Interview with Carl M. Albero, Founder of AMSEC

Businessman gives lead gift to fund home for disabled adults

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

The relationship started in 2002 with one company’s desire to donate Christmas toys to severely disabled children.  The company was AMSEC, a Virginia Beach-based defense contractor founded by Carl M. Albero.  By the time Albero retired in 2006, he was serving on the board of St. Mary’s Home for Disabled Children, and he knew many of the children by name.

What would become of them, he wondered, after they reached age 21 and had to leave their bright, cheerful rooms at St. Mary’s?  Many of the home’s residents can’t speak or get around without the assistance of a wheelchair.  “There are very few choices available to them,” Albero says. “They can go to an institution, or the families need to take them back and caring for one of these children is a full-time job. “

Tight budgets in recent years brought downsizing to one of the few referral options: state-assisted training centers.  While nursing homes can provide medical care, some parents were wary about placing their young adult in what is primarily an older-adult population. So the board of St. Mary’s began to rethink its mission to include care for disabled adults. 

With a lead gift from Albero and his wife, Carole Anne (a retired special education teacher), just north of $500,000, St. Mary’s is well on its way to raising $3 million for a 10,000-square-foot wing that will house 12 adults.  Construction begins this summer at the school’s campus in Norfolk near Sentara Leigh Hospital.  The adult home should be ready for residents by mid-2012. 

After interacting with the staff and children for nine years, Albero considers the wing a part of his family’s legacy.  “What I hope happens here is that people will take this legacy and maybe get another piece of land and build a bigger facility.” The project was limited to 12 beds, he explains, because that’s all that would fit in an expansion on the school’s available land. “I would have liked to have built more beds,” he says. Yet, “It made sense to do it here because there are a lot of economies of scale with the staff.”

That’s the business side of Albero talking.  A self-described “entrepreneur extraordinaire,” he has started several businesses in his lifetime, barely slowing the pace during his so-called “retirement” years.  After stepping down from AMSEC, he became managing partner at CMA & Associates, a management consulting company in Virginia Beach that he founded to work with small military contractors.  “I built it up to 35 clients. Then the next thing I knew, I had 30 to 35 consultants, and my wife said to me, ‘What are you doing?’”

Albero, 75, scaled down and now works with only a handful of companies.  His latest endeavor was last year’s startup of Secutor Systems LLC in Chesapeake, a small security company that serves government clients. On the side, he collects baseball cards — his favorite is a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card — and at one point even that was a sideline business he ran with his son. 

Looking back, this indefatigable CEO says he enjoyed building AMSEC from a team of four people in a garage in 1981 to a $500 million company. When Albero left, the defense contractor had 4,600 employees — 2,000 of them in Hampton Roads — and was the largest provider of engineering services to aircraft carriers in the U.S. 

AMSEC was a natural fit for Albero, the former chief engineer for the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy.  In 1987, SAIC acquired AMSEC, and Albero stayed on as the company’s president and CEO.  He later became a group president for SAIC, heading up a 7,000-person naval engineering and technical solutions group.  Another major defense contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp., acquired a minority stake in AMSEC.  Earlier this year, when Northrop Grumman spun off its shipbuilding subsidiary, AMSEC became a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls Industries, based in Newport News.

Albero sees many parallels between running a business and serving on the board of a nonprofit.  “Lead and they will follow,” he says.  Be strategic. “You need a plan.” As for fundraising, “It’s like business development.” 
Albero’s philosophy on giving also comes with a business slant. “I like to make sure they’re not going to waste it. I want to make sure that most of the money is going into the cause and not to support the people who are managing the cause.”

So far $2 million has been raised for the adult wing.  Even with the country’s recession in 2008, “the level of generosity to St. Mary’s has increased in the last two to three years,” says William C. Giermak, St. Mary’s CEO. He credits Albero’s lead gift with building momentum for the current campaign, which hopes to raise a total of $6 million. Besides the adult wing, that would establish a $2 million endowment to protect against future economic downturns and $1 million for annual operating costs.

