Strictly Business: Insitu embodies skill, luck

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

There's something unsettling in hearing that a company's success is tied to tragedies like the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the long conflict that has followed.

Residents in our region, with its scant military presence, can easily put back of mind the battles fought in our name and the companies that make tools used in warfare. But the topic of war and peace is unavoidable in discussing Insitu, the Bingen-based Boeing subsidiary that produces the lightweight unmanned aircraft -- often called drones -- that have become a hidden seeing-eye presence above battlefields.

Insitu, founded in 1994, initially created unmanned aircraft to monitor weather and track tuna movements. Its military contracts have made it one of Southwest Washington's biggest business successes, with more than 800 employees and $400 million in revenue.

Steve Sliwa, who joined Insitu as its fourth employee in 2001, told the company's story last week at a luncheon sponsored by the Columbia River Economic Development Council. Sliwa, Insitu's CEO until early 2011, told anecdotes of a company history shaped by skill and luck, often intertwined. He quoted Thomas Jefferson: "I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

But his theme of business luck fell flat in the context of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After that day, Insitu's technology was in demand for military surveillance and intelligence-gathering in skies that had been turned ugly by the World Trade Center catastrophe.

"Bad luck for the country, bad luck for the world, but it turns out people wanted to be able to track things, and a little robotic airplane might be a good way to do it," he said.

The company's ScanEagle, with a 10-foot wingspan and weighing just 40 pounds, was put into use in Iraq in 2004. Boeing purchased the company four years later at a reported price of $400 million. Insitu maintained autonomy to continue its rapid technological advances.

To his business audience, Sliwa discussed ways to create a positive workplace culture for employees he called "lifestyle entrepreneurs." Most work in Insitu's dozens of buildings sprinkled in the Gorge, but some choose Insitu's Vancouver office where they're closer to schools and jobs for spouses. They're given the freedom to follow the company's No. 1 commandment: "The customer will never fail."

The importance of that commandment when lives are at stake requires no explanation. Protesters have picketed outside the company, and Sliwa says he understands their view even though the ScanEagle carries cameras, not weapons. The moral struggles can't be easy: Insitu founder Tad McGeer, who left the company in 2006 to start another robotic aircraft company called Aerovel, sometimes appears at local peace activist events.

Sliwa hopes the company can grow its civilian uses in search and rescue, wildlife tracking, and security surveillance business. But he tells how Insitu's technology saves lives in time of war, delivering information that protects combatants from harm.

He drew applause with a story of a Klickitat County woman who showed up, demanding to see Insitu's president. Her son, a Marine, had been saved from an ambush by an Insitu ScanEagle, she told Sliwa.

"She said, 'I need people to hug, so start lining up.'" Sliwa recalled. "It doesn't get any better than that for an engineer."