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Vertical Integration and Vertical Growth

Orion Technologies’ Nirav Pandya
by Sebastian Northswell

Originally Nirav Pandya, the CEO of Orion Technologies, considered becoming a medical doctor, but didn’t really like biology or the idea of memorizing reams of information. So after getting his BS in chemistry in Pennsylvania, he headed to Central Florida where his brother had finished his master’s in mechanical engineering at UCF. He convinced Pandya UCF was where he should go, and soon he started on his second bachelor’s in computer engineering.

While still a student, he landed a job as an intern with Digital Infrared Imaging (DII). Pandya recalls, “It is better to be lucky than good. One of my roommates at UCF was best friends with the son of the president of this small technology company, DII that was looking for help. I got recommended and was probably their fifth or sixth hire. We made infrared cameras for military and homeland security applications. Jim Van Anda was the president of DII and, as my first professional mentor, he was instrumental in helping to shape my technical acumen.”

After graduating he became a design engineer with the company and was presented with an opportunistic challenge in 2002. He was pursuing a business opportunity with a potential customer from a lead the company received at a local trade show, when Pandya reached out to his father. “My father has always been and remains a role model for me. He’s a civil engineer and a recognized expert in project management; in fact, he shares his knowledge with our engineers here at Orion even today. We had been contacted about doing a project with the U.S. Navy and my father helped me with the proposal, which none of us had experience in writing. He had expertise in both the technical and the commercial aspects. He helped us with an initial outline, then reviewed the final proposal.”
It was a $500,000 project, at a time when the company’s annual revenue was around $300,000. Pandya met the CEO of the primary company in Atlanta, but he quickly sensed that the CEO had reservations about doing business with DII. “As a 20-something design engineer, I didn’t think I had the clout to close the deal,” Pandya said.

Strategic Decisions

We all make decisions that shape our careers and our futures and Pandya made one when he called in Seth Ellis. Ellis was an investor in the company and had successfully guided several businesses, in addition to being the co-founder of the Florida Mezzanine Fund, and today is the managing principal of the Penta Mezzanine Fund.

“Seth completed the transaction in five minutes. He didn’t even have a formal title, he just introduced himself as the company’s ‘Chairman.’ Seth then took over as CEO of Digital Infrared and began to grow the business and groom me. We grew to about $6.7 million. Frankly, I was not the greatest engineer, but I was a good sales guy. So Seth moved me into sales and marketing, then to COO as the company scaled,” Pandya said.

“Seth is still a mentor in my life. I talk with him on a regular basis and continue to bounce ideas off of him even today. Through his experiences and successes he’s been able to extend to me a tremendous amount of guidance and support.”

In 2006, the company was sold and Pandya continued to operate successfully as group president of the company. Then the company went public, and the dynamic changed dramatically. Pandya commented, “I will never take a company public again. We lost all vision beyond three months. We were only looking at quarterly returns, not long-term growth. Then they implemented a matrix management style, where I was being held accountable for P&L, but the salespeople didn’t report to me. I eventually decided to buck the system tasked my own management team with taking on sales roles. In 2009 the company was forced to downsize. “We were the only group of the 16 in the company that didn’t have to lay people off, yet, despite my team’s success, my management decisions were challenged.”

Pandya had enough and in 2010, a friend who was running his own company, Orion Technologies, expressed a desire to grow his company and asked Pandya to join as president, while he remained CEO. Pandya was excited about the prospect of growing a business and to really enjoy work again. Not only was this an opportunity for Pandya to stretch his entrepreneurial legs but his experience in selling to the military and defense market was a perfect fit for Orion’s growth strategy.

The Right People Make The Difference

Pandya had always wanted to help shape the culture of a company, to create one that was relational. His father had often told him, “Build your business like you’re building a family and everyone will give 100 percent.” Joining a small business like Orion also provided the opportunity to be nimble, to solve problems and respond quickly which appealed to him. It also allowed him to establish a long-term vision for the company and the ability to surround himself with the right people to buy into his vision and to help him to execute it. “I don’t think a five-year plan is too long,” he said. “You might make regular adjustments along the way or strategically change direction but having the vision keeps everyone on the same page, thinking along the same lines.”

Orion Technologies specializes in the design of embedded electronics which include both commercial off the shelf (COTS) and custom solutions for military, industrial, and commercial requirements. Their original niche was supplying customized single board computers, which Pandya describes as, “a desktop computer all on one small circuit board.” They are extremely rugged and are used in a variety of defense applications where durability is paramount – from battlefield radars and handheld mine detectors to processing platforms on F-16 fighter aircraft.

As expected, Pandya wanted to scale the company, which hadn’t grown in over a decade. He again reached out to Seth Ellis, who put together some investors that included Jim and Jeff Van Anda of Digital Infrared Imaging to buy the business in 2011. By 2012, the new board made Pandya the CEO.

“I thought we needed to be more vertically integrated,” Pandya said explaining where he differed from the original owner, “He thought we should increase our product line horizontally. He wanted us to build more single board computers, which would require a larger sales force to move the products. I felt like our future was in vertical integration, building other components that fit together with our original products.”

Thus they would essentially be upselling their capabilities to the same customers.

“In my mind, the single board computer was never the solution, it always went into something else; so rather than selling one component, we could sell other mechanical services and other products in the system.”

“For example, we sold an $8,000 single board computer to an aerospace customer. Then decided we could go back to them and say, ‘What if we did, this, this, this and this for you?’ Our $8,000 sale, went to an $111,000 per unit sale. As a result, we are doing 10 times more, without our sales cost increasing at all. That vertical integration has fueled our growth significantly.”

“I don’t think a five-year plan is too long, you make regular adjustments
along the way or strategically change direction. But having the vision keeps everyone on the same page, thinking along the same lines.”

The Sky’s The Limit

Since 2012 when Pandya took over the company, it has expanded from 5 to 24 employees and has its revenue has grown over 100 percent every year, from $1 million to $5.3 million annually. According to him, the potential is almost limitless; “I think we can be over $50 million in four years.”

Not an idle boast, Orion just moved into its new 15,000 square-foot headquarters facility inside the Challenger Tech Center, located on Challenger Parkway within the Central Florida Research Park adjacent to UCF.

The key to their growth is how the vertical integration plays out with some of their more significant customers. Orion partners with customers like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman or Harris during the prototype stages of, what are quite often, very large programs. Once the prototype is finished, the prime contractor will test it for 6 to 24 months. If it is approved, then Orion’s products become a part of the program. Though contractors may have other options, what sets Orion apart from their competitors is not only their proven reliability and expertise but a culture that embodies Pandya’s belief that a company’s focus should always be on the customer.

As you might expect, Pandya deflects the credit. “We have an absolutely incredible team. The synergy and the relational cohesion are incredible. We have almost no attrition. I’ve worked with my leadership team, David Beckman, Randy Horn, Rich Miller and Jeff Van Anda for over a decade. I trust them and they trust me, even though they are all smarter than me,” Pandya said smiling.

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