Mahfuz Ahmed was an 18-year-old high school student in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1989 when his grandfather offered some advice.
“Go to the US and get educated,” said his grandfather, a high-ranking civil servant in Bangladesh. The schools and infrastructure in Bangladesh were unreliable, and his grandfather said it could take far more than four years to earn a degree.
Ahmed, well educated and from an upper-middle-class family, took the advice -- the first of several strategic decisions he has made that has helped make him a multimillionaire.
He attended George Mason University and lived with an uncle in Great Falls to save on room and board. His mother helped him with the tuition, and he borrowed the rest from wealthy uncles and his brother. He graduated in December 1992.
Now 41, Ahmed is the founder and 80 percent owner of DISYS, a McLean-based technology services company with a name that Ahmed admits sounds boring. But its performance has been anything but.
DISYS nets about $18 million in profit, employs 4,000 people, and every day goes head-to-head with such heavyweights as IBM, Deloitte and Accenture for the right to service Fortune 500 companies' technology systems. It has 28 offices, including 10 outside the United States, and most of the profit is reinvested for growth.
DISYS's jobs pay an average of $120,000 a year, but it isn't an easy place to work. Turnover is 30 percent, and the pressure to perform is high. For those with the stamina to grind it out, it's worth it. That includes the owner, who earns $750,000 a year.
“The secret sauce is getting it done,” said Ahmed. “Everybody has the good stuff. The question is, how many get it done? There are 100 plumbers. Why do you stick to one guy? One gets it done. A lot say they can play the game, but they can't.”
Ahmed said he learned to be competitive growing up in Bangladesh, where 150 million people are squeezed into a space the size of Iowa.
“When you have that many people, the resources are very constrained. You are really good or you die, because somebody else is hungrier. It's Darwinism.”
His grandfather and others (his father died when he was 6) advised him to get a degree in a technical field so he could make a living at it.
He studied engineering and computer science at GMU, where more than half of his engineering class was foreign-born. He graduated college hungry and looking for work.
“People in the US,” he said, “take a lot of stuff for granted. You have water in your house when you turn it on. Any given day in Bangladesh, for three or four hours your electricity will go out. Everybody has private generators, which they use gasoline to fuel when the electricity goes out.”
He wasted no time getting a job at Mobil, the big oil company that was headquartered in Fairfax County before it was acquired by Exxon. He worked in the technology department, earning about $38,000 a year. He knew he would have to start his own company if he wanted real wealth, so in his off hours, he and some college tech buddies brainstormed on business ideas.
Over the next couple of years, his work at Mobil kept earning him promotions -- and raises. He kept coming up with new ways for the company to automate its computer functions, saving on the number of employees needed to accomplish basic computer tasks.
In about 1994, he and three friends launched DISYS, which stands for Digital Intelligence Systems. The boring name came when they were spitballing ideas while watching television. The idea was to take what Ahmed had been doing at Mobil -- servicing technology departments, cutting their costs and keeping them running smoothly -- and sell that service to other firms.
The company started slowly, with only $4,500 in revenue over its first two years. Two of the four partners left. Ahmed and the remaining partner, who worked at Loral, the defence contractor that is now part of Lockheed Martin, kept DISYS going while keeping their full-time jobs. They lived with their wives in townhouses in western Fairfax County.
The first breakthrough came in December 1996, when DISYS was awarded a $200,000 contract with Mobil.
“I went to a manager and begged her to give our company a chance,” Ahmed said. More Mobil work followed. Then, as managers left Mobil for other companies, such as BDM, Freddie Mac and TRW, they hired DISYS to do their technology work.
Ahmed's day was like that of most entrepreneurs who are building companies. He worked at Mobil from 7am to 4pm, then drove his Acura Vigor to clients' offices, where he worked until after midnight.
“For 18 months, the only time I saw my wife was when she was sleeping,” he said.
By 1998, revenue had grown to $700,000. Then DISYS began to catch the sweet spot in the computer revolution: Companies were moving from large, mainframe computers to smaller, more nimble machines, which were less expensive and easier to maintain. DISYS jumped into the space.
By 2000, it had $4 million in revenue and won a major contract with the state of Virginia, spurred by the dot-com bubble's growing demand for telecommunications services.
Only then did the partners finally quit their jobs. But soon after, they had a falling-out, and they had an ugly parting, including litigation. “It was like a divorce,” Ahmed said. “Very painful.”
His partner took part of the business and most of its 38 employees. Ahmed kept what was left -- four employees -- and merged his part of the business with a company in which he became a one-third owner. After the dot-com bubble exploded, he started from scratch. He went back to former clients he had a good relationship with and grabbed market share by convincing them he could save them money.
Ahmed started opening offices in cities including Atlanta, which has a healthy group of corporations such as Cox, Turner Broadcasting, Home Depot, Chick-fil-A, Delta Airlines and UPS. The plan was to open an office, grab business by underpricing the competition and build on small contracts.
But the fast growth came at a cost. After opening offices in Dallas, Boston, Houston, California and Atlanta in 2005, his partners -- hungry for profits -- wanted out. “They thought I was overly aggressive, overly ambitious. And they were right. I am growing for the long-term. I want to become a big company.”
He borrowed against his own bank account to buy DISYS from them. (He has since sold a 20 percent slice to a private equity firm.) Even his wife thought he was moving too quickly. “I told my wife, 'If this works out, I will be one of the richest guys you will ever know. If it doesn't work out, you know that Centreville house you liked? We will be right back in it.'”
He never moved back to the townhouse. Ahmed lives in Great Falls, is the youngest member of GMU's Board of Trustees and is preparing to take DISYS public in 2017, which should make him very wealthy.
The Grandpa had the right idea.