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Executive Watch: Pioneer Woman-Jan Smith, Founder of S3 Inc.

Posted 5 years 223 days ago ago by Admin

Like the company she founded, Jan Smith is opportunistic. For example, Smith’s corporation S3 Inc. (AKA “S-cubed”) stands for System Studies and Simulation, but it evolved and grew greatly from a software developer startup that began in Smith’s Alabama house with only three employees (Smith first hired “me, myself, and I”) to a Huntsville-based corporation that follows the money to where it leads and now wholly owns three subsidiaries: Kachemak Bay Flying Services (KBFS), Global Logistics Support Services (GLSS), and S3 International Inc. (S3I).

Today S3 is one of the leading women-owned businesses whose revenue is derived from aviation and missile systems engineering, technical assistance, training, and logistics for the Department of Defense.  The core business units of S3 are research and development of missile, aviation, and C4I weapon systems and training soldiers to effectively use the products of that R&D. Each of the company’s three subsidiaries provides niche solutions to formidable requirements for the U.S. military services, foreign security organizations, or commercial customers.

KBFS with operations in Crestview, Florida, and Temple, Texas, provides scenario-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance training for Partner Nation aircrew members in support of the U.S. Air Force Northern (AFNORTH) Command. The Texas facility provides mainly rotary and fixed wing maintenance and civilian pilot training with FAA certifications for Part 133, 135, 137, 141, and 145. In addition to several types of fixed wing trainers, KBFS operates a Huey, a Robinson 44, and as missions and contracts dictate, various other Bell and MD helicopters.  GLSS provides a catalog of logistic solutions, including field, sustainment and depot-level maintenance for air and ground vehicles, weapon systems, and equipment; military and commercial supply operations and accountability; and planning, coordination, execution, and management of asset transportation by air, land, and sea.  Finally if KBFS and GLSS don’t do enough, then a third subsidiary, S3 International (S3 I) and S3 support Direct Contract Sales (DCS) and U.S. Government sponsored Foreign Military Sales (FMS) training and logistics within the Continental United States and in several foreign nations.  Together, S3 with subsidiary S3I has trained nearly 6,000 U.S. and foreign military aircrew members, including personnel from more than 35 Partner Nations. All combined, S3 has logged over 470,000 instructional flight hours, primarily in advanced rotary-wing military aircraft and simulators.   

Smith has championed women entrepreneurs through her own pioneering life, succeeding in fields historically dominated by men and she has empowered other women—and men—willing to follow her lead.  Although she has enjoyed significant success, Smith has never forgotten how her early decisions—filled with risks, especially in fields not yet fully open to women—laid the foundation for her to impact industry, her community, and other aspiring women entrepreneurs.

Smith grew up in Alabama, envisioning limited career options for herself.  My intent growing up was to always become a teacher or a nurse,” she says, “but my parents told me to always be flexible and not get stuck on one path, to always be open to change.” Her limited scope significantly broadened and clarified with education.  She enrolled in Jacksonville State University with low interest rate loans from a federal program that funded teacher graduates. Smith wasted no time exploring academic subjects on the quaint college-town campus nestled in the Appalachian foothills of northeast Alabama. “When I was in college at JSU, I was the only female in several higher math and science courses,” she remembers. Smith recalls, “Today’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum was not in vogue at that time, especially for women. Even today, it’s not popular for females.”  It’s a situation she recently attempted to rectify. “I offer a full scholarship to The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) for a female majoring in a STEM-related field who maintains a high GPA,” Smith says.

Rocket Girl

Still Smith forged forward in a STEM career, with the help of Boeing. The contractor was gearing up to meet President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s and return him safely to Earth. In his 1961 moon-shot speech the President declared, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

That vision partly manifested in Boeing opening an office in the “Rocket City” of Huntsville and scouring the South for math, science, and engineering majors, where they found Smith at JSU.   Smith had planned to be a math teacher in the fall. Instead, in 1967, the college graduate was propelled into a new frontier. “Boeing brought us recruits in and hired IBM to teach us computer programming. It was very intensive and exciting training. When trained, we immediately began supporting the moon mission. During missions, we’d sleep on cots for only four hours; then we got up and were at it again. It was a huge opportunity to live in that environment.” At a time when Frank Sinatra crooned over some AM radio waves “Fly Me to the Moon,” Smith was one of the lucky females on Earth who had the opportunity to work the program that got them there and back home; an opportunity that Smith hopes to relive when NASA is given that challenge again.

Smith remained with Boeing for only two years before the Huntsville operations of the NASA Apollo moon program came to its successful conclusion. Boeing closed its Huntsville office and laid-off or transferred 6,000 employees. Huntsville promptly went into recession. “It was a very critical time when we questioned our (civic) survival,” Smith remembers. Huntsville found another way to prosper when the Army SAFEGUARD anti-ballistic missile program, (today’s Missile Defense Agency) came to town. Later, NASA’s shuttle program began. “We’ve never looked back,” says Smith, who safely landed at Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to eventually lead simulation and modeling tasks for 13 years for Army Ballistic Missile Defense and subsequent Army R&D programs managed by Space and Missile Defense Command.

