The military’s biggest overseas supplier of construction and warfighter support services has a new head. KBR, formerly the Kellogg, Brown & Root units of Halliburton, announced yesterday that it had appointed William C. Bodie as president of its North American and Defense business. Bodie, former director of communications for the Air Force, has a very different resume from the engineers and financial types who typically populate the executive suites of defense contractors. Not only is he younger than his counterparts at other companies, but he has held a more diverse range of positions in government, academia and the corporate world. His undergraduate degree at Columbia was in history, followed by a degree in politics at New York University — credentials that may prove quite useful as he leads his sprawling business into the post-Iraq era.
KBR is highly regarded by the U.S. Army, its biggest military customer. However, throughout Bodie’s time at KBR, the company has been dogged by just about the worst public relations challenges any federal contractor has faced. When it was part of Halliburton, it got caught up in all the conspiracy theories about former CEO Dick Cheney’s role in launching the Iraq war. After it was spun off from Halliburton, it was routinely mentioned in any media report about contractor malfeasance at overseas sites. The fact that it got high marks from warfighters while generating a miniscule 1-2% profit margin on its biggest military contract seldom was mentioned.
The biggest test of Bodie as head of KBR’s defense business will lie in convincing the government to judge his company on the basis of its actual performance in the field, rather than extraneous political considerations. He certainly has the necessary persuasive skills, exhibiting an extraordinary grasp of international relations, politics and cultural history. In 25 years of dealing with the defense industry, I have never met an executive who was more well rounded or intellectually stimulating. But he will need every bit of that skill to overcome the Obama Administration’s biases about defense contractors. Fortunately for him, KBR is usually the lowest-cost, most experienced contractor competing to provide support of deployed troops — features that will be hard to ignore as long as the government is running a budget deficit of $4 billion per day.
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