continue his business, it was all mine,” Manish recalls.  “However, he wanted me to first and foremost do what I wanted and not feel obligated to follow in his footsteps.  If I had a vision, he wanted me to go for it and pursue my passion, and if it didn’t work out, I always had his business to fall back on.”

His mother was equally encouraging, pushing him to live his life to his full potential.  She had earned a master’s degree—a rare achievement for an Indian woman at that time—yet she had chosen to become a full-time mother and housewife, and was never able to put her degree into practice.  “She had thoughts and plans of her own, but she put those aside to help raise us,” Manish recalls.  “From her, I learned true patience and persistence.”

After graduation, Manish worked for a year and a half at ICL, an IT firm giant based in the United Kingdom.  Before long, however, he could no longer ignore the inner voice that echoed the entrepreneurial ideas that had kept him up so many nights through his youth.  The majority of his classmates had gone to the United States for work, and wondered if moving to the U.S. might open the door to opportunities for his own big break.  With his parents’ encouragement, Manish moved to Washington, D.C. with $200 in his pocket and nowhere to stay.  Following the advice of a friendly bus driver who had taken him into the city, he set up camp in a cheap hotel in Dupont Circle and hand-delivered his resume to every business within walking distance.  While most businesses refused to even look at his resume, he landed an interview with KPMG that very first day of searching.  He was hired immediately, starting in an entry level position the next morning.  “Who knows what would have happened if the bus driver had dropped me off somewhere else?” Manish laughs.

At the age of 28, after only five and a half years, he was made into the youngest partner in the company’s history.  It typically takes well over a decade to become a partner in the consulting industry, and while Manish cannot say for sure what set him apart, he credits his energy, intensity, and the passion he harbors his work.  “I didn’t work hard with the objective of becoming a partner, I just enjoyed what I was doing so much, and the ascension was natural,” Manish says.  “I was willing to work the assigned eight hours and then another eight hours on top of that.  I would go out with my friends in the evening and then go back to the office afterward just to see what was there to be done.  It was a lot of hard work, but I had the energy and interest to do it.”

Manish was nominated for partner by his then-mentor, Greg Baroni, who later became a fellow co-founder of Attain.  Always willing to help, Greg taught Manish that KPMG was built on the idea that if you wanted to do something, you had to take the initiative to communicate that desire and actually do it.  “While I was working on teams, there were a couple of projects where the managers didn’t really do what the client wanted, so I took the initiative to change that,” Manish recalls.  “The clients saw that, so when KPMG would bid for more work, the clients wanted me in charge because I had their trust.”

While he was given the responsibility he had rightfully earned, Manish realized his experience was dwarfed by that of the CEOs he was dealing with—a reality he did not shy from, but rather embraced.  “I made sure to always hire people who were more experienced and mature than me,” he affirms.  “My first hires were all people who made more than me with more experience and credibility.  I knew that was how I could build the best team possible for our clients.”

Becoming a partner taught him to anticipate what was expected and how to align everyone to work towards a common goal, and because of these experiences, Manish credits his time at KPMG as teaching him true leadership.  “There are so many thought processes and so many great ideas,” he recalls.  “You need everyone going in the same right direction without killing the spirit, and I developed my skills in achieving that kind of streamlined drive while at KPMG.”

Despite his many successes with the company, Manish decided to leave in 2001 because he had grown too comfortable in the work and had learned everything the system had to offer.  Around that time, he was recruited by Unisys, a company that had sold hardware but was looking to transform into services and offered Manish a new platform for leadership and growth.  He was picked to lead the Asia-Pack region, which extended from China to New Zealand.  “I thought I knew everything when I left KPMG,” he laughs.  “But KPMG was a private company, while Unisys was a public company.  When I joined, I learned a great level of discipline.  I learned how to run a business like a business and not an individual.”  In the seven years he was there, he found every day to be a new challenge as he sought to change the dialogue with clients and drive the quarterly earnings.

While working for Unisys, Manish and his wife lived in Singapore, where they brought their two children into the world.  Life was good, with the family living in a large penthouse with ocean-front views paid for by the company.  Despite the perks of the job, however, he felt his life was missing something—the company he had always dreamed of creating but had yet to actually build.  After seven years running the Asia-Pacific region, he and his family returned to the United States, where he started his first company called Visible Info.  He put a great deal of his own money into financing the startup, yet it failed to generate income.  Eventually the company was acquired, which freed him to try something new.  With that, he and Greg Baroni registered Eclat Consulting, which was then renamed as Attain.

When John O’Neill and Mark Davis joined in the effort, it quickly became obvious that they were a group destined for success. The four men shared decades of history from working together at KPMG, and as a result, enjoyed a deep trust in each other.  “They all know what I’ve done in my career,” Manish explains.  “They knew my wife before I married her, and we’ve watched each other’s children grow up.  We know who did what and what our skeletons are.  In business, there’s a lot to agree to, and we can trust each other because we know each other.”  Beyond their mutual trust in one another, the group has a natural affinity for anticipating plans for the future pushing toward a common goal.  Attain strives to be known as the company that does business as it should be done and takes care of its people, and while it may be small today, Manish anticipates that it will be the main company to beat within twenty years.

While his career has supplied its fair share of challenges and difficult tasks, Manish readily admits that the hardest, and most rewarding of them all, was convincing his wife he was the one for her.  “I was so in love with her, as I still am,” he says with smile.  “But back then, she wasn’t ready to date, so over two years I had to really work hard to win her over.”  Now, he credits her for being his greatest source of support and strength.  His proudest career accomplishment was becoming a partner, which she was involved in as his fiancé.  Then, as he struggled over the difficult decision to join Unisys when he still felt so connected to KPMG, she helped him to look past the business side of the transition to recognize how living in a new country would enrich their lives and teach their family so much about the world.  Finally, when he told her he wanted to give up his job to start his own company, she was completely supportive even though they had two small children to care for.  “I try to never work weekends so I can totally dedicate myself to my family during that time,” he says.  “When I work during the week, she supports me fully, encouraging our kids to feel proud of my work.  It’s great for me to know I have such strong support from my family.”

With the help of his family behind him, Manish is a success not just for his career and personal accomplishments, but for his ability to balance the two.  With that in mind, his advice to young entrepreneurs entering the business world today is a similar sentiment: work hard, but still have fun at the same time.  “If what you’re doing isn’t fun for you, you’re doing the wrong thing,” he advises firmly.  “Work hard and learn as much as you can.  Don’t shy away from your experiences, but instead embrace them and do as much as you can in whatever it may be.”

Equally as important as those learning experiences are the relationships made along the way.  His coworkers from KPMG-turned-co-founders of Attain serve as living, breathing examples of the importance of these relationships.  “I don’t think one’s personal life and work life are really all that different,” he reasons.  “It all comes together, and for Attain, it’s the culture.”  It’s a culture of collaboration in the spirit of those late evenings conversations he and his friends enjoyed in their youth—the very same culture of collaboration that will keep Attain growing and reaching for success long into the future.

Manish Agarwal

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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