Mehdi Cherqaoui’s finance background landed him in government contracting by happenstance, but he quickly fell in love with the industry’s mission and supporting federal customers — especially after working so hard to start a life in the U.S.
Cherqaoui serves as the chief operating officer of Avantus Federal. He was born in Paris, grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, and went back to France for college and ultimately, to start his career. He earned his undergraduate degree in finance and accounting from the Aix-en-Provence Institute of Technology and graduated from the Toulouse Business School.
He was initially drawn to finance and economics because it was a way to stand out from the three generations of medical doctors before him. Plus, he enjoyed the way Richard Gere’s character in “Pretty Woman” made business and mergers and acquisitions look fun.
“That sealed the deal for me,” Cherqaoui told WashingtonExec.
In 2000, his career began with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Toulouse, a hub for European aerospace and defense. Cherqaoui was an M&A professional, and many of PwC clients at the time were in the aerospace industry. It was during his 10 years with the company he learned about the long-term contracts, bids and proposals side of the business.
It was also then Cherqaoui and his wife moved to the U.S.
“I come from a background where the place to be is America; you want to be in America because that’s where things are happening,” he said.
So, he worked hard and learned as much as he could so he could come to the States with PwC. In 2005, Cherqaoui and his wife landed in the country with four suitcases and have been here ever since.
To GovCon and Beyond
“When I moved to the U.S. back in 2005, I naturally landed and gravitated towards government contracting because it was the closest thing to what I had done when I started my career,” Cherqaoui said.
When it was time for him to move on from the consulting industry, he had just helped a client go through a transaction and was very knowledgeable about the target company acquired. The buyer offered Cherqaoui a full-time position helping with merger integration.
“That’s how I left the consulting field to more operational roles within government contracting,” he said.
Eventually, Cherqaoui built a name for himself and created relationships across the industry. Those led to word-of-mouth and referrals, which led to more opportunities.
Cherqaoui worked in M&A with KPMG in 2011, as senior director of financial planning and analysis with URS Corp. through 2012, and as vice president of finance and M&A with PAE from 2012-2015. With PAE, he held several leadership roles in corporate development and finance and significantly contributed to the success of an M&A program that took PAE from $600 million to $2.2 billion in revenue.
In 2015, Cherqaoui was the COO and chief financial officer of Phacil, Inc., where he led the strategic transformation of the company that peaked with its 2019 sale in. Then, he served as CFO of Applied Insight.
“I became fond of government contracting. I think it’s a fascinating industry. I love the mission. I think the mission of government is a novel one,” Cherqaoui said. That mission also drives him and his work.
Cherqaoui believes the fact he and his wife came to the U.S. with only a few suitcases proves what is possible because of the people and form of government in the country. Supporting that form of government is honorable, Cherqaoui said, and Avantus Federal is adding value and helping make the world a better place.
“The people in this industry, most of them work tirelessly at the expense of their health and their time with the family to support the government customer or be that customer,” Cherqaoui said. “There is something to be said about it, and that’s what motivates me in this industry.”
The Moments that Make Us
As Cherqaoui reflects on his career thus far and the experiences that have shaped him as an executive and leader, he points to the “single most influential person” in his career: his former boss and partner, Tom Shoemaker.
Shoemaker was the CEO of Phacil, and Cherqaoui said together, the pair did great things that culminated with the sale of Phacil to By Light in 2019.
“Tom Shoemaker helped me realize my full potential through embracing the sense of selflessness and caring more for the employees and the people of the company than for myself and my career,” Cherqaoui said.
Cherqaoui also experienced a professional moment of growth prior to Phacil. When his mentor at PAE left the company a couple of months after Cherqaoui arrived, he took it as an opportunity to take on tasks he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Without a full-time CFO, Cherqaoui was able to step outside his comfort zone.
“The key takeaway there is to put one foot in front of the other and do your best on a daily basis and great things happen,” Cherqaoui said. It was challenging, but this learning experience opened many new doors for him.
Avantus’ Culture as a Way of Life
As COO, Cherqaoui leads all the operational, administrative, and financial affairs for Avantus, and was involved in shaping the company’s four guiding principles: customer satisfaction, caring for its people, growth and creating value.
“You care for your people, they will care for your customer and everything else will take care of itself,” Cherqaoui said. “Everything we do, we look at it from that lens.”
In 2020, Avantus integrated six companies it acquired, which is a key steppingstone in achieving those four pillars. In August 2021, Avantus acquired its seventh company, Occam’s Razor Technologies.
Now that the integrations are complete, Avantus is focused on having better analytics and data to make better decisions.
“This year sitting on the accomplishments of 2020, what we are focused on is primarily making data flow better and making data available to decision-makers across the enterprise,” Cherqaoui said. “Everybody is in the company a decision-maker, and that decision-making process happens based on data and data available.”
In his position, Cherqaoui ensures the company’s decisions are well aligned with its guiding principles. In its efforts of attracting and retaining better talent to keep up with evolving cybersecurity threats, for instance, delighting the customer and caring for people play a huge role.
“The big trend is being able and positioning yourself as an enterprise to attract the top talent and the best talent that you can find in the market,” he said. “You do that by offering great benefits, obviously, but also through the culture of your company.”
That culture embraces diversity, allows people to have a voice and build their own eminence in the marketplace and visualize a clear career path within the organization.
“It’s the employer’s responsibility to create that career path and that advancement throughout the years, that people can stay in, and feel comfortable,” Cherqaoui said.
The people part of GovCon is particularly important to Cherqaoui. He enjoys mentoring, nurturing talent and caring for people. In the future, he hopes to coach new talents and help them achieve their fullest potential within an organization.
“In 10 years, I would love for myself to have that leadership position where I mentor people like myself today, such that they can grow a company like ours,” he said. “Another possible outcome could be that I would retire in the South of France and ride my bicycle every day.”