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Agility: Why Orion International Has Outlived Many Other Defense Contractors

By Andrew Webb
Journal Staff Writer
    On a recent sunny morning in a remote corner of sprawling Kirtland Air Force Base, technician Bob Bickerstaff had to find a way to work around a shade-seeking rattlesnake. Bickerstaff is one of the original employees of 20-year-old Albuquerque-based engineering contractor Orion International Technologies.
    He and a Sandia National Laboratories consultant on that sunny day were experimenting with unmanned aircraft when the snake decided to seek shelter from the mid-morning sun by coiling under the station wagon they used as a toolbox and workbench.
    That's par for the course for Orion, which has made a business out of adapting to sweeping changes in diplomatic and military strategy from the Cold War to the War on Terror.
    The company is celebrating its second decade in business this summer, making it one of the city's oldest defense contractors.
    "At times it's been like a roller coaster," admits founder and CEO Miguel Rios, recalling how the company has evolved from supporting nuclear weapons research to its involvement in today's elaborate counterterrorism work. "Many of the companies started in the 1980s aren't around anymore."
    Rios, a former Sandia National Laboratories physicist, left the labs in 1985 to found Orion as then-president Ronald Reagan ramped up the Strategic Defense Initiative. Dubbed "Star Wars," the SDI was a plan to build space-based defensive weapons to protect the country from Soviet nuclear missiles.
    While it explored the feasibility of the SDI, the federal government at the time was also shepherding a massive buildup of nuclear weapons by a massive "community" encompassing national laboratories, branches of the military and private contractors.
    Orion quickly got a foothold in the Air Force's local research, providing data acquisition and other assistance for studies of weapon transport, reliability, aging and other aspects. It also provided support staff for studies of proposed SDI systems, such as lasers.
    Within three years, Orion had grown to $2.4 million in annual revenues.
    As the Cold War nervousness dissipated, SDI was scrapped and the Soviet Union teetered toward collapse, research turned toward counterproliferation, and Orion followed suit.
    "As the Cold War ended, the charter of the labs changed," Rios said.
    As national defense industry attention turned to peacetime activities, such as space exploration and energy, the company turned its testing and evaluation skills toward those ends. Much of its work, however, remained entrenched in weapons research, such as a major testing and data acquisition contract at the Navy's bombing range in Puerto Rico, which has since closed.
    By the mid '90s, the company was bringing in revenues of $14 million per year. But a nationwide defense industry slowdown in the peaceful late-1990s left many Cold War-era contractors scrambling for work as national lab staffs and defense spending shrank. Orion saw its revenues plummet to $7 million in 1997.
    "We really had to diversify," Rios says, describing how the company acquired an environmental engineering firm and experimented with computer networking and other nondefense technologies alongside other Albuquerque companies that found themselves in the midst of a shakeout.
    Orion's revenues stabilized in 1998, Rios says, and have grown since then. It has since spun out a networking subsidiary, Orion Information Technologies, and is also commercializing a software technology licensed from Sandia.
    The technology, called UMBRA, allows computers to blend simulated conditions with real-world action on screen for use as a training tool for military aircraft and other vehicles. Rios says the same technology could eventually be applied to training doctors, manufacturing technicians and other professionals.
    But the company, which today employs about 250 and expects 2005 revenues of $21 million, remains married to its core competency— farming out its skilled engineers to pretty much any job, large or small.
    Of the 200 Orion employs in New Mexico, most work at Sandia. About 2,000 of the lab's 5,600 employees are contractors from the private sector.
    Orion employee John Quintana is one of those. As a senior technologist at the National Solar Thermal Test facility southeast of Albuquerque on Kirtland Air Force Base, he helps lead a team of Sandia employees and other private contractors conducting experiments and maintaining solar energy devices.
    He recently helped test heat reflecting tiles for NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn and its moon, Titan. The project involved placing the tiles at the top of a tall concrete tower, which rises above a field of mirrors, receiving the sun's heat at a scorching 1,500 times hotter that received on the earth's surface.
    But his day-to-day work is more mundane: He helps maintain, and keep clean, an array of so-called heat engines, solar-electric devices owned by a private company and maintained under contract with Sandia.
    "The birds love them," he says of the 15-foot-wide mirrored dishes that focus the sun's energy on a central point.
    Orion also supplies support staff for Sandia's work in robotics, smart weapon systems, nanotechnologies, chemical and biological warfare, and sensor development.
    "Helping protect the country in this political environment is very different from anything the U.S. has ever been in before," Rios said. "In our 20 years, the business environment has changed dramatically many times. What has helped us adapt is our agility."