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Sierra Nevada Corp. diversifies beyond defense

John Seelmeyer

When Sierra Nevada Corp. won a $117 million contract a few days ago to build 18 communications satellites, the deal amounted to more than a good piece of business for the Sparks-based company.

The contract with ORBCOMM Inc., operator of a private network of communications satellites, also marked a key milestone in efforts by Sierra Nevada Corp. to diversify beyond its historic reliance on defense contracting.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is stepping up its pace of acquisitions it’s been doing about one a year in recent years and it’s scouring through its intellectual property to find new applications for the ideas already on its shelves.

With about 400 employees in Sparks, Sierra Nevada Corp. is one of the largest non-gaming private-sector employers in Washoe County. Nationwide, it employs more than 1,200 people in 30 locations.

The company has come a long way and quickly since it was launched in 1991 by John P. Chisholm as a defense electronics contractor with a handful of employees.

Eren Ozmen, the company’s owner and chairman, took the reins of the company in 1993, with her husband, Fatih. At the time, Sierra Nevada Corp. had about 100 employees.

The company proved adept at winning defense contracts it bills itself as the biggest woman-owned federal contractor in the United States and its revenues have grown at a 30 percent annual clip for most of the past decade, says Renee Velasco, who oversees mergers and acquisitions.

Some of that growth came through acquisitions nine of them since 1998 along with a growing capability at its Sparks headquarters staff to manage complex defense projects.

The company continues to look for continued growth in its defense business, Velasco says, but it’s also looking to build some other legs under its business.

The company, she says, took a careful look at the technology it’s developed for defense applications, seeing if it might find use in commercial markets.

An automated landing system developed for military aircraft, for instance, might find commercialization in telemedicine, Velasco says.

The recently announced ORBCOMM contract was a big example of what Sierra Nevada Corp. hopes to do.

In that job, it’s leveraging its skill as a manager of complicated projects to coordinate a team that includes units of The Boeing Co. ITT Corp.

“There are only a few people who do this and do it well,” Velasco says.

Key elements of that job will be handled by MicroSat Systems Inc., a Colorado specialist in spacecraft that was acquired by Sierra Nevada Corp. last winter.

More acquisitions are likely.

“We never stop looking,” says Velasco.

The privately held company has minimal debt, she says, and has plenty of financial muscle to step up the pace as opportunities

arise.

Even if the acquisitions are in locations across the country, Sierra Nevada Corp. is likely to continue growth of its headquarters and manufacturing operations in Sparks.

The company operates in about 175,000 square feet in four locations in Sparks. “We definitely will need more space,” Velasco says.

The company also is recruiting constantly for engineers and high-level scientists as well as financial managers for its headquarters operation.

“Our greatest challenge is finding people,” says Velasco.

The company has teamed with the University of Nevada, Reno, to identify potential employees. And it offers a wide menu of employee benefits everything from complimentary power bars for snacking to on-site daycare as part of its effort to recruit and retain workers.


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