For Albero, who supports several charities, giving away money isn’t hard. “I think every man should take part of his success and reinvest in the community and in doing good.”

Virginia Business: How did you come to make the lead gift to St. Mary’s for a new wing to house adults? 
Albero: I’ve been involved with St. Mary’s since the early 2000’s because the company I founded, AMSEC, always had a shine to St. Mary’s and the children. We used to deliver a van full of toys every Christmas.  When they started to build this home that we’re in right now, there was a little difficulty with the fundraising, so I got involved.  That was about 2002.  After being associated with the children and everything, I wanted to give back …The children here are special.

VB: So your involvement with the school began in 2002?
Albero: Right around there, yes.

VB: Tell me about that. 
Albero: Sister Mary June Morin came [to our company], and we had a luncheon for her.  I was in my office, and the guys came up and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come down and meet Sister Mary June.’  At that time, you know, $25, $50 donations were big, so I sat there, and I said, ‘You know, I am Catholic. I’d like to do something here.” AMSEC was a pretty big company, so we just adopted St. Mary’s as our charity.

VB: So it began through your business relationship?
Albero: Well, primarily because I was very impressed with Sister Mary June, who recently retired here.  She spent 51 years here.  There is a sideline to this story.
Let me tell you about my relationship with sisters.  First of all, my wife was going to be a nun before I met her.  That’s one. Two, my wife taught at Catholic school, and we had a little reception for the sisters from St. Gregory’s.  [At that time in 1970], I was a ship superintendent on an aircraft carrier at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard called the USS America.  I invited them down, and they were real excited about coming on the ship with their habits and everything.  And there was one Sister who lost her rosary beads on the America.  Well, I have to tell you, we finished that overhaul 30 days early and $3 million under cost [on a $33 million ship]. I always say that the America was blessed, because of those rosary beads, which were never found by the way.

And then I met Sister Mary June.  So in a funny sort of a way, there have been important milestones in my life that involve the Holy Order.  Of course, once my wife met me, all her thoughts of becoming a nun disappeared.

…What’s intriguing is that as a result of my experience as a ship’s superintendent on the America, I was selected early for commander and assigned as chief engineer of the John F. Kennedy.  Based on what I learned on the John F. Kennedy — being chief engineer of a carrier is a big deal — I used that knowledge to form the company called AMSEC.  I started with four people in a garage.  Four of those people were with me on the Kennedy.  And we built that company into a $500 million company.  It all goes to those rosary beads.  So the Lord had something in mind for me.

VB: I’d like to get back to your long and successful business history.  I did some research on that, and I know that AMSEC was bought out by SAIC. Then SAIC formed a joint partnership with Northrop Grumman, and later on Northrop Grumman spun off the shipbuilding unit. So now AMSEC is technically a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls.
Albero: You got it.

VB: We’ll get back to that …but before we jump into business, let’s talk a bit more about philanthropy. Why do you think it’s important to expand care here at St. Mary’s?  I understand that the project will create 12 beds for adults.
Albero: It’s very important because currently when children become 21, they have to leave the home.  There are very few choices available for them.  One is they can go to an institution, or the families need to take them back, and caring for one of these children is a full-time job. So essentially they’re cut free at 21.  And the families have to fend for themselves. 

In talking around the community to some of the parents of these children, there’s a big need for care of these children, for a safe haven,  not just for the ones who graduate from St. Mary’s but from other facilities like St. Mary’s. … The board wanted to do a fundraiser, but I refused to participate unless I knew exactly what we had in mind strategically.  So we decided to build a home.  And we looked into all of the red tape and everything else, and the thing that made sense was we had the land here, and there was room.  I would have liked to have built more beds, but unfortunately all we could build is 12 on the land we have. 

