2010 Best Places to Work - Large employers: Chenega Federal Systems

Chenega Federal helps support indigenous people in Alaska

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Print this page by Marjolijn Bijlefeld

Last year Janice Clother, an executive assistant at Chenega Federal Systems in Lorton, stepped out of the fishing boat onto the dock near the village of Chenega Bay on an island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Behind her, a commercial fleet of boats bobbed under the gray clouds. In front of her loomed a huge hill, on top of which sat a Russian Orthodox church. That’s where the village leader met the small group of Chenega Federal employees to give them a red-carpet tour.

“He showed us how the villagers fish and the works in progress, such as a hospital, school and recreation center,’ recalls Clother.  “There’s no merchandise there; everything has to be flown in or brought by boat.” She still marvels at the villagers’ ingenuity in creating fuel and electricity. Everything is reused, such as the 16-foot satellite dish that now serves as the roof of a gazebo.

The visit to the Alaskan village wasn’t some vacation trip.  The villagers are the shareholders of Anchorage-based Chenega Corp., Chenega Federal’s parent company.
Chenega Corp. is an Alaska Native corporation, a business entity authorized by federal law in 1971 to benefit the state’s indigenous peoples.  Alaska has 250 village corporations and 13 regional corporations that fall under this category.

Chenega Corp. is Alaska’s largest village corporation and, in fact, is larger than 10 of the regional corporations. Chenega has 22 business units, including Chenega Federal. It provides engineering and support services, primarily to the Department of Defense and its contractors. The other companies provide a range of services, including base operations, environmental management, information technology, security services and training to a variety of federal agencies as well as commercial customers.

Chenega Federal tops the large company list of Best Places to Work in Virginia. One of the reasons it stands out is the strong bond between the workers in Lorton and the shareholders in Alaska. Clother says her co-workers admire the tenacity and determination of the villagers. The original village was destroyed in 1964 by a tsunami, which killed about one-third of the residents. Twenty-five years later, oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez washed ashore near the relocated community, wiping out its commercial fishing industry.  The village has regrouped and persevered after each disaster.

The village’s sense of cohesion has carried over to Chenega Federal, says its president, John Campagna. He joined the company in 1998 after retiring from the U.S. Army Special Forces.

As the company has grown, the company’s work force has remained tight-knit.  “It’s very family-oriented because the shareholders have a strong sense of family,” says Campagna. When employees have become sick or suffered personal tragedies, “the shareholders make sure the family is well taken care of.”

Clother says that the company has made accommodations for an employee going through a long-term cancer treatment by allowing her to work at home as she was able. But she also cites the smaller accommodations such as allowing a new employee to borrow vacation days to care for an ailing relative or attend a funeral. “The message has been, ‘You do what you have to do, and we’ll work it out later,’” she says.

As a result, attrition in the company’s work force has been below 5 percent per year, in an industry where annual attrition typically runs 12 to 18 percent, he says. “It’s a high-turnover field, but we haven’t had to deal with people jumping ship for an extra $5,000 in salary,” Campagna says.

He encourages employees like Clother to visit the village when corporate trips bring them to Chenega headquarters in Anchorage. “It makes me proud to work for them, to know that I’m a part of their history now,” she says.

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