(Editor’s Note: “Sitdown With Success” is a monthly feature spotlighting local entrepreneurs and their keys to success and tips for future entrepreneurs)
Dr. Sheila Cummings is shattering the glass ceiling—one aerospace engineering solution at a time.
As a Native American aerospace engineer, small business owner, community leader, and family-focused female, Cummings is at the forefront of Huntsville’s path to the future.
And although she has encountered many challenges along the way, she maintains that those challenges have been the driving force for her determination.
Cummings Aerospace, her grassroots creation, is on the cusp of its 11th anniversary, and we caught up with Cummings to gain some inside into her entrepreneurial success.
Tell us about your background and how you chose aerospace engineering as a career.
I grew up in the Lumbee Tribe of Indians in Pembroke, N.C. I always loved math and science. I had a few mentors in the military who I looked up to, and at one point, I was honestly very focused on joining the Air Force after high school. The recruiter said “we’d love to have you, but we need nurses not pilots” and that ended my dreams of joining the military. But I chose the aerospace path instead because it would allow me the opportunity to pursue working on systems while allowing me to be near aircraft and leverage what I was good at academically.
What initial challenges did you face?
I graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in aerospace engineering. All throughout college, there were maybe three other girls in my graduating class for aerospace, so I definitely chose a field that was male-dominated. I had to figure out how to operate successfully in that domain. I’m from a large family of many brothers and sisters, so building relationships was a natural capability for me. But there is a difference when you are competing academically.
I also didn’t have much outside exposure culturally, so going to a university that was amassed in culture and diversity was in itself a tremendous challenge. But I was driven, and I wanted to succeed and make my family proud. I was a minority but I didn’t allow it to deter me. I used it as fuel for the fire in my belly. I was still in a male dominated force and constantly having to prove myself. As women, we just have to work harder to get recognized.
Once you graduated, how did you begin your career?
I began my career with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., as a government civilian.
After nine years of working for the Navy, I transitioned to becoming a contractor for the Missile Defense Agency, and that’s where my connection to Huntsville began – this was the early stages of BRAC.
In 2005, I helped the Kinetic Energy Interceptor Program and I was responsible for helping the government transition the work force. What was supposed to be a six-month assignment turned into Huntsville into being my home.
Tell us about the origin of Cummings Aerospace and what makes you different as an engineering firm.
I decided in 2009 to break out on my own, largely because of the community’s support of small business start-ups. There were lots of advisors in the community who were encouraging me to start my own company.
Our goal at Cummings Aerospace is technical excellence. Being in the engineering domain is very competitive. We can’t do everything all the time, so what we do, we know we have to do very well. Our reputation resides on it. Quality is very, very important to us. But it’s also much more than that. One of the glorious things about being a small business is that we get the opportunity to be a family and to learn about each other and the family we have created.
What does a successful future look like for you?
I’m probably a little different in that I measure success on the capability we are carrying to the war fighters. How are we contributing to our nation’s defense and protecting the freedoms we enjoy? And how are we helping our engineers to be better and how are we advancing their careers? I want to expand to serve different regions and give back to the Huntsville community and the Native American community, but at the end of the day, I don’t have a specific number in mind. Owning a small business is the best engineering project someone can give you. There are too many variables and a constant pursuit of solutions.
Any advice for future entrepreneurs?
If you are a minority, don’t look at yourself as a minority. Focus on who you are and what you want to achieve and don’t be distracted by the labels that society puts on you.
I think in today’s society people are becoming very accepting of women as engineers. We are still a minority, but we’ve come a long way. The playing field is leveling and I finally feel like I have a seat at the table, but that didn’t come without blood, sweat, and tears.
Being a single mother, I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into initially, but my 3 kids have been my greatest champions. I probably missed one too many family dinners and took them to McDonald’s one too many times, but at the end of the day you just have to ask yourself, am I doing the best I can do?
I’ve definitely have had my share of successes and failures but I wear my scars proudly on my back.
Huntsville-based Merit Bank has announced a board of directors reflecting its philosophy of focusing on local small businesses.
The board for the bank, which opened this summer, is comprised of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Merit Bank is among six percent of the banks which are Huntsville-based.
“The directors guiding Merit Bank have been small business owners themselves. They have turned startups into multi-million-dollar companies and have led complex government contracting processes” said Merit Bank President Hill Womble. “They are Huntsville business executives who know what it takes to get things done. Now they are part of the Merit Bank team, bringing their experience and insight to provide a unique voice and vision for local businesses.”
