Phil Panzarella

Walking the Talk

Live, learn, earn and return.  That’s the mantra behind Phil Panzarella’s talk, and one doesn’t even need to spend five minutes with the man to see that he translates those words into practice in each corner of his life, and on a daily basis.  “God put us on Earth to make a living, but not just for ourselves,” he explains.  “The ‘return’ piece is the most important part of that equation.  It’s not what we take, it’s what we give back that’s important.”

As the founder, President, and CEO of CPS Professional Services, LLC (CPS), Phil understands that the spheres of one’s life are interconnected, and he has used this cornerstone to build his business upon a solid foundation with four guiding principles.  “We make sure to take care of our customers, our employees, our community, and our partners,” he lists.  “Those are the four legs of the stool, and they all have to be in balance.  We spend as much time on philanthropic activity as we do on our business, but to me they’re all intertwined.  Giving back has been a part of our corporate culture from the beginning.”

Prior to launching CPS, Phil worked for Siemens and assisted in the establishment of a proxy company that would allow the organization to pursue the classified community in the U.S.  Being a German-owned enterprise, they were required to set up a firewall company with a proxy board of directors to do business in the U.S., which Phil ran for three years.

One day, he came home and told his wife he was going to go out and start his own business.  “I felt that if I could do what I was doing for Siemens, I could do it somewhere else,” he recalls.  He would have to put his house up as collateral, and he assumed that his wife would say no.  “Truth be told, I kind of hoped she would say no, because there was part of me that was afraid to take that leap,” he says.  “Early in our marriage she had spent twelve years travelling all over the country with me while I was in the military, and she finally had a home and stability.  Instead, she said she couldn’t wait for me to go do it, and that she was counting on me.  With that, there was no looking back.”

Thus, Phil and his partners started Capture Planning Solutions in 2005 with the intent of helping companies win deals.  In those first couple months, the hardest thing was making payroll, and he and his partners worked out of their homes for the first year.  As fate would have it, their first client was Siemens, which was trying to win a multi-billion dollar program and was competing for one of ten awards.  Not only did Phil and his team help the company win one of those ten seats, but they also won all three of the initial tasks up for grabs, earning Capture Planning Solutions instant popularity with Siemens.  “We became one of their go-to teams when it came to capture and proposal support,” says Phil.  “We flew back and forth to Germany pulling teams together for them and were very successful.”  Within twelve months, they had generated enough business to land them on solid ground and to fund further growth.

As Capture Planning Solutions developed, however, Phil noted that each large contract required forty percent of its work to go to small businesses, and he and his team were charged with writing the small business subcontracting plans and to farm out that forty percent.  That prompted Phil and his partners to start a professional services firm, CPS Professional Services, in 2006, to replace Capture Planning Solutions.  Beginning with about $50,000 in revenue, the company has since grown to around $12 million in 2011 and is still going strong today.

“To me, running your own business is about making bigger commitments,” Phil describes.  “The relationships you have with your employees are much more personal, and you feel more responsibility toward them.  Furthermore, I’ve found that it’s about continuous learning.  Just when you think you’ve experienced everything, you learn something new.  I’m always learning something new.  One big thing I’ve discovered recently, for example, is that sometimes you have to take a step back to get ahead.  Growing up in a military culture, I’ve always been aggressively moving forward, but sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move to the right, shift around an obstacle, and be able to get ahead and take that next step.”

Like Phil himself, CPS originally found its start in the military, providing process improvement and performance management services after the government stipulated new regulation and performance management standards that required each agency to put forth metrics to reflect how they were doing.  At that time, the Army had made a huge decision to move in the area of process improvement, and CPS was charged with the training for their personnel, running the program management office and streamlining their processes to become more effective and efficient with the goal of delivering better solutions in the long term.  “We specialize in identifying the process and driving out the waste,” Phil explains.  “And what’s great about how we operate is that the kind of talent we bring to the table can be applied to finance, IT, logistics, healthcare, the VA, restaurants, manufacturing, and more.  It’s all about process.”  Thus, though CPS’s initial focus was on the Department of Defense, and though they continue to serve the government space, they’re also making a conscious decision to move into the commercial healthcare arena as well.

Today, CPS has about 42 full time employees, with a stable of additional professionals that they pull in as needed.  “We’re very focused on where we are and on making sure that we can live up to our commitments, because the most important thing is being able to deliver,” Phil affirms.  With this in mind, he has made sure that CPS doesn’t grow so quickly that it sacrifices quality, thus yielding a controlled and intentional approach that has served the company well.  Last year, CPS began to scale up its infrastructure, and this year, they’re investing in business development, opening the aperture enough to get a broader focus on who their customer sets are and how they can drive more opportunity.  “The ramp for growth is ripe, and we’re prepared to take that on,” Phil affirms.  “There’s been a method to the madness, and we have our sights set on growing the company to around $50 million in the next several years in accordance to a strategic blueprint that we meet to review each quarter.”

Though Phil’s leadership style and management philosophy were hulked and honed in the military, they first took root while he was growing up and observing his parents.  His father was a blue-collar worker with an eighth grade education who started his own construction company at a young age and was very successful.  He taught his children that if they wanted something, they could have it, as long as they went out and worked for it.  Likewise, his mother started working at a steel mill doing bookkeeping when she was young and later kept the books for her husband’s business.  Phil’s father would do work pro bono for those who couldn’t afford it, instilling in Phil that strong drive to give back that characterizes the company culture he leads today.  He also had a football coach who taught him the power of perseverance and a good attitude.