However, Smith wanted to break beyond her technical niche in service to large corporations and learn the art of small business management and entrepreneurship. After a dozen years she left CSC to become Employee 31 at startup Nichols Research. She was hardly encouraged by the CSC management team in her move.They told me I was crazy for leaving CSC because I’d been with them 13 years and had worked my way up to a management role. In fact, they told me Nichols would fold within two years, but many years later they paid mega-million dollars to buy them,” she chuckles.

In the dozen years Smith was at Nichols Research, the company grew to 1,600 employees. “The owners, Chris Horgen and Roy Nichols, generously shared business operation lessons and opportunities for any employee who chose to devote the hours and get involved. Once again, I was provided a great opportunity.” she says. To this day, she appreciates the mentorship she and others received from Horgen and Nichols. “I don’t think they know how many people they impacted by giving us opportunities to learn. Nineteen employees that I know of left and became successful entrepreneurs.”

What Better Way?

One of those employees who left to launch a startup was Smith, who had become vice president of computer applications at Nichols Research; she had a larger vision in mind than furthering her own success. She elaborates, “I had a lot of opportunities coming into the industry that a lot of females didn’t have. I wanted to have a way to promote females in the defense industry. It became clear that if I wanted to make an impact in the industry, I could do it best through owning my own business. What better way was there to promote females in the industry than having a woman-owned business hiring women and giving females opportunities? That was a big motivation for me.”

In the early 1990s, women-owned businesses were becoming a promoted socio-economic category. In 1991, Smith made the gutsy decision to hire those first three women—me, myself, and I—hoping they would succeed out of, literally, her home office. Yet, it wasn’t really hope or chance she banked on as Smith’s personal motto is: “Destiny is a matter of choice, not chance.” Rather than going it alone, she learned to hire from the large population of Army veterans in Huntsville. “It always goes back to the people that you hire and the commitment those people have to the mission that you envision. Any manager can have a great plan, but it’s a team sport, so if you can’t recruit people who are of like mind and commitment, you can’t succeed.  I’ve been very fortunate in mostly making the right staffing decisions and we are 71 percent veteran staffed. Some people say we operate like the Army and maybe we do; we operate with a lot of structure and strategic planning. Those are Army attributes and I’m very comfortable with that direction,” she says, hastening to add that she doesn’t slight other military branches. “The Army is in our backyard so to speak. Only recently have we obtained contracts with other agencies (Air Force and Navy) and opened facilities to support those requirements.”

Commitment Is Key

Smith’s companies don’t hire veterans solely for patriotic motives or out of habit, but rather she has found that vets have the training and skills that best serve her markets. There is one overriding qualification she looks for—commitment to mission. “Without commitment, I don’t think you can succeed,” she says. “I hire people with the experience, education, or training that’s required for their job, but without commitment to their mission, they won’t be as successful as we like our leadership to be. Many of our employees are veterans because the military profession emphasizes commitment.”

No Man’s Land

S3’s success has led it to a mixed-blessing of achieving a threshold in revenue and full time employees that prevents the company from continuing to be classified as “small business.”  This milestone means that S3 can no longer bid as a prime on future contracts that it services today and at least half of S3 s current business will go to a new small business prime contractor when it is time for the contracts to recompete. “Our success has created a situation where we are looking for new prime business in markets where competitors are larger or much larger than us. We’re in no-man’s land; we’re too small to be large, but too large to be a small business,” Smith explains. Still, Smith and S3 have historically overcome conventional odds and are preparing to meet the challenge by competing with commitment to customers in the business sectors where they operate today and penetrating new markets needing S3’s capabilities and commitments. For the new markets, Smith returns to her beginnings reshaping the company’s strategy to place greater emphasis on developmental engineering, technological advancements, pioneering innovations, and always aerospace.   

The no-man’s land dilemma could be a hard challenge, but John Pack, president of S3 International, toward the end of our interview with his boss, volunteers this colorful assessment of Smith: “When the situation demands, she can be harder than woodpecker lips, but she also has a “heart of compassion for others in need. I can’t tell you all the things she’s done for others because she wouldn’t want me to, but there’s a lot of people here in Huntsville that she’s helped.” It seems to be a fitting summary for the pioneer woman: she was tough enough to explore new STEM space frontiers rarely seen by women and tough enough to peck through a not-so-fragile glass ceiling that kept women below the upper level, male-dominated C-Suites of military contractors. Yet, Smith continues to offer a helping hand to those willing to fly higher with her.