For Them, the Sky Is the Limit

For many, the economic Hiroshima fell (or should we say was launched?) on July 8, 2011 when the last Space Shuttle soared into the sky from Kennedy Space Center.  Predictions are that some 20,000-25,000 jobs will be lost as a result of the conclusion of the shuttle era.  Needless to say, no one is celebrating.  However, there are those who have taken that spirit of adventure and exploration from which the Space Program was born and are discovering new opportunities for the skills and experiences they developed putting humans into space.

Here is a sampling of the new post-Shuttle entrepreneurs.  The first is a familiar name to many: Robert Jordan.  Though most know him as a former Brevard County School Board Member, who along with Dr. Richard DiPatri helped bring our school system to new levels of excellence, he also spent over 30 years as an engineer at KSC.  Yet he credits his father, who he still considers his best friend, for the inspiration and example that has empowered his ongoing success and entrepreneurial spirit.

“Dad was a leader in the social and spiritual community I grew up in.  He was hard working, scrupulously honest; a man with a servant’s heart, who never missed an opportunity to help others, even those who were jealous of his success.  Though he had a full-time job in the paper mill in St. Mary’s, Ga., he always had other businesses like home construction and renovation on the side.  When I was thinking about not going on to college after high school, but working in the mill, my Dad arranged for me to get the hardest, hottest and dirtiest job in the plant.  After a week, I was ready to go to school!”

New Horizons

When he grasped that the Space Shuttle was going to be phased out, Jordan began thinking about other possibilities.  He also started to realize, “Security is a great thing, but the negative side is it allows you to stagnate.  I was content with my job, but I wasn’t excited about it.”  Then one morning, around 5a.m. when he went out to get the newspaper, he saw his neighbor and long time friend Robin Fisher, County Commissioner and insurance business owner.  “Robin encouraged me to think about owning my own business, rather than just trying to land a job.  So I began to discuss the idea with my wife and once I had her 100 percent support, I knew nothing could stop me.  I suppose I’ve always believed I would be successful and my friends believed it.  You simply have to face those fears of the unknown and not allow what you have done in the past to be the limit of what you can be in the future.”

Jordan found a company, Genesis VII, a procurement and services outsourcing firm located in Titusville, that the owner wanted to sell.  As Jordan explained, “We find the items, from air conditioning and fire suppression systems, to janitorial supplies, which are not cost effective for large companies like Disney to locate, purchase and arrange delivery.  So we do it for them.”

With Jordan’s background in engineering and management, it seemed like a perfect fit; plus there was huge growth potential.  “I could see where this company could go and frankly I have always been the type of person who enjoys building the house, more than simply maintaining the house.”  With that perspective Jordon began utilizing the connections he had made in the community and his considerable people skills to expand his client base.

Now Jordan is looking to add design and reverse engineering to their portfolio.  “Our company is made up of and is utilizing space workers who know how to do things right, both engineers and other professionals.  The layoffs have given us the resources we need to expand.”  Genesis VII is now not only locating engineered components, they are beginning to design them for various applications.  Jordan’s company is actually allowing former KSC engineers – who were laid off or are anticipating layoffs, and who understand the mission critical nature of certain types of components and the proposals that are part of the bidding process – to “create a job niche within the umbrella of Genesis VII.”  They are investing their time and creativity in designing and submitting proposals to major contractors and their suppliers, which could become ongoing contracts and therefore jobs with Genesis VII.

An Artful Layoff

Douglas (“Snidely”) Snider, spent 31 years in the Shuttle Program in various positions, including an inspector on the Thermal Protection System (TPS), Orbiter Systems Inspector and as a Quality Engineer in Logistics Quality Systems after his graduation from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.  However as the new programs were being developed, he realized they wouldn’t have the same “quality program requirements as the Shuttle.”  So, as he said, “I decided that it was time to go, so I volunteered for the layoff in October 2010.”

However, Snider had some idea of what he wanted to do.  Back in 2005, he started Custom Carvings by Snidely LLC, working out of his home.  For the first three years he admits it was pretty lean, but things picked up significantly by 2010, and in 2011 he opened Snidely Wood Studio and Island Home Décor in Port St. John.  As he described it, “Using exotic Florida wood that we buy from local tree trimmers and developers, we create just about anything that your imagination can render.  That includes furniture, animals, fish, Tiki and abstract sculptures.  We also import exotic tropical decorations from all over the world.”

Snider began carving Tikis with a hammer and chisel.  However, as he related, “It did not take long to figure out that the Tiki carving market was basically saturated.  So, my girlfriend said, ‘You have fished all your life, why don’t you carve wooden fish?’  After carving a few fish, I determined that this was the niche that I was looking for.  I applied to a few juried art shows and found that my saltwater fish carvings sold out at most of the shows that I entered.  The company has been growing ever since.”  Currently he is working to land contracts with Coca-Cola and Bass Pro Shops to expand his business.

What’s his advice to others facing layoffs?  “If you don’t want to leave the area, find something you enjoy and do it during the transition to the next phase of manned space flight.  We are going to have to wait 2 to 5 years for things to pick up, but we will be launching more astronauts in a few years.  But, with some creativity and strong will, dreams can come true.”

Building On His Experience

Don Johnston and his partners Bonnie Hauge and Victoria Keehn at CAS Adaptive Solutions were all veterans in the Space Shuttle Program, working for United Space Alliance (USA).  Their new company, CAS, he explained, “is a consulting business that helps organizations perform better in terms of quality, speed and cost.  Our approach is based on Lean Six Sigma, an improvement methodology in wide use across the industry.  We teach organizations how to improve processes on their own, making them self-sufficient.”

Describing himself as a natural “problem solver,” Johnston found USA’s plans to implement Lean Six Sigma in 2002 a natural fit and eventually became one of the leaders in the program. But making the jump to forming your own company was not an easy one.  He recalls, “We enjoyed our work for United Space Alliance, but we knew that the shuttle program was coming to an end.  In 2009, USA people started taking workshops through Florida Tech to upgrade their skills.  Two of us approached Florida Tech about offering a workshop on Lean Six Sigma.  The university was supportive, and so my associates and I shook hands and formed our corporation in early 2010.  It was a big step for us, after so many years working for large contractors at KSC. But it was exhilarating, too.  Also our families were very supportive, which was critical.”

What is more, the challenges of a start-up are pretty daunting Johnston concedes.  “Starting a small business from scratch is huge, but we were doing it during a major economic downturn, both nationally and locally.  Bottom line, it’s tough to find new business.  Our customers tend to be medium to large corporations.  Being small and new, we have a challenge just getting our foot in the door of a large company.  But momentum is gradually picking up for us.  Every time we provide great service for a customer, we improve our ability to market ourselves to others.”

Looking back, Johnston said, “Like so many people, I love the space program.  A few years ago, I couldn’t imagine a better job.  Yet the skills I gained at KSC are very marketable.  We often take it for granted but our ability to effectively manage the challenges in the shuttle program is truly remarkable.”

Johnston and his associates are convinced CAS will continue to grow.  He then adds, “Part of the thrill of owning a business is that we control and shape our destiny.  We can make the company be what we want it to be.  That’s something we didn’t have much control over when working for a large corporation.”