DLA finance director, CFO to retire after dedicating 36 years to agency

By Beth Reece

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Not once in 36 years did Tony Poleo consider working anywhere but the Defense Logistics Agency.

“I always liked what I was doing and the people I worked with. The agency’s mission was also attractive to me. And unlike other people, I never had to leave for opportunity because, for whatever reason, the agency’s mission grew, the organization changed or people left unexpectedly,” said Poleo, DLA’s director of finance and chief financial officer since 2007.

He has seen the agency through some of its biggest feats, from the consolidation of service-owned distribution depots under DLA to supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 36 years helping DLA meet service members’ supply needs with financial finesse, Poleo will retire in a June 8 ceremony at the McNamara Headquarters Complex.

Poleo’s successful career began as what he called a total accident while he was studying finance at Virginia Tech in the early ‘80s. He and his roommate were heading downtown for the night when they made a quick stop so the roommate could check in with his advisor for the federal government’s Cooperative Education Program.

“While he was doing what he needed to do, another one of the advisors started talking to me, asking if I’d ever heard about the program or was I interested. It did sound sort of interesting,” he recalled. “Three months later, I had a job at this place called DLA.”

The “job” was an internship with what was then DLA’s administrative support center. By graduation, Poleo had racked up 15 months of work experience with DLA. In 1984, he applied for a GS-7 budget analyst position in HQ DLA and was accepted.

“No way did I have aspirations to be the comptroller of DLA when I started. Back then, I thought, ‘Man, these GS-13s, they make a lot of money. If I could ever be a GS-13, that’d be great. What do they actually do with all that money?' ” he laughed.

In just 11 years, Poleo soared from GS-3 to GS-15. He never had a grand plan, he said, but he set three- to five-year goals, worked hard and accepted challenges to learn new or different skills. His leaders rewarded his commitment with new opportunities.

“I was pretty blessed. I feel like I earned what I got, but you still have to have people give you opportunities and support you. That’s always got to be a part of it,” he said.

Coworkers regarded Poleo then as serious and work-focused. Stephen Clowser, now director of enterprise financial operations, started working for Poleo in 1993 when he was the team lead for distribution operations under DLA Finance. DLA had just been tasked with consolidating service-owned distribution depots under the agency and developing a new pricing mechanism that would incentivize customer behavior and save money.

“Tony was always looking for ways to achieve efficiencies. Within a year, the team developed ‘discrete pricing.’ For the first time, it charged customers for storage of inventory in the depots, giving them a financial incentive to dispose of excess material and reduce the need for warehouses,” Clowser said.

It was the starting point of DLA’s efforts to streamline distribution operations throughout the Defense Department and one of Poleo’s most significant contributions, he added.

Poleo found the journey toward Senior Executive Service satisfying, but achieving it in 2001 was somewhat anticlimactic. “Is this it?” he asked himself and fellow SESers. He quickly realized that DLA faced the same issues as when he worked at a staff level. What changed was the way he thought about those issues.

“It’s a sobering moment when you realize that the director is going to ask you what the agency should do. When you’re on a staff, there tends to be some buffer between you and the ultimate decision. Suddenly that buffer was gone. I had to think more strategically and consider the second- and third-order effects of these decisions and guidance,” he said.

On 9/11, Poleo was driving to the Pentagon on Interstate 395 when terrorists drove a passenger jet into the building. He started wondering what it had been like to work at DLA during the Vietnam War. Then, just as he became deputy director of finance later that year, the United States went to war with Afghanistan. Less than two years later, the Iraq War began. 

Guiding the agency’s fiscal operations as it supplied customers in two warzones was a monumental financial challenge, but overseeing DLA’s push to achieve audit readiness has been even harder, Poleo said.

“In almost everything in finance, we know what success looks like and we’ve sustained it, except for financial auditability,” he said. “I think that’s because our operations and systems were set up to operate the businesses. They were never set up with financial audit in mind, and our people were never schooled on financial audits.”

The process has unmasked some flaws in how DLA’s financial books are kept, but knowing what those weaknesses are gives the agency a chance to tighten operations, he added. He is convinced DLA will eventually obtain the “good housekeeping seal” of audit readiness. That, he added, will give the agency credibility and trust from customers and taxpayers should a problem arise.

“If you’re unaudited and something goes wrong, the conversation is – whether it’s the media or Congress – ‘Oh, look. They can’t even get an audit opinion, so I bet there’s 15 more of these we just haven’t found yet.’ With an audit opinion, it’s more likely that the problem is just a one-off. This is one of the many reasons why we’re getting value from our financial audit effort.”

The government shutdown that occurred in Fall 2013 was also taxing, personally as well as professionally. DLA’s 25,000 employees were depending on Poleo and his financial experts to find enough working capital funds to keep the agency operating.

“People were nervous about their jobs and paying their bills. It was no-kidding, real-life stuff, and it was so personally taxing that I didn’t realize it until later,” he said. “I’m not quite as resilient as I used to be. It took something out of me. I don’t think it was the hours we put in; it’s just what was at stake. I care about the agency. I built my whole life around it.”

Clowser and Emma Edmiston, an administrative program specialist, agree Poleo is a people person. Edmiston appreciates the sense of empowerment her boss gives employees and his fondness for the phrase, “Bring me solutions, not problems.”

“It’s definitely a mantra that won’t be forgotten,” she said. “He will be missed.” 

Poleo is so supportive of those seeking training and professional development he approved Clowser’s request to spend almost a year in a professional enhancement program with the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. He has also mentored new supervisors, telling them 80 percent of what they need to know to be good managers they learned in kindergarten.

“Just because you’re an adult doesn’t change that golden rule. I don’t care who it is, whether it’s the folks that keep my office clean all the way up to the director, I try to treat everybody the same way. All work is honorable; all work needs to get done.”

People are what Poleo will remember most about his DLA career, which he plans to follow up with overdue sleep, golf and travel with his wife Linda, who works in DLA Information Operations. They also plan to build a house in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and while he won’t be looking for a second career, Poleo said he would like to help others through volunteer work.

“I know I need to find something to replace the activity, but I’m not looking to replace any of the stress,” he said. “Since I was five years old, I’ve had structure in my life. I went to kindergarten, grade school, secondary school and college, then immediately went to work. Now I’m back to being five again.”