Westat: 50 Years Young
David Morganstein is a vice president and director of the statistical unit, a group of 65 statisticians at Westat, Inc., where he has worked for more than 35 years. He will be the ASA president-elect in 2014. He is also a recipient of the ASA’s Founders Award. He is an elected member of the International Statistical Institute, a former chair of its Ethics Committee, and a Joint Program in Survey Methodology instructor.
[Picture not available] Daniel B. Levine is a statistician and economist who is a recognized expert in the development and implementation of survey research involving the collection of complex and policy-related information. Before joining Westat, Levine was employed for almost 30 years with the U.S. Census Bureau, where he served as deputy director.
In early 1961, Ed Bryant, then a tenured full professor of statistics at the University of Wyoming, and two former students, Jim Daley and Don King, decided they’d like to try something a bit different and settled on a partnership to serve the statistical needs of governments, business, and industry. This year, Westat, the namesake of that decision, having grown to an employee-owned organization of 2,000, celebrates its golden anniversary of incorporation in 1963 as one of the nation’s premier statistical research and survey companies.
That partnership had a number of early, lean years—its first year’s revenue reached all of $2,000—but a move from Colorado to Washington in 1966, where opportunities seemed more abundant, set the stage for a dramatic change in fortune.
But let’s start at the beginning. As Ed described it, “The company had far less chance of survival than a calf born on the open range during a blizzard” (a giveaway of his youth on a Wyoming ranch), “but we didn’t know it. None of the three of us had ever had to meet a payroll or had the experience of jumping through the red tape necessary to create a company. But when one is young, everything seems possible and optimism runs rampant through one’s thinking. That the company did survive and become one of the dominant organizations in its field is not a miracle, but the result of the intelligence, integrity, and hard work of a lot of people.” Those first years were worse than lean, as Westat struggled. To help Westat survive, Ed sold his house, and (again in Ed’s words) “Jim and Don helped by starving.”
The early years in Washington found Westat facing both fire and flood. One day, for example, a fire started in a suite that Westat had rented to a distributor of government publications. It wasn’t discovered immediately and hence got hot enough to warp one of the main steel beams, which caused the front one-fourth of the upper floor to collapse only minutes after the building was evacuated. Temporary headquarters were quickly set up in a nearby motel and virtually no work was missed due to the extraordinary dedication of the staff.
The flood occurred during Hurricane Agnes, and the rain was so heavy that water came in around the door and through the telephone and electrical conduits under the building. The staff, including wives and husbands, spent the night bailing out and, fortunately, once again, damage was held to a minimum.
The most important event of 1962 for Westat was winning a contract with the U.S. Patent Office for statistical services and experimental designs. Since, in those days, it was acceptable to render technical support while working elbow to elbow with the government client, the Patent Office furnished office space, desks, calculators, telephones, and secretarial service. Westat was able to avoid having to spend scarce resources on office space, an unexpected boon.
The change in government policy requiring contractors to maintain separate facilities came about a bit later and stimulated Westat opening a local office. Westat held the contract with the Patent Office for more than five years, during which employees had the opportunity to publish and present papers. The experience gained through the contract with the Patent Office turned out to be extremely important in leading to other government contracts.
Westat struggled hard during those early years to create an identity for itself, but a major turning point came in late 1968, when Morris Hansen joined the company after retiring from the U.S. Census Bureau. Well known for his many accomplishments and contributions to statistical sampling and survey methodology, his joining Westat solidified its reputation as a company to be taken seriously by the contract research community, and it soon found itself winning contracts and proving itself.
Another major benefit of Hansen’s affiliation with Westat was that Westat soon became the place for many of the best of the Census Bureau’s statisticians to go for second careers. In fact, Westat hired so many Census Bureau alumni that it became known as “Census West.” Among the most significant was Joe Waksberg. Morris, Joe, and the others they attracted also brought another important benefit: their strong belief in the importance of nurturing the next generation of survey statisticians and researchers. And that legacy continues to guide Westat to this day.
The 1970s saw Westat move more aggressively into the survey business with the conduct of its first longitudinal study, the evaluation of the Public Employment Program (PEP); its first national household survey, the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG); and its first large health study, Health Maintenance Organization Evaluation Study.
In 1970, Westat found itself facing an urgent need for financing to support its expanding workload and turned to the American Can Company (ACC), which offered to acquire a controlling interest for $750,000. The deal gave Westat the support it needed to invest in new projects and meet the payroll. And it also brought Joe Hunt to Westat from ACC as chief financial officer and, subsequently, president of Westat.
The “marriage” of Westat and ACC lasted until 1977, when ACC announced that Westat would be sold to the highest bidder. Faced with this decision, Westat’s directors decided that the “highest bidder” would be Westat and spent the next year trying to find a way to accomplish this goal. Events culminated in late 1978 when the final papers were signed and the Westat Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) was established. Joe Hunt became president of Westat in 1978, a position he held until his retirement in 2010, and the decade closed with $14 million in revenues.
One step in the maturation of Westat was the realization that surveys play a dominant role in its success. While not all Westat does, most of the evaluation, data management, statistical analysis, and design options research are related to surveys. Specialization in all of the phases of surveys—sample design; instrument design; execution of mail, telephone, web, and personal interview data collection; data processing; analysis; and report writing—is a desirable specialization (if, indeed, it is a specialization at all) because of its adaptability to so much of the work contracted out by government and industry.