The board members are: Steven Cost, president of Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure; Chad Falciani, founder and CEO of Strategix Medical Solutions; Kevin Heronimus, former CEO of Line-X; current chairman/CEO of Technical Micronics Control Corp.; Jeff Huntley, owner of T-H Marine; and Brent Romine, founder of nou Systems.
“Bankers are an essential lifeline for small business success,” Romine said. “As a Huntsville- headquartered bank focused on industrial and commercial banking, Merit Bank is well positioned to be a small business enabler.
“Our bankers not only understand working capital needs, but are vital advisors for businesses growth.”
Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal spotlighting local entrepreneurs and their path to success and advice for future entrepreneurs.
We sat down and spoke with Bill Roark, Torch’s co-founder and Freedom Real Estate’s CEO, and it was clear to see that employees are a top priority of the 100 percent employee-owned companies.
And it is because of the employees and management’s vision and direction that Torch Technologies was one of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in America, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, and on multiple selections on the Inc. 5000 list recognizing the Fastest Growing Private Companies in the U.S.
How did you get started in the business?
Torch Technologies was founded in 2002 and I stepped down as CEO from Torch at the end of 2018. Torch and Freedom are sister companies and under the umbrella of Starfish Holdings for which I am chairman of the board. Freedom Real Estate was started, mostly in the beginning to be an alternative investment for the profits Torch Technologies was making. It was a way to diversify a little bit and it’s been very successful.
What obstacles did you face/how did you overcome them?
Early challenges were cash flow. The company grew very quickly and started to hire people. We had to have cash to pay them. We initially used my home equity line of credit, but as the company continued to grow, we took on some angel investors. We were fortunate to get good investors who were supportive of the company and were not invasive into the operations.
How are you able to keep your business relevant?
We are constantly updating and changing things to respond to a changing market. Every year assess exactly where the company is. We also look at where we want to be two years from now. We then develop a detailed plan to make the changes to make that happen.
To what do you attribute your success?
Good people. I’ve been able to surround myself with really good people.
Early on, I reached out to a lot of folks I had worked with in the past that I knew who were good and those people knew others who were good. We generally get people who fit our culture that want to be here; that want to be doing what we are doing. The people and the culture are really what have driven us.
One of the key things is that everyone has a stake in the outcome.
Everybody is an owner. If the company does well, then they do well. There’s motivation for them to have the company do well.
When the employees are the owners, they benefit from the success of the company.
What is important to your company culture?
Being good stewards of the community.
That has been with us since the early days. We try to always give something back to the community and grow that as we grow. Some of the big projects that the company will take on are decided on the executive level, but we have created a community within the company that decides how to spend the company money.
Any employee can volunteer and help with Torch Helps, the employees decide which community charities are selected.
Several years ago, we considered leaving south Huntsville, but the mayor encouraged us to stay and asked us to help revitalize South Huntsville, so we did. We started buying buildings such as the Freedom Center and Office Park south.
We have spent close to $20 million revitalizing old buildings in southeast Huntsville and bringing them back to a premium where people would want to be in them again.
What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs?
Learn as much as you can about the business area you want to go into.
If you want to start a business in engineering, you will need to get a college degree, a few years of experience and get some customer relationships such that you have the influence to be able to bring the contracts to the company that you start and the experience to justify bringing in those contracts.
It’s important to build relationships with companies that can help you and with government personnel that would be willing to provide the funding.
Also, for decades, we had that belief that everyone needs to go to college to be able to do business. I don’t think that’s as true anymore. There are lots of good trades out there and there’s a shortage of people to work those skilled trade jobs.
MADISON — Tuesday night was sheer gala for members of the Madison business community as the Madison Chamber of Commerce and Good Samaritan Hospice of Madison awarded Best in Business 2019 awards.
More than a dozen businesses were recognized at the annual dinner and awards presentation at the Insanity Complex Entertainment Center.
The evening was capped off with Janine Nesin of Nesin Therapy Services being awarded the Excellence in Leadership & Service Award. Cassie Scott of the Quadrus Corp. was runner-up.
According to Pam Honeycutt, executive director of the Madison Chamber, the awards categories are evolving every year to better reflect the growth and diversity of the Chamber membership.
“We added arts, entertainment and hospitality categories to the awards this year, and we added a new Culinary Student Program sponsorship, presented by Earfinity,” said Honeycutt. “A $500 check was awarded to Madison City Schools Culinary Program instructor Monica Creekmore for their service to the Chamber throughout the year.”
The winners were Signalink for Best Business of the Year; Capital Management Services for Best Start-up Business of the Year; Mozaic Audio Video Integration for Best Small Business of the Year; and Union Chapel Christian Academy for Best Nonprofit of the Year.