What I hope happens is that — this is my legacy — that people will take this legacy and maybe get another piece of land and build a bigger facility.  Also it made sense to do it here because there are a lot of economies of scale with the staff.  The people here are just wonderful.  The people who work here, they’re saints the way they take care of the children.  I really feel comfortable here.  Of course I sure hope that some of the first occupants in that home are graduates from St. Mary’s, but that’s not a prerequisite.
Once they agreed to this idea, to be honest with you, to sort of push them over the top, I decided to make a substantial gift that would get the momentum going.  And it worked.

VB: Where do you stand now with the fundraising? How much of the $3 million has been raised?
Albero: I think we’re close to $2 million right now.

VB: What is your end date for when you hope to get to the $3 million?
Albero: I’d say by the end of this year, because we’re very active right now in the community, and there’s a lot of support for this among the local community leaders.

VB: Was this the first major gift you’ve made to a charity, or have there been other causes that you’ve supported?
Albero: I have some other charities.  One is Lafayette College where I did my undergraduate work.  I have a scholarship up there in my mother’s name.

VB: What is your philosophy on giving and philanthropy?  Can you share that with us?
Albero: Yes, I’d like to make sure they’re not going to waste it. I want to make sure that most of the money is going into the cause and not to support the people who are managing the cause. 

A couple of other charities you might want to mention that I’m very strong on, and this is unique, is a place in Vermont called St. Anne’s Shrine.  It’s on the shores of Lake Champlain.  I’ve never experienced the peace that I experience when I visit that shrine … It’s my Saint’s Day.  I was born on St. Anne’s, July 26th.  So I like that one. And I like Make-A-Wish Foundation.

VB: You seem to enjoy helping children by your selections.
Albero: Yes. 

VB: One thing I was curious about, because you have a successful business background, do you see any parallels between running a business and being on the board of a non-profit?
Albero: Yes.  Lead and they will follow. 

VB: I know you’re on several other business boards as well.  Any other parallels that you can see where your business training paid off?
Albero: Strategic planning.  You need a plan.  When you’re raising money, it’s like business development. The bottom line that I’ve always followed is treat other people like you’d like to be treated. I’m also a strong supporter of the staff here.  Every time bonuses come up, I get my shackles up because I want to raise the number … I believe you should reward dedication.

VB: Did you try to do that with your own employees?
Albero: Oh yes.  I turned my company into an employee-owned company. 

Those are the keys. And the other thing, I think, is don’t get mesmerized with your own self-importance, which a lot of these big CEO’s do … My wife keeps me well grounded there.  I see it so often, when people finally are successful, they change.  And what got them there and their good attributes seem to disappear, [like their inclination] to be charitable.

VB: As one of the major donors, you could name the new wing.  Have you come to a decision about that?
Albero: Well it hasn’t been approved yet, but I think where we’re leaning right now is, and again this is not firm, is Albero Haven.

VB: This would be in honor of you and your wife, who made the lead donation?
Albero: And all the Alberos who came before me — my granddad and my father and my mother.

VB: Tell me about the mermaid out front.
Albero: We were having a charity auction here, and I had to go to another cocktail party before the charity auction. So I’m sitting there, and this mermaid thing [the commissioning for a specific work] comes up.  I start the bidding.  A dentist, who I became good friends with … Well, I don’t know whether it was the wine or whatever, but we kept bidding against each other.  Next thing you know, I was up to $5,000, something like that.  And my wife kept poking me, and I kept bidding. 

But anyway, the mermaid, it was wonderful.  One day [after the work was complete] the kids came out from St. Mary’s. My grandkids were with them, and they painted the mermaid.  We had a nice dedication ceremony, and it was become a symbol around here.

VB: So you placed the winning bid for the mermaid?
Albero: Yes.  I won out.

VB: And what’s the name of the mermaid?
Albero: A friend of St. Mary’s suggested Embrace, and we liked that because she’s holding a child. [That’s also the name of the current fundraising campaign.]