Another way to look at the growth of Westat is to identify “landmark” contracts (i.e., those that either opened a new and substantial area of business activity or that, by virtue of their size, were substantial contributors to Westat’s growth). The Patent Office contract was certainly a landmark. Although Westat and its subsidiaries had been in the survey business since 1966, those first surveys were small-scale marketing studies. Its first large field job was the longitudinal evaluation of the PEP, which began in 1972 and terminated in 1974. This was not a household survey, but a survey of participants in PEP. Its first large-scale nationally projectable household survey was the second round of the NSFG, which began in 1974 and ended in 1977.
In the early 1980s, Westat conducted its largest survey during this period, the Employment Opportunity Pilot Projects, for the Department of Labor. Westat also won three large contracts that are still ongoing: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, National Assessment of Educational Progress, and National Medical Expenditure Survey.
As its business grew, so did its staff, and, in 1981, Westat moved to its present location in Rockville, Maryland, finally achieving the goal of having all of its employees under one roof.
The 1980s also saw a significant expansion in directing large-scale health investigations with the Reye’s Syndrome Study and Vietnam Veterans’ Birth Defects Study. Westat gained new clients such as the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Science Foundation, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, and National Center for Health Statistics. Revenues increased 150% in the second half of the 1980s, and professional staff doubled over the decade. Even with this growth, Westat has maintained its unique culture.
Westat also has been in the forefront of enriching the methodology of statistics, a by-product of having to solve problems not easily handled by current practice. The variety and difficulty of many of Westat’s projects provided the opportunity and impetus for such enrichments. As examples, Westat’s statisticians developed many innovative extensions to sample design and methodology. They also wrote seminal papers on sampling theory, improved estimators, and other aspects of survey methodology; developed a clustered approach to random digit dialing (RDD) that was the state of the art for more than a decade; studied and developed the state-of-the-art list-assisted method for RDD sampling; developed improved methods of variance estimation; wrote books and papers examining many facets of design, sample selection, imputation, and weighting; and consulted with virtually every federal statistical agency in dealing with methodological problems.
Papers by Westat staff—covering the entire spectrum of topics related to the design, conduct, and analysis of sample surveys—appear regularly in professional journals. Westat also has made significant contributions through developing software to deal with difficult survey issues, such as missing or inconsistent data, or in pioneering the development and release of software for the analysis of complex survey data that provide appropriate sampling error estimates.
Today, in addition to its capabilities as a leading statistical survey organization, Westat provides extensive skills and experience in custom research, program evaluation studies, and communications campaign development across a broad range of subject areas. Westat also has the technical expertise in survey and analytical methods, computer systems technology, biomedical science, and clinical trials to sustain a leadership position in all its research endeavors.
Recent years have found Westat expanding into such diverse areas as oil and gas reserves, attitudes of youth toward military service, smoking cessation, drug exposure, diet and health, clinical trials, epidemiologic studies, substance abuse, health promotion, transportation, social marketing, communications, early child development, airport noise abatement, and disclosure avoidance to protect privacy and confidentiality.
Today, its revenue stands at $500 million, just under 40 times its revenue in 1963, the year it incorporated. Although most of the staff is located in Rockville, Maryland, Westat also maintains research offices in Atlanta, Georgia; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Houston, Texas. In addition, it has international offices in Beijing, China; Liberia, Costa Rica; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; New Delhi, India; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Bangkok, Thailand. Additional staff members are engaged in data collection and processing at Westat’s survey processing facilities, at its Telephone Research Center facilities, and throughout its nationwide field interviewing operations.
In 1988, at Westat’s 25th anniversary, Ed ended his reflections on the first 25 years with two questions he was often asked. To the question, “Would you do it again?” the answer was a resounding “NO. The human investment necessary to create the critical mass for success is too great.” To the question, “Are you glad you did it?” the answer is “Absolutely, it has been quite a trip!”
So, why has Westat succeeded? An overly simplistic explanation is that its success has resulted from capable people working together. Another is that Westat meets or exceeds the expectations of the client at a competitive cost. But the truth lies deeper. Professional integrity underlies the reputation that has made Westat successful. In the short run, it may be tempting to tell clients what they want to hear, but it’s better policy to tell them what they need to know.
Some dismiss Westat’s achievement by saying it got started at just the right time, but they conveniently overlook the many businesses that were founded at about the same time that failed. Luck obviously played a role, but wasn’t a key factor, since it’s much easier to be lucky when you are winning than when you are losing. More important than luck is getting the right employee in the right job, one where he or she can do well and continue to grow. Westat has needs for a wide variety of skills, and matching the skills of people with job requirements is an important element of success.
As an ESOP, the employees are the owners at Westat; in fact, they are the company. This engenders an “all for one and one for all” mentality. When a problem arises, the employees get together and try to solve it without assigning blame. In spite of all that has been said earlier, ability coupled with the willingness to work and submerge one’s ego seem to be of tremendous importance. One overheard comment seems to summarize it best: “Anyone who enjoys work could have a helluva good time here.” That’s as good a key as any to Westat’s success.