Terran Orbital CEO Marc Bell is upbeat on the future of satellite construction in US
Marc Bell says hiring people who are “smarter than myself” is a key to building small-satellite maker Terran Orbital Corp. into a major aerospace and defense force.
Bell, the co-founder, chairman and CEO of the upstart company (NYSE: LLAP), is scouring the area for such talent.
Terran employed 312 people in Orange County as of August, according to Business Journal data. That’s up 121% from a year ago, making it one of the fastest-growing tech firms in the area.
An even bigger job push is expected over the next few years, as the company late last year switched up production plans, swapping out a proposed $300 million plant in Florida for more work in Irvine.
“We’re moving at warp speed,” the 55-year-old Bell told the Business Journal on Dec. 6, during a tour of the company’s facilities.
That rapid growth in local tech jobs is one reason Bell was named a Business Journal Businessperson of the Year, for the technology sector.
Bell co-founded Terran with his friend and space expert Anthony “Tony” Previte, who died last summer.
Terran Orbital acquired small-satellite company Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc. in 2013 when it was operating out of a small garage in Irvine.
The parent company, which has its headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., has since moved into 15330 Barranca Parkway near the Irvine Metrolink station, in addition to expanding to offices spread over four floors at 400 Spectrum Center Drive tower and a nearby building, 50 Technology Drive. It still uses the Barranca site for specialized assembly and testing.
Terran Orbital has added 200,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space to its Irvine facilities since 2013 and counted over 450 employees as of December, companywide.
A majority of the company’s operations are in OC, though the company also has sites near Washington, D.C.; Santa Maria; Atlanta; Melbourne, Fla.; as well as Turin, Italy.
Terran said in the latter part of 2022 it had added over 140,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space in Irvine just in the previous 12 months. It’s among the larger expansions of space seen in the area over the past year.
“At Barranca, we produce a wide range of satellite products via complete vertical integration. We design, build, test, integrate onto a launch vehicle and then operate the satellites in space throughout their lifetime,” according to Terran.
Terran Orbital said in November it had received a $100 million investment from its largest customer, aerospace and defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT). Lockheed also boosted its stake in the company from around 9% to over 30%, according to regulatory filings at the time.
Terran emphasized that work will take place in Irvine, not Florida, where the company previously had ambitious plans for the $300 million satellite manufacturing plant along an area of the state dubbed the Space Coast.
“Lockheed Martin has taken us under their wing,” Bell says, adding it’s a “perfect partner” for Terran Orbital.
Terran said in December it had completed delivery of 10 satellite “buses” to prime contractor Lockheed Martin in support of a key Space Development Agency project. The buses are the bodies of the satellites and hold the scientific equipment and other necessary components.
Most of the Terran satellites now are in the 300 kilogram (660-pound) to 500 kilogram range, with “some larger, some smaller,” according to the Terran CEO.
The coastal shift from Florida to Irvine, announced last November, could be a major boost to OC’s economy.
In September 2021, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Terran’s plans for the $300 million investment at Merritt Island for the “world’s largest state-of-the-art commercial spacecraft facility.” Expected job creation: approximately 2,100 by 2025, according to reports at the time.
Bell said he couldn’t predict how large the company’s local OC workforce will grow to, now that the Florida site has been scuttled.
“We’re going to expand here. We’re looking at other buildings and other land sites,” he says. “We are looking at expanding here in Irvine, significantly.”
Bell says the company’s new 50 Technology location “is going to be our new assembly space,” with robotic parts manufacturing and ultra-large rooms for testing. The Spectrum Center office facility is used for design, engineering and development.
Bell has previously cited the area’s proximity to Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, as a reason to have a base in the area.
Said Bell last month: “We want to do more with UCI.”
“The workforce here is great. We’ve been very pleased with the quality of people we’re getting.”
On his hiring strategy, he quips: “My goal in life is to be dumbest person in the building. When I am the dumbest person in the building, I’ve succeeded at my job. I want to know how to do everything. I’m very technical, but I want to be around people who are always much smarter than me,” he says.
He emphasizes “family first” policies for the employees.
“I very much walk the walk” when it comes to taking care of company workers, he said.
He lives in Florida and regularly works out of the Irvine offices “as needed.”
Terran has been making plenty of headlines the past year or so.
For instance, the company developed LunIR, an 11-kilogram (24-pound) moon-mapping satellite launched in November. It was the second Terran Orbital-developed lunar satellite to launch in 2022, and the company intends to keep working with NASA.
Terran went public via a reverse merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, in March of last year.
The deal initially valued Terran Orbital around $1.6 billion, but the company’s market cap had fallen to around $210 million as of the middle of last week.
Bell is unfazed and only looks forward.
Shareholders are “not happy with the stock price, but they’re happy with the future,” he says. “They understand market dynamics.
“We will be a multibillion-dollar business.”
Bell calls Terran is the “last man standing” among independent small-satellite makers.
“We had a lot of competitors. But they all got acquired.”
That includes Boeing’s purchase of Millennium Space Systems and Raytheon Technologies acquisition of Blue Canyon Technologies.
“We may do acquisitions. I’ll buy things.”
Bell says without giving details: “We’re going to do more than satellites.”
Bell brings plenty of business experience to the position, including co-founding mortgage REIT Armour Residential (NYSE:ARR); managing Marc Bell Capital; and founding internet pioneer Globix.
He’s also a two-time Tony Award winner for his role as producer in “Jersey Boys” and “August Osage County.”
But his current position suits his passions, he says.
“I’m a total space nut,” Bell says with a smile.
National Security Focus
While Terran Orbital Corp. makes satellites for both the aerospace and defense industries as well as civil and commercial customers, CEO and Chairman Marc Bell says: “I’m much more interested in national security.”
Bell sees a bigger purpose to such work.
“This is an amazing country with amazing opportunity for people,” he says. “A lot of younger people just take it for granted. They don’t understand it doesn’t just happen.”
He says that in the early days after Russia invaded the Ukraine, Terran Orbital was “very active with Ukraine.” before the Biden administration became more active.
Bell says he is proud of what the company did for Ukraine, whose government publicly thanked Terran on Twitter.
“The goal was to save lives, which we did, and protect Kyiv, which we did,” says Bell. “It was all about saving lives.”
Terran wasn’t looking for publicity.
“Sometimes in life you just do things because it’s the right thing to do, not because it pays the bills,” according to Bell.