VB: What to you is the most satisfying thing about giving away money? 
Albero: I’ll tell you what it is.  I feel really good and at peace.  I enjoy giving money to a good cause more than making it, because you’ve got to make it so you can give it.  I really feel good about it.  For the proper cause.

VB: There’s a new trend in business called the double bottom line. That refers to making money and doing good at the same time, not just focusing on profits. How do you feel about that?
Albero: I think every man should take part of his success and reinvest it in the community and in doing good.

VB: You recently started a new management consulting company, CMA Associates.
Albero: Well actually it’s not new. It’s 5 years old.

VB: But you started this right after you retired in 2006?
Albero: Yes.

VB: Tell me a little bit more about why you decided to do that, how’s the business going, and is it an offshoot of all your other business experiences?
Albero: I had an employment contract with SAIC that still had two years remaining.  And I really believe in honoring commitments … I wanted to be useful, so part of it was to consult for SAIC, which I continue to do for about a day and a half to two days a week. But they gave me permission to accept other clients where there was no conflict of interest.

Well, I built it up to 35 clients.  then the next thing I knew, I had 30 to 35 consultants, and my wife said to me, “What are you doing?  Actually I had it up to about $3 million a year.  I decided that I better just pick a handful of companies that I enjoyed working with because I wasn’t getting any younger.  So I started scaling down to the point now where I only work for about a half dozen of them, the primary one being Colonna Shipyard [in Norfolk.]

VB: You’re on that board, correct?
Albero: Yes, I’m very active there in strategic planning and business development.  And Colona has done extremely well since I’ve been involved with them.  I like to think I had a part to play.  So right now I only have about five associates because I think you need to stay active, but I’ve really toned it down. 
I’m also the CEO of a small company called Secutor Systems, which has a multi-domain security solution.  It’s a start up.

VB: Is it located here in Hampton Roads?
Albero: Yes, in Chesapeake.

VB: Why did you decide, in your retirement years, to go with a start up? 
Albero: My two partners had a very successful business on their own that they sold.  It was a challenge.

VB: When did you start this?
Albero: We started it one year ago.

VB: Who are your primary clients?  Government clients?
Albero: Yes.  It’s very secure, so I have difficulty talking about exactly what it is we do.

VB: So you’re still doing your consulting business, working one to two days a week for SAIC.  You have a handful of other clients, and you’re the CEO of Secutor Systems?
Albero: Let me tell you what else I do that takes time. I am probably one of the five top collectors in the United States of vintage baseball cards.  Now if you were to use my name, it would probably not be recognized.  Everyone in that industry knows me as The Duke of Mint, because I only collect mint cards.  I have cards that go all the way back, complete sets, to 1935.

VB: What’s your favorite card?
Albero: My favorite card that I own is a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card, graded PSA 9 on a scale of 1-10, and it’s one of only 4 in the world.

VB: How much is that card worth?
Albero: Probably at least $750,000… I also have a complete 1952 set, all graded PSA 8 and higher, that is number three in the world.

VB: How did you get into baseball card collecting?
Albero: Well in 1987, I had a love child.  There were 17 years between my second child and my last child, all with the same wife.  I’ve only had one wife.

VB: 17 years?
Albero: Yes.  He was about 7 years old. It was around 1988, I guess, and he was interested in baseball.  So we went to a card show, and we bought some recent vintage cards, and he was very interested.  So we began to get interested in collecting and going to baseball card shows.  I taught him how to look for cards.  Then we actually got into being a baseball card dealer.  While he manned the table at a show, I would go around and buy old baseball cards.  And pretty soon, between the two of us, we had a major business going until he lost interest when he became a teenager.  And I just continued.

VB: You seem to have this penchant for starting businesses in various areas of your life.
Albero: I love it.  I’m an entrepreneur extradonaire.  And out of that has developed quite a collection.  I have met so many wonderful people in the baseball card business.  I’ve become really good friends with them.  When I travel, I normally stop and have dinner with them. I’ll tell you an interesting story.  I took an associate of mine down to an Atlanta show.  AMSEC was in the throes of a tremendous growth, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to baseball cards.  We’re walking down the aisle, and he’s walking with me, and everybody is saying, “Hey, Duke, how are you doing?  Haven’t seen you in a while.”  Finally, Don Howard, who is my friend said, “Who in the heck is this guy Duke?”  I said, “That’s me.”