Conditioned Air Solutions; Black Patch Distilling Co.; Air Essentials; and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of North Alabama took runner-up in each category respectively.
Daniel Kasambira of Hogan Family YMCA won Community Servant of the Year with Michelle Linville of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of North Alabama the finalist.
Health and Wellness Business of the Year went to Hot Yoga DeLux & Cryotherapy with Madison Health Mart Pharmacy taking second place. The Dessert Fork won the Culinary Business of the Year with Insanity Complex the runner-up.
Compass Physical Therapy took first place as Medical Practice of the Year; Conditioned Air Solutions won for Essential Service Business of the Year; and Signalink won Professional Service Business of the Year. Good Samaritan Hospice of Madison; Turf Tamer; and Two Men and a Truck were finalists in each of those categories.
In the new Arts, Entertainment & Hospitality category, iHeartMedia took the top prize while Insanity Complex was runner-up.
If you tuned into WDRM FM this week and thought you heard a familiar voice, your ears did not deceive you.
Brent “Dingo” Crank has returned to the country music station and joined the “Dan and Josie Morning Show,” which broadcasts weekday mornings from 5-10 a.m. and Saturdays from 6-10 a.m.
Dingo joins veteran show host Dan McClain and his partner, Josie Lane, to help listeners kick-start their mornings. Consistently rated No.1 in the market, the show focuses on family, patriotism, humor and the very best country music as well as the latest news, traffic and weather updates.
“I had the pleasure of working with Dingo when he was first hired at 102.1 WDRM, so I know first-hand his passion for the station, listeners and the country music format,” said Carmelita Palmer, market president for iHeartMedia Huntsville. “He made such an impact here that, even though he’s been gone from the market for more than eight years, I continue to have listeners request that we ‘bring back Dingo.’
“I’m thrilled that we are able to honor their request.”
Dingo returns to the Huntsville market from Louisville, where he most recently served as the morning show host on WQNU. Before Louisville, Dingo hosted morning shows in Phoenix, Myrtle Beach and Destin. He began his radio career at 102.1 WDRM and is a graduate of the University of South Alabama.
“I’ve had a blast doing radio all over the country – I’ve seen some amazing things, met some wonderful people, but nothing ever compares to home,” said Dingo. “It’s great to be back in the Tennessee Valley and back where it all started for me on 102.1 WDRM.”
With Dingo in the lineup, the station puts itself in a position to continue its hold on the important morning drive market.
“Dan and Josie have been dominating this market for years, but to add a new element like Dingo to the show puts us in a position to grow the WDRM morning show,” said Erich West, senior vice president of programming for iHeartMedia Huntsville. “I know listeners will enjoy Dingo’s upbeat energy and chemistry that he has with Dan and Josie.”
iHeartMedia Huntsville owns and operates WDRM-FM, WTAK-FM, WQRV-FM, WBHP/WHOS AM and FM, KISS-FM 106.5 and ALT 92.9.
MADISON — For the past 10 years, St. Joseph the Worker Job Networking Club has helped hundreds of people learn how to effectively craft a resume, dress appropriately for an interview and, most importantly, land a job!
A recent celebratory luncheon included Job Club members, past and present, local employers, and the volunteers who have helped the Job Club grow and thrive over the past decade. The club meets every Tuesday in the basement of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church on Hughes Road.
Madison Mayor Paul Finley congratulated the Job Club and discussed the abundance of new jobs on the horizon, the need for a skilled workforce, coupled with the exponential growth taking place in Madison City, Huntsville-Madison County, and North Alabama as a whole.
“Between 2016-18, 30,00 jobs have been created in this area,” said Finley. “The Mazda Toyota plant is bringing in 4,000 jobs. These new jobs have a 2.5 multiplier. For every job created, there are 2.5 other jobs that support it.”
Borne out of the 2008 recession, Job Club was developed to meet the employment needs of the local and neighboring communities.
As a result of founder Maureen Chemsak’s passion, enthusiasm and expertise, coupled with the support of Father Phil O’Kennedy at St. John’s, Job Club took off like a rocket.
However, without the help of a large group of loyal volunteers, Job Club would not be the success that it is.
The mission of the Job Networking Club, a nondenominational organization, is to assist people in developing their job search skills. Volunteers provide the free service.
A Google group e-mails daily local job postings ranging from service and administrative to high tech and defense.
Along with networking, the Job Club features weekly presenters, workshops, and special interest groups, such as Experience Plus, which is geared for job seekers 55 and over.
