Theodore M. Prociv

Structured for Opportunity

“There’s a reason God brought us to this country,” Ted Prociv’s mother used to tell him. “Your father and I believe that you will grow up to be somebody important.”

This, the refrain of Ted’s childhood, played like a subtle yet compelling tape in the back of his mind as he came of age. Gone were the days where he’d grab a drawing pad and traverse New York City, sketching artifacts in the Museum of Natural History or the bridge in Central Park. Perhaps he could have had a future as an artist, foreshadowed by his first sale—a sketch of a squirrel that caught the eye of a passing stranger. But his mother decided to throw out the body of artwork amassing in the apartment. “In the old country,” she said, “artists were poor. I don’t want that for you.”

Ted’s father was born in the western portion of Ukraine. During World War II he served as a Russian tank driver, and was captured by the Nazis in Finland when he was 24 years old. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp in Norway but managed to escape while being transported by train to Germany.  He made his way across the country, seeking safe haven at a displaced persons camp in Cornberg, Germany. He met Ted’s mother there, a fellow Ukrainian who had been taken from her home by the Nazis at the age of 14 to work as a domestic for a wealthy German family.

Ted was born in a British Army hospital in Cornberg.  At the age of two, his family boarded a ship to the United States, a country they knew little about. But they’d heard that, in America, you have the freedom to work, earn a decent wage, buy a home, and successfully raise a family. They were America-bound, and would raise their son to care deeply about what that journey had meant. “We came to a land that was structured for opportunity, and I’ve always felt a debt to this country that adopted us,” he says today. “It would never be enough for me to just collect a paycheck. I grew up really wanting to accomplish great and important things.”

Arriving on the other side of the Atlantic, the Prociv family set itself to simmer in the melting pot of New York City. They got an apartment in lower Manhattan, relocated to the Bronx a few years later, and ultimately moved to Ridgewood, Brooklyn, always remaining close to a Ukrainian church. Ted grew up interfacing with all manner of religions, cultures, and races.

Upon arriving in the US, Ted’s father found work as a tailor for a custom suit business—a trade that he learned, ironically, while in the concentration camp in Norway. Ted recalls that leftover swaths of British tropical wool were often just enough to make custom garments for someone his size. “I had better suits as a three-year-old than I do now,” he laughs. Later, looking to make a better living, his father switched to building maintenance.

On Saturdays, Ted was sent to Ukrainian classes, where he learned to read and write in Cyrillic. It was the language of his roots, later to become the script of his future working on geopolitics in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine, but it came with a price. Typical childhood pastimes like baseball and football remained foreign to him, and when he began taking an interest in sports in high school, he found himself woefully behind his peers in ability. He worked hard and made letters in football and field events in both St. Francis Prep High School and Widener University. To Ted, however, his most exciting athletic accomplishment came later when he was named Captain of the Hunter College Rugby Team for four years while studying at the City University of New York Graduate School.

Ted credits his success through life to his parents, who modeled a strong work ethic and a compelling sense of adventure that put Ted ahead of his peers in other ways. When his father got his first car, the family drove to the Midwest and occasionally to Canada for vacations. They would take weekend trips to parks, zoos, and beaches, or engaging in local adventures together, creating a sense of wanderlust that would stay with Ted throughout his life. His mother loved to cook, and many of his fondest memories from childhood emanate from family dinners on Sundays.

Ted excelled academically, earning scholarships or teaching assistantships to every academic institution that he attended, culminating in a PhD in Chemistry. Through it all, he applied the staunch work ethic he learned from his parents to his education. “It always amazed me that a couple with little formal education could produce a family of children who would all go on to earn advanced degrees,” says Ted. His younger brother, Stefan, is a lawyer and MBA, and his sister, Christine, is a Business Executive and Harvard MBA.

Ted fashioned his young life such that there was no wasted time. His motto seemed to be, “If you have free time, find a way to make it billable.” At the age of fourteen, he fabricated a shoeshine box, which he carried on his days off to a New York City subway station. Adding an old folding chair, a horsehair brush, and black and brown shoe polish, he set up shop. This was his first source of income, and he set aside a portion of his earnings to contribute to the family finances.

When he turned fifteen, Ted found that he could earn more money by picking up a paper route, but he’d need a bike to do it—something he couldn’t afford. “I decided to build one myself from discarded parts that I found on the streets,” he says. “It was a monstrous thing on a frame with tires that looked like overinflated balloons, but it sure held a lot of newspapers. And now, even today, I still feel drawn to mechanical work and have always worked on my own cars and motorcycles.”

