Shooting star Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Since founding Stellar Solutions Inc. in 1995 as an engineering services company for the aerospace industry, Chairman and CEO Celeste Ford has established herself and the company as innovators.

Ford’s company, the 2009 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award recipient regionally in the services category, works with critical government and commercial satellite programs. Stellar Solutions has four divisions, including QuakeFinder, which was created as a research and development vehicle to advance work in earthquake forecasting.

Stellar Solutions also blazed new paths by building and launching a satellite in a short 18-month window, which in 2004 led to the creation of Stellar Solutions Aerospace, which works primarily with European and other international clients.

Smart Business caught up with Ford to discuss how she employs innovation — both for clients and internally for employees — to aim for the stars and build a reputation as an industry leader.

Q. How do you collaborate to meet goals?

A. Our leadership team does monthly touches with both employees and customers in the sector they lead (defense, civil, commercial, etc). They also do situational awareness visits with key players in the areas they serve. We have monthly convergence meetings where the leads of each sector cross the boundaries and discuss the information relevant to executing both current goals and new requests. The metrics revolving around our success in achieving these goals are reviewed each month.

Q. How do you encourage innovation?

A. Innovation for our aerospace engineering services business is defined as new customers and new projects. We have an inclusive strategic planning process where potential new customers are identified, and planning for understanding their critical needs and how best to serve them are strategized by all of our people. All employees are a part of this process and their bonus plans tie to the company’s strategic plan. About 20 percent of our work each year is a result of innovation, which demonstrates the consistency of innovation as part of our culture.

Q. Where do you seek new ideas for products and services?

A. We get new ideas from our employees and customers. We suggest and create pilot projects where it makes sense to test new ideas.

Q. How do you get employee buy-in?

A. We include all employees in developing the strategic plan for the company. Each employee is empowered to be a part of planning the future of our company and is rewarded for their contributions.

Q. What’s been the most challenging part of the past 18 months?

A. With the change of administrations, many of our government programs experience a change of direction and/or budget (such as the current re-evaluation of NASA’s mission to the moon and Mars). We all work toward a heightened sense of awareness in helping the new leadership achieve their vision and provide continuity in key programs during the transition. The challenge of ensuring business stability during these turbulent times is ensured by following our vision of ensuring we are satisfying our customer’s critical needs while realizing our dream jobs. This alignment is what continues to optimize the positioning of our company for the future.

The Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year® awards recognize the men and women who put everything on the line to turn ideas into viable enterprises. Now in its 24th year, the awards honor those who build the market-leading companies that make our communities, our country — and, indeed, the world — a better place.

Being a recipient of this prestigious business award means you’re at the top of your game and puts you in the company of such entrepreneurs as Tom Adams of Rosetta Stone, Michael Dell of Dell Inc. and Pierre Omidyar of eBay Inc.

An Entrepreneur Of The Year® nominee must be an owner/manager of a private or public company with primary responsibility for the recent performance of the company and an active member of top management. The nominee’s company must be at least two years old.

Successful entrepreneurs, whether company founders or current leaders, have a knack for taking businesses to the next level. They employ creative ways to find the capital and resources they need to reach their goals as well as build and grow businesses.

If this sounds like you, consider applying to be a 2010 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year®.

Nominations are now being accepted through March 19, 2010, and are available at www.ey.com/us/eoy for downloadable forms or electronic submissions or by calling (800) 755-AWARD.

Recognizing entrepreneurial excellence