Guest speakers are always welcome. For individuals who would like to speak at future Job Club meetings, contact Katharina Loudin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.sjwjobclub.org
BIRMINGHAM — Lynne Berry Vallely has been named the recipient of the 2019 Wayne Greenhaw Service to the Humanities Award, the Alabama Humanities Foundation Board of Directors announced.
Vallely, former AHF chair and longtime member of the board, will be honored with the Greenhaw award Oct. 7 at The Colloquium at Birmingham’s The Club. The award, named in memory of the author and former board member, is given to a past or current AHF board member who has contributed significantly to serving Alabama Humanities.
“My long association with the Alabama Humanities Foundation has been one of the great joys of my life,” Vallely said. “It was a privilege to work with talented staff and board members to share Alabama’s rich heritage, particularly its fascinating literature and history.
“I am especially delighted to have been chosen for the award named for Wayne Greenhaw, who was a dear friend and mentor.”
A native of Huntsville, Vallely is a graduate of Lee High School and Vanderbilt University. She retired after serving as executive director of the HudsonAlpha Foundation.
She was the founding executive director of the Community Foundation of Huntsville/Madison County. She has served in the offices of former U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions.
“Lynne was an outstanding board member and chair, and she served our organization with great energy and enthusiasm,” said AHF Executive Director Armand DeKeyser. “Her leadership set the standard that will serve us well in years to come.”
Vallely was a member of the Alabama Humanities Foundation Board for 20 years and served as board chair in 2016. She was a member of the board of directors of The Nature Conservancy, Alabama chapter, and served as board chair 2009-2010.
She was in Class 1 of Leadership Huntsville and is a past board chair, 1992-1993. Vallely proposed and established Huntsville Hospital’s Community Health Initiative in 1996. She received the 2018 Women’s Economic Development Council’s Women Honoring Women Award.
Playing leadership roles in service to the community, Vallely has worked in positions that promoted Huntsville’s tourist attractions, preserved its historic sites and protected the area’s natural environment.
In fact, there were two announcements:
One – he said the Marshall Center, which is in charge of developing the rocket program, will also manage the lunar lander program.
And, two, a Huntsvillian will lead that program.
“We greatly appreciate the support shown here today … for NASA’s Artemis program and America’s return to the moon, where we will prepare for our greatest feat for humankind – putting astronauts on Mars,” Bridenstine said. “We focus on a ‘One NASA’ integrated approach that uses the technical capabilities of many centers. Marshall has the right combination of expertise and experience to accomplish this critical piece of the mission.”
The program will be managed by Huntsville native Dr. Lisa Watson-Morgan.
“Imagine this: We are landing the next man and the first woman,” Bridenstine said. “The program that will be managed here … that landing system is being managed … by one of NASA’s best engineers, right here, and she just so happens to be a woman.”
Watson-Morgan, a 30-year NASA veteran engineer and manager, previously served as deputy director of the Engineering Directorate at Marshall.
“Lisa’s appointment to this key role not only reflects NASA’s confidence in her visionary leadership, but confidence in the proven expertise and world-class capability that define Marshall’s contributions to safely landing humans on the Moon and launching complex spacecraft to the Moon and Mars,” said Marshall Director Jody Singer.
Bridenstine also noted that some members of Texas’ congressional delegation were upset that work was being split between Marshall and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, after lobbying the space agency to get the lander program.
“I understand some of their concerns,” Bridenstine said. “I will say that this is not a decision that was made lightly. A lot of hard work has been done here in Huntsville over, really, well over 10 years now regarding landing systems.”
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks thanked Bridenstine for recognizing the work performed at Marshall.
“Marshall Space Flight Center is the birthplace of America’s space program. It was Marshall scientists and engineers who designed, built, tested, and helped launch the giant Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts on the Apollo missions to the Moon,” Brooks said. “Marshall has unique capabilities and expertise not found at other NASA centers.
“I’m pleased NASA has chosen Marshall to spearhead a key component of America’s return to the moon and usher in the Artemis era. Thanks to Administrator Bridenstine for travelling here to share the great news in person.”
With years of expertise in propulsion systems integration and technology development, engineers at Marshall will work with American companies to rapidly develop, integrate, and demonstrate a human lunar landing system that can launch to the Gateway, pick up astronauts and ferry them between the Gateway and the surface of the moon.
The Johnson Space Center in Houston, which manages major NASA human spaceflight programs including the Gateway, Orion, Commercial Crew and International Space Station, will oversee all aspects related to preparing the landers and astronauts to work together. Johnson also will manage all Artemis missions, beginning with Artemis 1, the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems.