Ted then got a job as a runner on Wall Street during summer vacations, an experience which gave him some great insights that he was able to use later in his career as the CEO of a publicly traded company. Upon returning to school, Ted found a part-time job as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant on weekends and holidays. One evening, when the establishment’s two chefs failed to show up for work, the owner asked Ted to cook, coaching him through the process. It was the start of a new skill set, and before long, his ornate anti-pasta creations were attracting the attention of local newspapers. In addition to learning how to cook, Ted learned important business and managerial skills before leaving restaurant life at the age of eighteen to work as a building porter for National Cleaning Contractors in Manhattan. It was the behemoth cleaning company where his mother worked in the evenings, and now, Ted was earning a Union wage.

Working as a building porter turned out to be one of the most formative experiences of his life. He was now observing the business world in New York City, gaining an understanding of the culture of success and failure. On one occasion, Ted found himself moving furniture for an advertising executive starting a new job at a big Madison Avenue firm. As he was hauling the pieces, one of the other senior porters predicted that this executive wouldn’t last two months. “I was surprised and asked how he could know that when he had never even met the guy,” Ted recounts. “But he told me to just look at his furniture, compared to the furniture in the other offices. It didn’t even come close to the same character, quality and style. Just like he said, the executive didn’t even last two months. That’s when I started to really observe this world where, until then, I was only operating on the outskirts. I began noticing how executives dressed and behaved. I took note of the ones that treated me like I was invisible, and the ones that were interested in building a relationship with me as a person, asking about my ambitions, interests, family, and future aspirations in general. It cultivated my behavioral index, giving me a sense of how I wanted to act if I ever entered that world. More than anything, I learned the importance of empathy. Later in life, my success in business stemmed directly from that lesson. It was empathy that allowed me to create real, genuine relationships with clients that persisted even after our business together was done.”

At “National,” as everyone called it, Ted’s coworkers were like his parents, newcomers to America without much education, wealth, or prestige to their name. But they understood human nature and were able to wield that knowledge in a way the corporate executives they worked for, rarely could. Slowly, as he worked to fill the free time over his high school and college years, he discovered the secret passageways of character, as surely as he learned many of the secret passageways under Wall Street and most of lower Manhattan. “All I had to do was observe…sit in the window seat once in a while,” he says.

Alongside the savoir faire of the service industry, Ted discovered a love of science through his high school biology class, aiming to pursue the field in college. He was offered a full scholarship at Widener University (formerly Pennsylvania Military College), so he seized the opportunity. After two years, he applied for and was awarded an Army ROTC Scholarship, which carried with it an obligation to serve in the military as a commissioned officer—one possible way he could pay back his debt to his adopted country. Accepting it and returning his previous scholarship, he also switched his major to chemistry, which proved a platform for his future interests.

Ted approached graduation as the Vietnam War was winding down, and determined to control his own future, he and a fraternity brother hopped in his Mustang and headed to the Pentagon. Wearing their cadet uniforms, they were easily led through security, and they commenced knocking on doors looking for someone who could consider them for deferments for graduate school. “We figured, what did we have to lose?” Ted recalls. “We ended up finding the right office, and we got our deferments after all. My friend went to law school, and I went to graduate school for chemistry at Hunter College, a part of City University of New York.”

It was around this time that Ted married Jo Ann, his high school sweetheart. She came from a working class Italian family with strong ties, and though the pair had broken up several times over the years, life always seemed to bring them back together. “She was smart and attractive, and she possessed an incredible memory, a compelling attention to detail, and a strong spirit,” he says. “While I was building my career, she raised our three children into wonderful, successful people, and still was able to earn a Master’s degree in Public Administration and operate a successful real estate business.” Now, their oldest son Justin is a practicing lawyer in Miami. Their daughter, Kathryn, has a Master’s Degree in meteorology and works as a producer on the Weather Channel in Atlanta. Their other daughter, Lauren, has a Master’s degree in marketing and is an executive strategic planner for the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia.

While working on his PhD, Ted received orders from the Army to report to the US ARMY Dugway Proving Ground, a facility 87 miles west of Salt Lake City, for active duty. There, he continued the theoretical work toward his thesis, which he successfully defended in 1981. At the Dugway laboratory, he first began to study the structure and composition of chemical warfare weapons, and after developing several defense-related measures, he eventually landed federal funding to study the destruction of these weapons.

As he published his findings, Ted gained significant visibility in the scientific community and landed a job offer from Battelle Memorial Institute. The company, among the most prestigious contract research firms in the world, was an ideal climate to continue his research in analytical chemistry, and Ted wrote his PhD thesis on the discovery of a rare strained molecule using theoretical calculations to predict a synthesis pathway. The work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

He began to find, however, that he was more drawn to the business side of chemistry, like marketing, management, and working with people. “As I got married and began to really think about my future, I grew more and more interested in managing the business processes of chemistry,” he says.