Phil’s first job was for Al Blackford at the local cemetery, cutting lawns and digging graves.  The following several summers, he went to work in construction and landscaping for his father.  He attended high school from 1971 to 1975, just after the Vietnam War, and he recalls joining Marine Corps Junior ROTC Program that prompted him to consider applying to West Point.  He had never considered the military, but something in the program resonated with something deep in the core of his character, and upon graduation, he found himself enrolling in the highly selective and rigorous academy with the same attitude he would portray decades later when he launched his own business—no looking back.

West Point proved exceedingly challenging, yet equally as rewarding.  “That first year was all about taking orders,” Phil recalls.  “You have to learn how to follow before you can lead.  You have to learn how to motivate people to follow you into battle, and when it comes to leadership, I think there isn’t another institution in the world that can compare to West Point.  It’s about character building.”  The years he spent there were a conglomeration of life-changing experiences, which included spending his junior year in Australia for an exchange program.

Among his biggest life-changing experiences, however, came after West Point, when Phil and his high school sweetheart decided to get married and then rent a U-Haul to drive down to Fort Benning, Georgia, to start a new life together.  “Her faith and confidence in me never wavered, and that made all the difference along the way,” says Phil.  “She was with me through my time at West Point and then through twelve moves in ten years while I was in the military.”

During that time, Phil got his command as a first lieutenant out of Fort Lewis, Washington, and was one of four Army officers to attend the Officer Advanced Course with the Marine Corps in the Amphibious Warfare School.  After that, he was sent to graduate school at Georgetown and then back to West Point to teach.  While there, he served as a tactical officer and was responsible for cadet development, and as a young captain and role model committed to walking—and running—the talk, he would run the PT test with them until one fateful day when he had to get his knee aspirated, leading to his fourth surgery.  At that point, the military decided to take him out of combat arms.  If Phil wanted to stay, he’d have to branch transfer and retool, so with a heavy heart, he decided it was time to see what else the world had in store for him.

As a result of that decision, on December 22, 1988, Phil found himself medically separated from the United States military.  He had not looked for one job and had not done one interview, as he had thought the earliest he’d be leaving was June of 1989.  “The Army made a business decision,” he remembers.  “That was a big gotcha moment for me, but we landed on our feet.  Sometimes you think the worst is going to happen, but the best ends up happening.  Things turned out for the better.  I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason and that God has a plan for all of us—you just have to be patient.”

After his sudden discharge, Phil and his wife moved to Virginia and began to explore the question of how he could translate his combat arms and airborne infantry training into marketable job skills.  “Leadership is one thing, but how was I going to take the skills I’d learned in the military and apply them to sales, marketing, or operations?” Phil remembers wondering.  “How was I going to take those skills and map them over into something that was meaningful to someone who would hire me?  A lot of our soldiers are facing this same issue today.  I decided I would look for an opportunity with a big company that would take the time to train me, and that’s what I found in IBM.”

Just as he had hoped, IBM hired him and sent him to their large systems marketing program.  After a few highly successful years in sales, they then put him in their federal systems division where he could do what he did best—manage people and lead a team.  However, the company then sold that entire federal division to another company that eventually became Lockheed Martin, and the transition prompted Phil to leave and take a position at a small business that was later acquired by Entex.  Entex was then purchased by Siemens, where he moved up the ranks to hatch the idea of launching his own enterprise, and the rest is history.

Finding success in the military, in the corporate world, and finally as an entrepreneur requires nothing short of unshakable vision, agile adaptability, and an iron-clad will, and Phil attributes these traits to the time he spent serving our country.  “The military teaches you how to be aggressive, how to look ahead, and how to move forward,” he avows.  “When I got into the business world, I saw where I needed to go and I mapped out a plan with the help of others.  I always had a concept of where I wanted to be, and I think that’s why I’ve been successful.“

Also integral to his success has been, of course, his ability to lead.  “When it comes to leadership, it’s about getting others to do things they may not have done themselves without some guidance,” Phil explains.  “You can’t be afraid to make command decisions.  You have to be able to challenge people, but you also have to be ready to take criticism.  And above all else, if you want to instill in your team a sense of discipline and an ethical model, you have to be able to walk the talk.  The way you behave and hold yourself is more of a learning tool to everyone around you than anything you could say.  That’s why I’m always trying to do the right things and to live the way I expect people around me to live.  And to me, you don’t lead to get ahead; you lead to move people ahead.  You don’t step on people to get to the next level.  You raise people up, and if you help enough people around you get to where they need to be, you will get to where you need to be.”

Indeed, raising people up is an integral aspect of CPS and of Phil’s life overall.  Whether he’s helping wounded soldiers through the Easter Seals program, supporting junior high and high school students through the Leadership and Ethics program he co-leads, or working with the American Freedom Foundation to raise money in support of wounded soldiers, Phil makes it a priority to give back everyday.  “Sometimes we can be so focused on our own lives and families that we don’t notice the great need that’s out there, but one doesn’t have to go far to find it,” he reminds us.  “It’s right here in this county, and everyone can do something to make a difference.”  By living, learning, earning, and returning, we get a return on our investment in the world that is exponentially greater than what we begin with—a return that echoes in professional success, personal satisfaction, and a better future for all.

Phil Panzarella

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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