The origins of SAS through the eyes of the CEO

In November, Special Aerospace Services and SAS Flight Factory CEO Heather Bulk was invited to participate in a panel as part of the AIAA’s 2020 Ascend event. Speaking on the Space Founders Panel, Heather talked about the origins of SAS - how she and Tim Bulk came up with the idea for and founded SAS in 2007. The following is a write-up of her thoughts from the event.

How did you come up with the idea for the company?

I usually start conversations in our industry with, “I am not an engineer.” My background is actually finance, tax, and law and for 17 years I advised ultra-high-net-worth individuals and business owners on estate and tax planning. So, when my husband suggested to me that we collaborate on a new business idea, I listened, cautiously.

Tim had much more experience in aerospace than me. He had worked for Lockheed Martin, followed by several years with NASA. While at NASA he saw the inception of commercial space travel. This gave him the idea of supporting NASA’s commercial space providers, initially through advisory services.

His idea was that I would quit my job and run the business, while he ran the technical side of things. Our aim was to bridge the gap between NASA and these new commercial space providers, to help ensure mission success.

As he explained his idea, I listened for a moment and then looked at my seven-month pregnant belly, and reminded my husband that timing was everything. He called that moment his ‘motivator.’ Roll forward a few months and everything was in motion on the business side, while Tim was working to secure our first contract.

How did you land your first customer?

Our company was founded upon, and is still centered around, relationships. We focused on a few key industry partners and began to establish relationships with them. They knew what we were aiming to do and were willing to let us behind the curtain of their company and help them win contracts. Following those initial wins, they asked us to bring on six more people to support their engineering efforts, giving rise to the SAS Tactical Engineering group.

What were your experiences in growing your organization?

I swore I would never hire an employee, but that only lasted six months. Our first hire was a dear friend who was smart, trusted and we knew our clients would love his dedication.

I would say that the initial growth period of SAS was the toughest for me. Growing from five people to 50, to now just under 100 has been challenging.  I have always resisted adding to the burden of administration and overhead to SAS. I wanted an agile company, but then came government contracting and HR needs. At this point in our business, we have a lot of reporting and government oversight. However, I still lean on the team to try to always keep it simple and think ‘agile’.

What challenges did you experience transitioning your product from R&D to production?

Our Research & Development division is small but mighty. The projects we have taken to production have all been incredible learning experiences. They have often been costly learning experiences, but critical lessons to build on. Our team learns with every single project and we are getting pretty good at moving through the stages of our self-designed go-to-market system.

What advice do you have for the next generation of founders in the aerospace industry?

My best advice is to embrace change – stagnation will mean you’re left behind. Our once-stale industry is now in an exciting transformational phase. We are finding new ways to do things; we are seeing new entrants shaking up old ways and some long-standing contractors sharing their best practices for safe, reliable missions. We are going to see the industry landscape continue to evolve and founders must use this to their advantage.