By Rick Tucker
Huntsville is one of the fastest growing local economies in our nation. Boosted by federal and private sector investments, our region is on a strong economic trajectory. In fact, a recent population boom has put the Rocket City on track to potentially be the largest city in Alabama in the next six years.
Our airport represents a key component to continuing this trend because current and new industry considering locating to our region depend on passenger and air cargo operations that support their own operating needs. The local economy depends on our ability to connect with other communities across the globe, so Huntsville International Airport (HSV) is vital to maintain those bonds as the region’s gateway to the world.
But similar to other airports around the country, HSV needs infrastructure investments in order to continue to be able to meet the expected flow of passengers and goods in the future. Projected growth in the area and HSV’s desire to continue to propel this region forward is why in 2012 the airport completed a major $92 million terminal and landside project that included creation of a public waiting area, a security screening checkpoint, a baggage claim and a second parking deck. Those necessary upgrades that were a part of the 2002 Master Plan update have improved the passenger experience and the efficiency of the airport.
Although HSV has seen many improvements and aesthetically offers visitors a very warm welcome to our community, other portions of our terminal are between 30 and 50 years old and in immediate need of improvement. As determined by HSV’s current Master Plan update, the parts of the airport’s facility that passengers use every day, such as elevators, escalators, restrooms and concessions, need redevelopment and expansion to keep up with demand.
In addition, these anticipated terminal improvement projects are imperative to adhere to new federal standards and provide our passengers with facilities that meet their expectations like nursing rooms and pet relief areas. The terminal improvement projects would reinvigorate HSV and set the stage for continued growth for our region for years to come.
We are grateful to Senator Shelby and our Alabama congressional delegation for recently securing significant FAA discretionary grants, however these funds are designated for specific federal government high priority airfield projects. The previously mentioned terminal improvement projects are considered a lower priority for federal discretionary grants. Therefore, our challenge is to find funding for these necessary terminal improvement projects that are currently on hold.
The good news is that there’s a solution that doesn’t require taxpayers to foot the bill.
If Congress would lift the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) — a small user fee paid only by air travelers on which airports depend to fund their infrastructure – HSV could begin this project immediately. The PFC is federally capped at a maximum of $4.50 and hasn’t been updated in nearly 20 years, making it ineffective and inadequate to serve 21st century airports that have experienced inflation just like everyone else.
For example, HSV’s current PFC dollars are already committed through 2030. By modernizing the PFC for the first time since 2001, Congress would allow our airport to generate funding from only the people using the airport, for the project referenced above – all without a dime of taxpayer dollars.
Starting these terminal improvement projects would have a major impact on our region’s economy. On top of the tens of thousands of jobs that Alabama’s airports already support, it’s estimated that these projects would create 608 construction jobs and inject $19.1 million into the Huntsville economy via construction labor wages alone.
Some will say that we should leave the PFC alone. However, those voices fail to acknowledge that maintaining the current PFC could result in stalled growth in Huntsville.
The airport has a major footprint on the local economy, with a total regional economic direct impact of 7,692 jobs equating to a payroll of $474,327,000 and a total multiplied impact of 24,293 jobs equating to a payroll of $942,828,000. Failing to upgrade our airport infrastructure could harm our economy and job growth.
We have recently experienced lower fares at HSV due to the addition of two new carriers and the competition that those carriers created in the market. The improved and expanded infrastructure projects will further encourage the airlines to grow and expand, therefore modernizing the PFC can have a positive and direct impact on passenger fares.
HSV is not alone, America’s airports need nearly $130 billion in infrastructure over the next five years in order to match the demand. It sounds like a staggering number, but the number of passengers traveling through U.S. airports has doubled since 2000 to approximately one billion annually. Conversely, the PFC that pays for critical infrastructure of those airports has not increased in nearly two decades. These airports in their current state were designed for half of that traffic so it is clear that something must be done to modernize airports.
Airports across the country and organizations such as Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives stand alongside numerous conservative organizations asking Congress to consider eliminating the PFC cap entirely or, raising the cap and adjusting it periodically for construction cost inflation.
There’s no doubt that Huntsville is a city on the rise. With a strong economy and a growing population, we are poised to continue to enjoy this success.
HSV has always worked to provide the community with an airport that acts as an economic engine by taking proactive measures that allow for immediate and long-term growth. However, to stay on this path we must ensure that our airport is able to meet the vital needs of the growing population and business community.
Modernizing the PFC isn’t just important for HSV – it’s critical for the future of our region.
(Rick Tucker is the CEO of Huntsville International Airport)