So I slowed down.  I don’t do the shows anymore.  But we have a network of baseball card collectors where we buy and exchange cards.

VB: Have you ever been to Wrigley Field in Chicago?
Albero: No.  I’ve been to Fenway.  I have all sorts of memorabilia.  Mantle mainly. I have a picture of myself shaking hands with Mickey Mantle in St. Louis at a card show just before he died. I’ll tell you, the highlight of my baseball card experience …We were in St. Louis. After the show, my son came along — of course, I wouldn’t let him drink; he was only about 9 — I ran into all these old Yankees: Hank Bower, Johnny Blanchard, a lot of them are dead now …  I ended up drinking with these guys.  It was fantastic. 

I used to go down where the Yankees trained on the East Coast, just North of Fort Lauderdale there in Pompano Beach.  I used to go for spring training.  This was in the ‘90s, because I knew the Yankees stayed in the same hotel.  So when I worked out, a lot of the Yankees would be there.  One morning, I was on a treadmill bemoaning the fact that I could not get tickets for that night’s game.  So when I got off the treadmill, this guy came over to me and said, “You’re a real Yankee fan.”  I said, “Yes, I am.  It just tees me off I can’t get tickets tonight.”  He writes down a phone number and says, “Call this number and tell them I have two tickets for you at will call tonight, and tell them George said so.”  I looked at him and it was George Steinbrenner. 

… I went to the game that night.  I sat right behind Steinbrenner, and he introduced me to Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, his wife — bought me a beer.  I met a bunch of Yankee wives there, and he said, “Man, you’re a real fan.  How would you like to come back tomorrow night?”  So I came back the following night, and he gave me a Yankee jacket.

VB: I’m sure you still have that.
Albero: Yes, I do.  So the Lord takes care of fools.

VB: How old were you when all this was going on?
Albero: In the early ‘90s, about 50.

VB: Which makes you in your 70’s now?  Or do you reveal your age?
Albero: Yes, I don’t care.  I’m 75.

VB: Looking back at your successful years with AMSEC, any lessons learned there that you were able to take on to other business or charitable adventures? 
Albero: Yes.  First of all, when we formed AMSEC, we coined a slogan —  and when they broke up AMSEC between Northrop Grumman and SAIC, they fought over this slogan — “Quality service by quality people.”  We vowed that we weren’t going to be like another Beltway Bandit providing Kelly girl services, as they call it, that we were going to really provide something of value to the U.S. Navy. We had all served our country, and we knew the problems on Navy ships, and we knew where they needed help.  So what we did is we founded the company and we hired the best coming out of the Navy, who really knew their stuff … When I left AMSEC, we were the largest provider of engineering services to aircraft carriers in the United States.

VB: The largest provider of services?
Albero: Engineering services.

VB: And you left AMSEC when?
Albero: In 2006.  I was the founder.  We hired the best, and we treated them like the best.  We offered ownership in the company options.  My guess is that in AMSEC’s history, where we went from zero to almost 5,000 people, that we probably created at least 1,000 millionaires, many of which were technicians.  I don’t know how many kids they put through college.  AMSEC was a $5 million entity when I stepped down.  I think I could have taken it to a billion, but what happened is the founder of SAIC retired and things changed at SAIC.  That probably was the right time for me to step down … I think that the foundation for AMSEC’s success was our strategic planning process.

VB: You mentioned that planning is very important as you serve on a non-profit board, too.  What do non-profits need the most in this day and age?
Albero:  Focus. 

VB: Looking over your long life — your business success, your charitable giving, your baseball collecting — what do you think you would most like to be remembered for?
Albero: That I was a good man.



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