CEO Heather Bulk sees a bright future in Colorado as her company expands into Rocket City: Huntsville, Alabama.
Since broadening from engineering into manufacturing in 2015, Special Aerospace Services has been flying high.
The company’s stellar growth curve first involved expansion in Colorado. Now the company is breaking ground on its third facility in Huntsville, Alabama.
“We’re not moving out of Colorado,” says Bulk. “This is an expansion, a critical expansion. We did an evaluation across multiple states, including Colorado, to find the locations that’s best for ease of doing business and opportunities. Alabama — not just Huntsville, but Alabama — did an outstanding job showing us that we wanted us there. As a small business, you get treated very differently. I did not feel we were treated any differently. The governor’s going to be at our groundbreaking at the end of the month [September 2021].”
On 7.75 acres in Cummings Research Park (the nation’s second largest research park), the 55,000-square-foot facility is slated to commence operations in September 2022, with about 30 employees in the near term.
“It’s going to allow us to do some really incredible things on two fronts: the engineering side as well as Flight Factory, which is now exclusively focused on building systems and subsystems for our clients,” says Bulk.
Bulk and her husband, Tim Bulk, the company’s chief technical officer moved to Boulder and founded SAS after Heather concluded a 17-year stint in financial planning and Tim ended his career with NASA.
SAS gained manufacturing capabilities in 2015 when it acquired C&C Manufacturing and launched the SAS Flight Factory in Arvada. Corollary components and subsystems for propulsion systems, including check valves and quick disconnects for rocket engines, have emerged as a forte on the manufacturing side. The SAS Flight Factory is equipped with five 5-axis CNC machines, wire EDM, and full QA/QC capabilities.
The company doubled in size from about 50 to 100 employees between 2016 and 2021, with manufacturing driving about 20 percent of the growth, says Bulk, noting, “The expansion of the engineering side has been really instrumental.”
Bulk says she strives to foster diversity in the SAS customer base. “We have focused on really optimizing our portfolio with regards to our clients. What I mean by that is we’re getting more focused on Department of Defense, so we have a nice balance between NASA, Department of Defense, and commercial space.”
The company’s turnkey approach integrates design, manufacturing, and testing. “The end in mind is quality,” says Bulk. “We’ve got a tremendous quality lab, and our goal is 100 percent quality. We’ve got a team in there that really understands what we have to deliver in terms of quality to the clients.”
This “beginning-to-end” strategy is paying off. SAS is working on an auto-coupler for NASA and getting projects from the Defense Logistics Agency. Bulk forecasts 50 percent growth in revenue and employees by late 2023. “Someone on the phone said to me, ‘There’s so much wind in the aerospace industry’s sails right now,'” she says. “I see a robust aerospace industry for at least another five years.”
Design for manufacturability is the name of the game now. She elaborates: “When we first bought the manufacturing company in 2015, a lot of the discussions were: ‘I got a drawing and we built it how they told me to.’ Those days are done. You cannot get the parts out fast enough or efficiently enough to meet the needs of aerospace. So our team has become significantly more sophisticated in making sure that design for manufacturing is integrated into every step that we take.”
Adds Bulk: “Thinking ahead on how we can do it faster and better — I won’t always say cheaper, because there’s nothing cheap in aerospace — but faster and better.”
Challenges: “Labor and talent pool,” says Bulk. “It is not just a today thing in 2021, it is going to be an issue for the next 10 to 15 years.”
She strives to be part of the solution outside of SAS: “I sit on a couple of boards that really focus on STEM and making sure we’re approaching this from the perspective of a long-term gain for the United States in its talent base.”
The company launched the SAS Boot Camp for high school and college students in 2021 to further the mission. “It is not just higher education,” notes Bulk. “It is making sure that our students are STEM ready when they leave elementary and middle school. It’s not just exposure to STEM, it’s really having those classes and teachers who can teach those classes.”
Opportunities: Bulk says she sees an opportunity in off-the-shelf products, as opposed to totally custom, one-off projects. “We see that products will be really instrumental in the next few years,” she says. “When I say products, it can be software products and/or internal IP that’s evolved into products.”
The new Huntsville facility also represents a big opportunity for SAS. “Alabama signed into law this year an incentive for small, woman-owned businesses,” says Bulk. “I’ve yet to see that in any other state. It’s a challenge in many other areas. People say we want to have those allocations — Alabama is the one state that actually did it.”
Needs: Talent. “I think Colorado is always going to struggle with manufacturing,” says Bulk. “There are a lot of people who want Colorado to be the manufacturing hub, but it struggles.” Legal cannabis “makes it incredibly difficult,” she adds, due to federal requirements.
Bulk says the expansion into Alabama will allow SAS to draw on a deeper aerospace labor pool. “There’s a very passionate support in Huntsville where people are drawn to the mission, as opposed to drawn to a job,” she says.
Bulk says the company — and the industry as a whole — also needs faster at the federal level. “The industry has a tremendous need for speed,” she explains. “It’s a very known fact that the lethargy of procurement is causing major issues, from large to small, it really has no relevance to the size of the company. Procurement efficiency is simply imperative.”