Company succeeds by ‘protecting the American soldier’
By David P. Mead
Editor's note: This is the first of the 2012 series of Colorado company success stories as told by CEOs and business owners.
From the moment you meet Mike Buchen it is clear that he passionate about the safety and well-being of the American soldier. Virtually every paragraph is punctuated with references to the mission at SKYDEX and the accomplishments of its team of employees in meeting that mission.
SKYDEX Technologies, Inc., manufactures patented geometrically designed products that mitigate (absorb) shock, concussive forces, and vibration for military and commercial applications. Products include blast-mitigating flooring for combat vehicles, padding for military helmets and shock absorbing decking on high speed interceptor boats. Mike Buchen has been President and CEO since 2003. SKYDEX, based in Centennial, has grown the company ever since, doubling revenue each year for the last three years. The company ranks among the top 40 largest private companies in Colorado according to a recent list. Mike was recently recognized in Ernst & Young’s 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year program.
Mead: What is SKYDEX’ differentiation in the market?
Buchen: It’s our people. Our competitive advantage is our passionate, committed people. One of the early requirements at SKYDEX is for the newly hired person to accompany me to Washington, D.C. They stand by the Lincoln Memorial, visit the other memorials. We then travel to Arlington National Cemetery and go to Section 60. This is where the boys and girls come home. We see the names, ranks, and the dates killed. My message is clear: ‘The better you do what you do, may enable the next person to live. Let’s go save some lives.’ This is our ‘fuel’. My job is to be sure we are pointed in the right direction, that the engine runs well, and has the fuel.
Our mission is to serve those that put themselves in harm’s way. We protect things that matter. We have done well because the more that things matter, the more people are willing to pay.
Mead: Were there any bumps in the road?
Buchen: Not only bumps, but huge potholes. In January 2004, sales were at $0. By the end of 2004, we had to empty our IRA’s/401k’s in order to make payroll. A number of our vendors helped us and hung with us so we were able to make it through. We learned from failure, as we looked for product opportunities. We looked at everything – from computer bags to football and lacrosse helmets to padding for athletic shorts. It may sound corny, but I have been confident about our success from the very start. I believe that good things are meant to happen to this company. In order to capture the opportunity, you need to use your gifts and work hard. We have lives to save.
Mead: What was the biggest ‘Aha moment’?
Buchen: We started listening to our clients, the combat troops. We were initially focused on the wrong products and markets. As I have said, we were focused on inches, instead of acres.” We learned that the military had a serious problem equipping the troops and gained some early success. Then we started listening to them, as they told us about their problems. We observed them stuffing paper into their helmets as padding. We gave away 45,000 helmet pad sets. Through sampling (technical evaluation) and the feedback, we learned that they were horribly underserved. We started looking for areas of the warrior’s body that were exposed to impact.
Mead: So it was market research and technical evaluation that led to successful products?
Buchen: Yes, we kept improving the products based on soldier feedback. We’ve fielded over 800,000 helmet pads to date.
Mead: So what new products are coming out?
Buchen: We will be introducing a SKYDEX shoe – a military PT shoe. People in uniform tend to run a lot more than civilians. We have engineered it so that we can sell it for about a $60 price point.
We are also expanding into commercial products and markets. We are experts with cushioning technology. Peter Foley, Chief Technology Officer, previously worked with Reebok in Advanced Materials so we have a number of “crossover ideas” such as a boot crossover, forklift seats that absorb vibration, etc. Lighter and faster sells today. We think we have some great opportunities in commercial markets.
Mead: What are the keys to growth over the next five years?
Buchen: I would classify the keys in five areas:
First, we need to look at acquisition of compatible or competing technologies; second, we have opportunities to expand internationally; third, we will be continuing to look at ways to expand into commercial products and markets; fourth, we need to be continually looking for new ways to do business with the government; and fifth, we have to continue to excel at segmenting the market and above all, executing well.
Mead: Mike, when you were named Entrepreneur of the Year, you brought the entire team to the stage to accept the award.
Buchen: I have been blessed to be part of a phenomenal team at SKYDEX. Between them and my wife of 37 years, it’s their award.