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CDR ONE-ON-ONE – Kevin Ford PRESIDENT & CEO, CALIAN GROUP

CDR ONE-ON-ONE – Kevin Ford PRESIDENT & CEO, CALIAN GROUP

BY JAMES CARELESS

Kevin Ford

PRESIDENT & CEO, CALIAN GROUP 

In an exclusive interview with CDR’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, James Careless, Calian Group President and CEO, Kevin Ford, spoke about his company’s four pillars of business, Calian’s commitment to investing in innovation, and its intention to take its Canadian-based success to a global level. 

Training, space, information technology, and healthcare: These are the four pillars supporting the platform of services that Ottawa’s Calian Group provides to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). This diversity makes Calian stand out from other defence companies, who typically offer tightly focussed portfolios of products and services. Such diversity is also key to this company’s 40-plus years of business success. 

CDR: What makes Calian different from other defence/security companies? 

Kevin Ford: One of the primary differentiations for Calian is our diversification. I don’t know how many companies you can talk to who can talk about their ground systems and space. We can talk about the healthcare that we’re doing in the military construct. We can talk about the learning and the incredible footprint we have both in Canada and now the world as we train NATO for IT and cyber. 

You normally find a company that’s got one or two things in the domain, so the diversification of Calian is really our differentiator. I can talk to anybody in defence and whatever their main point is, we generally can help them in some shape or form.

Calian supports military customers on training and exercises leveraging innovative technologies

CDR: Can you give us a breakdown of your core businesses?  

Kevin Ford: Yes. I’ll start with healthcare. We have been supporting military healthcare delivery at bases and installations in partnership with DND. Our national program with the Surgeon General provides over 80 different categories of medical practitioners for military healthcare. DND/CAF has its own healthcare staff too, and Calian supplements that capacity across Canada. If you’re in the CAF and have accessed healthcare, chances are you have met someone from Calian. 

On the training side, we are delivering training and exercises across Canada and the world. We design, develop, and deliver training for individual skills development – things like electronics, communications, aerospace technicians – and deliver collective and high-readiness training for units. Using synthetic training environments allows us to deliver detailed, realistic scenarios to prepare the men and women of the CAF for what they will face on operations. This is a core capability that Calian has been delivering to the CAF for over 25 years. 

On the advanced technologies and defence manufacturing side, we deliver for defence through our manufacturing facility in Saskatoon. We partner with OEMs to provide them with custom solutions to meeting the needs of any program. We take a comprehensive approach to designing, manufacturing, testing and delivering all of our components and systems to meet the exceedingly high standards the military holds. Our carbon fiber composites team is looking at how to integrate more advanced materials into defence programs. 

Space is becoming more and more relevant, especially with continental defence modernization on the horizon. We build ground infrastructure for defence and civil clients to provide communications and connectivity for any application. Through the Canadian Space Agency we also deliver flight operations for satellites, keeping them on time and on target. Space is going to be a major area of concern in the coming decades – both looking into deep space, and supporting capabilities pointed back at earth. 

For cyber defence, we are working with many organizations to improve their cyber posture. Whether it’s for cyber threat hunting, cyber architecture, or custom solutions we work directly with our customers to support them. We have been doing this for many years now, and have deployed over one hundred million in capital to acquire companies to strengthen our capabilities in this space. 

I hope that gives you a good overview on the kind of things Calian delivers. It shows the diversity of our solutions. Sitting here as CEO and talking about these four things goes right back to the first question about differentiation. Not too many companies can say they operate across all those spaces.

Calian’s Military Family Doctor Network (MFDN) helps Canadian military family members who often lose access to their family doctors after a new posting

CDR: So, what do you want people to know about Calian?  

Kevin Ford: I think the message I want to send out, especially to the defence community, is that everyone knows Calian in some shape or form, but nobody really knows the broad Calian footprint. 

The one thing I’d like to highlight is the innovative work we’ve been doing both organically and through our acquisitions. We have technology assets now related to all that we do. We used to be viewed as a services firm, and again, we’re very happy with that. But, over the last 40 years, we’ve become a company of transformation, and innovation is a key driver of that. Whether we’re investing organically in R&D or acquiring new innovations, I think if you look at our last couple of years, we’re walking the talk on our track record here.

CDR: Can you provide some examples of Calian’s investment in innovation? 

Kevin Ford: Yes. If you look at our learning business, people who generally know us as a services company know that we support the military through exercise design, implementation, rehearsal, post-exercise review, and training courses. But just over a year ago, we acquired SimFront, who are experts in immersive learning, virtual reality, immersive and reality gaming. This is a good example where we bought some technology IP to make our training scenarios more effective by leveraging technology. 

Another example. Again, a lot of people have known us as an IT services firm, but we’ve recently acquired, over the last couple of years, a Toronto company called iSecurity and, recently out of Houston, Texas, a company called Computex. And what we’ve got now is really a strong services capability around cyber, along with an enhanced technology capability through partnerships with organisations like Fortinet and CrowdStrike. 

We have also created our own security operations centres. We now run, as a service, cyber security monitoring and threat hunting through our two sites; one in Houston and one in Toronto. That wasn’t there a couple years ago, and it’s a great example of your point about innovation.