From his research job, Ted was transferred to Corporate Technical Development at Battelle, a strategic position within the corporation which included a promotion to a senior management position. In this capacity, he worked all over the world, dramatically expanding his vista in science. He was ultimately named VP of strategic programs, cementing a major life shift from science to business as he coordinated the company’s defense programs in Washington, DC. He helped design a strategic plan for the company that involved the opening of new field offices with proximity to key clients. He physically relocated to Edgewood, Maryland, to launch one such office and soon followed up by adding a second office in Crystal City, Virginia. After fourteen months, he was asked to relocate to the Battelle Dayton office to execute a turnaround.

While at Dayton, Ted pitched and implemented a defense field office operational concept, establishing additional offices in Alabama, Texas, and Utah—areas with heavy contract research opportunities.

Through this entrepreneurial boon, Ted’s expertise in the nature of chemical agents and the destruction of chemical weapons expanded to broader geopolitics. His name grew prominent in this new field, attracting the attention of Department of Defense executives. He was subsequently offered a position at the Pentagon as a Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense at the highest senior executive service level of SES6.

“The happiest moment of my father’s life was when I told him I was going to be a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Pentagon,” Ted recounts. “In graduate school, I had imagined how great it would be to be part of the science of the destruction of all the chemical agent weapons in the world. At the Pentagon, I got the opportunity to work on exactly that, and more. I’d leave each day with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, always feeling that I was making a real difference.”

Over those five-plus years at the Pentagon, Ted worked to transform the chemical biological business into a genuine military industrial complex involving numerous international partners. With the help of some of his former industry colleagues, he launched the NBC IG, an industry group for the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) industries, which still meets once a month, two decades later. With the help of colleagues in Great Britain, he also started the Chemical Weapons Destruction (CWD) International Program, which is in its eighteenth year today. He revived the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) Chemical Biological Steering Committee, which resulted in NDIA awarding Ted their annual Gold Medal for supporting the US Defense Industry. At the Pentagon, he received the Department of Defense Meritorious Service Medal to recognize his achievements, an honor that sits alongside the elegant award he received from the French government “Ordre National du Merite,” awarded for providing assistance in developing concepts for destroying recovered chemical weapons in France.

After four years of working for the Secretary of Defense, Ted was offered an opportunity to become an Assistant Secretary of the Army. The Department of Defense’s weapons destruction program had grown so large that it was transferred to the US Army for management, and Ted was asked to continue his oversight of the program in a new position there. In that capacity, he continued to focus on advancing goals that were set by the United Nation’s treaty for the elimination of all chemical weapons worldwide.

In 1999, he accepted the President and CEO position at Versar Inc., where he worked for the next eleven years at the helm of an environmental and infrastructure company. “When I arrived, I found a lot of very smart people who weren’t having any fun,” he reflects. “Their old way of doing business had disappeared, and they weren’t sure how to restore the operations to their former success.”

Ted focused on sketching out a plan to turn things around and then exuding the confidence necessary to lead the company in that direction. He showed the employees that he had a vision for the future, and he convinced the clients he could get them where they wanted to go. He also exercised the same sense of empathy that had gotten him through his career to this point. “For me, leadership stems from empathy,” he explains. “You have to be able to empathize with both the employees and the clients, getting on the other side of the fence and understanding what they need to be successful. In the business world, people try to understand, but they don’t always try to empathize. I’ve found through my career that building that empathy bridge goes a long way.”

Ted was able to leverage his past affiliations and experience to help increase the share of Versar’s defense business from 40 to 86 percent during his tenure. “I enjoyed my role in building Versar to a new, exciting company,” he remarks. In 2010, he retired from Versar and has since pursued various consulting jobs, projects, and commitments. Such diverse roles include serving on the Utah State Research Foundation’s Board of Directors, as a U.S. representative for Kobe Steel Ltd. Defense-related projects, and as a temporary CEO for a startup company in need of a growth spurt.

In advising young people entering the working world today, Ted echoes the guidance he offered his own children. “I never spent a lot of time agonizing over planning my career,” he says. “If you follow the sequence of events in my life, they were all opportunistic. Each step forward came in the form of an opportunity where I decided whether I wanted to go one way or the other. From the shoe shine stand, to the wall street runner job, to the Italian restaurant, to National Cleaning Contractors, all the way up to becoming a Pentagon executive and ultimately a CEO, I was always focused on getting to the next level. The world isn’t structured for planning, it’s structured for opportunity. So keep your mind open to differing opportunities, and when you come across that thing that you love doing, jump in and never look back.”

Theodore M. Prociv

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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