Blue Skies Consulting, LLC
04 JULY 2003
New Mexico Business Weekly
Article by Karen Jarnagin, NMBW Staff
Aerial photography company Blue Skies Consulting, LLC, is snapping up large, profitable national contracts -- instead of focusing on smaller jobs -- to help its business take off.
Some start-ups like to play things safe, slowly building their client base from smaller, local jobs to meatier, national ones once they've established a solid track record.
Others, like Albuquerque's Blue Skies Consulting LLC, a five-person company that specializes in aerial photography and remote sensing for mapping and surveying projects, prefer to be a bit more aggressive.
"We're huge risk takers," admits Tami Wiggins, Blue Skies' CEO.
Good thing. In 2001, the then two-year-old company won its first-ever national bid, with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Aerial Photography Field Office, beating out at least a dozen more established aerial photographers nationwide. A few months later, Blue Skies landed a project with the Bureau of Land Management, another jumbo deal. Together, the jobs brought the firm $233,000.
In 2002, Blue Skies performed a project for the National Park Service, which had the company shoot 2,500 airborne images of parks and monuments in Colorado and Utah. That job, along with more work from the USDA and the BLM, brought Blue Skies $243,000 last year. And this year, the USDA and the U.S. Forest Service have asked the company to perform more airborne work -- to the tune of $282,000.
What's especially remarkable about four-year-old Blue Skies -- which, until late in its third year didn't even have an airplane or camera equipment of its own -- is that the company had the moxie to pursue these large jobs despite being so young. After all, it was very possible the business could have been quickly passed over, forcing it to find other ways of covering its start-up costs, which had ventured into the six-figure range.
But that didn't happen. By pitching its prior experience -- co-owner and commercial pilot Michael Racine, 34, had been doing aerial photography work for several years for another company -- drafting proposals and relying on the principals' abilities to get the job done, Blue Skies has made a name for itself among federal government clients.
"We knew we could manage and execute a big project," says Wiggins, 43, who became majority owner in January 2002. "We figured the sooner we could do some big projects, we could sooner have our own equipment and do it on our own."
Adds Racine: "From an economic standpoint, it's a lot more rewarding chasing one quarter-million dollar contract than 100 $2,500 contracts. There's a lot of business in New Mexico we have not chased because we're not interested in flying smaller projects."
Today, Blue Skies, which declined to release annual revenues, is doing well enough that it plans to relocate from a 450-square-foot office based at the Albuquerque International Sunport to a new, 10,000-square-foot office and hangar complex at the Belen Alexander Airport by the end of the year. It recently was named the USDA's 2003 Woman-Owned Small Business Contractor of the Year. And it just added a third plane to its two-plane fleet, a used Antonov An-2 that cost about $98,000, including retrofits and upgrades.
"It's an expensive business to get equipment for," says Wiggins, a tall, lithe woman who handles the company's operations, "but the work pays a lot of money."
Surveying the Market
Blue Skies didn't start big right away. Founded in January 1999 by Racine, a licensed pilot who had previously worked for EarthData, a Maryland-based aerial mapping firm, the company spent two years scoping out the national market to see who was going after which kinds of jobs, and what they were charging for services.
In the meantime, Racine did work for Denver-based Pacific Western Technologies' (PWT) mapping and information division, which contracted with Blue Skies to fly its plane for aerial mapping projects.
By 2001, Blue Skies was ready to pick up its own contracts. Problem was, the company didn't own a plane or have the necessary camera equipment to get the jobs done. So Racine asked PWT if he could lease theirs, plus use their camera operator to help with shoots. They agreed. "We kept their plane busy when it wasn't doing their work," Wiggins says.
Soon after, Blue Skies, still using PWT's equipment, landed the USDA job, which required the firm to shoot about 2,000 images over California. The fact that it won the work "was amazing," says Wiggins. "The southern half [of California] has an incredible amount of restricted airspace. The fact that they chose Mike to fly there says a lot. That first year, to get California, was a big deal."
By the fall of 2001, Wiggins and Racine figured it was time to invest in their own airplane. "We were able to show people what we could do, but we only wanted to do it one season," Wiggins says of the company's strategy to lease PWT's equipment. "We wanted to have our own show and call our own shots. We felt it was worth taking the risk."
The company, whose office is based inside Seven Bar Aviation Inc.'s building at the Sunport and which hangars its airplanes at the more-affordable Belen airport bought a used Cessna 210 six-seater and began converting it into a plane suitable for aerial photography.
It was no easy mission. It took nearly two months to carefully carve a three-foot diameter hole in the belly of the plane -- a job only a few people in the world are certified to do -- where a 300 lb. camera could later sit.
The company then purchased the camera, plus a navigation system which allows the plane's on-board computer to "talk" with the camera, causing it to fire frames when the airplane is over a pre-determined set of coordinates.
The investment didn't come cheap. The total cost for the plane, camera renovations and navigation system was about $350,000.
The federal contracts, however, have helped Blue Skies, which has already turned a profit, recoup those expenditures. In fact, business has been brisk enough over the past two years that Blue Skies is now moving into another area: partnerships.
The firm's latest purchase, the Antonov An-2, a slow-moving, Russian-designed, Polish-built plane, is being retrofitted to hold a digital camera and/or remote sensing equipment -- neither of which the company intends to purchase. Instead, Blue Skies hopes to market the aircraft's services to companies that own the camera equipment, but who don't want to invest in a plane. So far, Blue Skies is in talks with one company, but nothing as yet has been signed.
"We've decided to buy the plane and get it ready," Wiggins says, without a trace of worry. "There's other opportunities we're going to pursue."
In the meantime, the company is focusing on its upcoming move to the Belen airport while mulling over which new jobs, and how many of them, they will take on next.
"We have been forced to grow very quickly," Racine says of his company's accomplishments. "We've been pleasantly and painfully surprised."
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