CDR: While Calian is a Canadian company, I know it has aspirations to be a global leader in defence/security. Please tell us about that.  

Kevin Ford: Absolutely. Customer retention is Number One at Calian. We’re cognizant that we can’t sacrifice our current customer relationships as a cost of growth, in the sense of not losing focus on how we got here and our key customers. We value those relationships. We need to make sure we retain those customers. 

That said, customer diversification is vital to our future success. So, if you look at Calian overall and our revenues, we’re continuing to invest in our outward-facing footprints. We now have offices in Germany for advanced technologies with our acquisition of SatService. We have offices in the UK and Norway as we support NATO, and now offices in Houston, Florida and Minneapolis as we expand into the US. 

It’s no longer a case of aspirations, but of strategy and action. Better yet, our revenue growth is double-digit, and our corporate revenues have crossed the half billion-dollar mark recently. So, we’re getting bigger, we’re diversifying, we’re going global and we’re entering new markets. 

On the defence side: Two years ago, we didn’t have NATO as a customer. We do now. Asia is a major customer for us in our training business, and we’re seeing opportunities globally. 

We have nothing but respect for the women and men in the military. I’ve been around this industry for over 30 years. Maybe the average Canadian doesn’t see it, but Calian and our defence industry understands the commitment of all of our armed forces and DND’s personnel.

CDR: Calian prides itself on being a defence/security community partner. Why is that important? 

Kevin Ford: Being in the defence sector comes with a unique mandate to ensure the safety and security of Canada and our allies, and support for the people who serve on our behalf. We want to ensure that we recognize this mandate and how important it’s been to Calian’s evolution, so we want to continue to find opportunities to give back. 

This is because we hire numerous veterans, veterans’ partners and spouses. We have also launched an initiative with the Director General of Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services and our Calian Military Family Doctor Network. As military families get posted around the country, we’ve leveraged our health infrastructure to see if we can find healthcare capacity for those families because their military members are already taken care of. The families, on the other hand, are faced with a restart in these situations, especially when they move from province to province. So, we’re trying to work with DND on this and I’m happy to say I believe we connected over 4,000 military family members to some form of healthcare. 

We’re very proud of that. We will continue with that and we’ve always continued trying to find those opportunities to invest in the people involved in defence. It’s the right thing to do for the CAF, a customer that has supported us in our journey – and frankly – has been a key part of our growth globally.

CDR: Sustainable business practices are also a big priority for Calian. Please tell us more about that. 

Kevin Ford: Yes. In fact, Calian just released our first sustainability report this year. And it’s important to recognize that the defence industry is also trying to do a lot of things to become more sustainable. We want to become more environmentally friendly. There’s a lot of work going on and we’re one company that is taking it seriously. I was very proud of our first sustainability report, and all that we’re doing with regard to helping the environment through carbon-reduction investments that we’re making in key communities. So to your point, we’re definitely investing right back into defence. We’re also making sure we look at our sustainability investments and continue to try and grow the company leveraging both of those pillars.

CDR: Last year, Calian marked its 40th year in business. How has Calian changed? How is it transforming to meet global defence/security needs going forward?            

Kevin Ford: Everyone who knows me knows that I use the words “major” and “minor” a lot. 

We definitely have a major in services and a minor in technology except for our advanced technologies group, which has always had a very strong technology push with our SATCOM business, and with our engineering and manufacturing business. 

The transformation at Calian is such that we will always be a services company, no question, but we’re strengthening our technology assets. That is the innovation element of our growth strategy story. I tell people we’re 40 years in business, but we just feel like we’re getting going. 

When I took over the company, I reorganized it around those four segments of healthcare learning, IT, and advanced technologies. And since then I’ve really been embracing that diversity with strong leaders in each of the segments, investing in organic and M&A growth. 

For those that know Calian, or have known Calian over the years, they always say, “Wow, yeah, I had no idea that you folks were in that”. And I get that a lot. 

I think where we’re changing and where we’re transforming – because we are transforming – is that we’re bringing more innovation to all that we do. We’re going more global. 

In the defence realm, we’re continuing to see opportunities to leverage some of the great intellectual capital that we’ve developed over the years with National Defence in Canada on a global footprint.

 

CDR: Does it help that Calian is a Canadian company? 

Kevin Ford: Yes. It helps that Canada’s very well respected globally, and our women and men in the military are very respected. This allows us to walk into Germany or the NATO offices and say, “Hi, we’re Calian, we’re Canadian and we’ve been working with National Defence now for over 25 years across all these different mandates”, and we get instant respect, to be honest. 

That’s no credit to Calian, frankly, but a credit to our Canadian brand and again, our women and men in the military that continue to represent us so well.

CDR: As for the future? 

Kevin Ford: For Calian, it’s about continuing to transform, continuing to go global and continuing to innovate and make sure that we’re truly being a partner in mission success for our defence customers. We are doing this through our widely diversified yet interconnected businesses, our commitment to innovation through our own efforts and the acquisition of firms that fit, and our support of the Canadian men and women in uniform who do so much to keep all of us safe.                                                           

James Careless is CDR’s Ottawa Bureau Chiefs Ottawa Bureau Chief

 

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