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Meet Benjamin Culver of Southwest Antennas in Kearny Mesa

Today we’d like to introduce you to Benjamin Culver.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Benjamin. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Southwest Antennas was founded by our Chief Technical Officer Les Reading in his garage in 2005. Les is a nuclear physicist and electrical engineer, and he received his formal education and training at the United States Naval Academy. Les graduated from the Naval Academy in the 1960s and went on to serve as a commissioned officer aboard several nuclear-powered submarines in the United States Navy for eleven years. He worked for Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was the founder of the Nuclear Navy. When Les got out of the Navy in 1980, he became a serial entrepreneur. Les has started seven companies since that time, and he has also worked for a number of large companies. Les was the CTO for Galtronics and Ethertronics, as well as NS Microwave. In 2005, Les decided to start Southwest Antennas to focus on antenna design for the microwave video market, starting as a consultant for companies like Global Microwave Systems (GMS), L­3 Southern California Microwave and Microwave Radio Corporation (MRC), now IMT / Vislink a division of xG Technologies.

Les worked primarily with his friends and industry contacts at these companies, helping them develop new and innovative antenna designs for their programs. Several years into this, Les was asked by his customers to start producing the antennas he was designing for them. Les then hired his first employee in 2007, Pam Spooner, who is production manager and still with SWA today in the same position.

From 2007 until 2013, Les continued to grow SWA. Hse took the company successfully through the start-­up phase, transforming the company from its start as an engineering design consultancy into a full­ fledged manufacturing company. During this time, Les also started another company called M2M Antennas. This company focused on low cost, medium to high volume antenna products for the developing M2M market, which is now called the Internet of Things or IoT market. Since 2013, M2M Antennas has been folded into SWA and is now a division of SWA that focuses on embedded antennas for high value programs. In 2013, Les grew the company to a stable place of about $1.25MM per year in sales. The company plateaued and he needed help taking the company through the growth phase. Les found me through a mutual contact and we agreed to partner together to take the company to the next level. Since 2013, we have grown the company to the $5MM range with a plan to get to $10MM by the end of year five of our growth plan. We are on-track to meet and exceed this goal. Les and I are partners in the company and I have the majority 51% ownership while Les maintains 49%.

We are a California S-Corporation that is completely self-funded with no outside investment. We leverage our strong relationship with our biggest financial partner – Silvergate Bank who is also a local San Diego company and a very successful bank focusing on the manufacturing industry.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Taking a company that has successfully completed the start-up phase through the growth phase is never easy in my experience. I would say the road has been about as expected. We have managed to build a great brand and we are now recognized as a top tier leader in the industries that we serve. The biggest challenges have been: Engineering / Product Development Resources to meet Customer demand. We currently have over 135 projects on our R&D backlog and not enough Engineering staff to do all the work. This has been the biggest issue by far. Of course, cash flow and financial backing is always a bit of a struggle and there is a bit of a catch-22.

You need staff to complete the projects but you need to cash flow to hire them. Thankfully, we have found an amazing partner in Silvergate Bank. They have really helped us grow rapidly and to meet the needs of both our Customers and our business. Also, I would say that finding quality manufacturing talent has been a bit of a struggle. There just doesn’t seem to be many qualified manufacturing people left in the county since most of the manufacturing base moved to Asia over the last 15 years. Luckily, we have a good network of people that we know and use to build our products and we also rely on a really good staffing company called AeroTek who helps us find the right candidates. A company like ours is all about the people. Without good people we have very little.

We do all that we can to retain the staff that we hire and I must say we have a great team. So, it really comes down to people and cash flow to grow the company. Those are the two big challenges. We certainly do no lack business. We just struggle to keep up sometimes! I suppose we could consider building off-shore but Les and I are both firm believers in keeping both product design and manufacturing in the U.S. We are both veterans too and we try to hire veterans whenever we can find them.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Southwest Antennas – what should we know?
Because our products are driven by what our customers ask for, we are involved in a number of markets.

However, over the past few years Southwest Antennas has primarily focused on rugged antenna solutions for law enforcement, homeland security, defense and military applications, which make up our top markets currently. Those particular markets have a need for antennas that are more robust or have better operating qualities than their COTS (commercial off­-the­-shelf) counterparts, so we are seeing a lot of movement with our products in those markets. Our core product lines center around omni-directional and directional antennas of all design types — primarily for VHF, UHF, L­, S­, and C-­Band communications, as we generally cover applications from DC to 8.4 GHz. Some of our applications include microwave video transmission, where we have designed array antennas as well as directional and omni antennas for different use scenarios, depending on where the video is coming from (such as a moving helicopter vs. a stationary camera).

Our antennas are also frequently used on handheld radio systems, vehicle communication systems and unmanned vehicle platforms.

Another application area where we are seeing rapid growth is antennas for MIMO (multiple­input-multiple-­output) radio systems. These are gaining significant market adoption, both in military and civilian markets, and there is a need for innovative antenna designs to take advantage of new multipath propagation techniques for improved throughput. For MIMO systems, we’ve done designs ranging from single antennas that are used in groups, to multi­-antenna designs that are contained within a single radome. Body Worn and concealment antennas are also a big area of growth for Southwest Antennas, where our customers desire to move away from typical antenna installations to something more discreet. We’ve undertaken a lot of R&D in this area to deliver innovate new designs for customers, designs that don’t resemble anything like what we’ve done historically.

As a company, I am most proud of the “brand” we have built. We have become an e-commerce focused company and we offer over 1,000 standard products on our website. Also, our international business was virtually non-existent four years ago and since that time we have over 30% of our annual sales coming from countries around the world. We have built a great website thanks to our local San Diego Partner – Gas Lamp Media and we are adding new Customers at the rate of 1.5 per week! This year alone we have added over 75 new Customers by the end of October.

What sets us apart from our competitors are several things:

1.) Customer Service – we offer the best in the business; our Customers love us. We care deeply for our Customers.

2.) Custom Product Design and Manufacturing – if a Customer comes to us and has a reasonable new project, we will take it on, design something new that does not exist in the market and we do it for no cost to the Customer and we do it fast. We share the risk with our Customers and we also share the rewards of designing and qualifying new designs for the markets we serve.

3.) Our people – we have the best team on Earth in my opinion!

4.) Our strong technical competence and positive contributions to the markets we serve.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Everyone in the company deserves credit. They have all contributed in great ways. Of course, my Partner Les Reading has been key in leading our technical team and coming up with new ideas and designs. Our COO (also my wife) – Carol Culver, has really brought us to the next level when it comes to the maturity of our operations and business processes. Our Supply Chain Manager – Megan LeBaron who use to also be our Inside Sales Manager has been key to our success in more ways than I can even say. Josh Martinez has been an excellent Engineering Project Manager and keeps us on track. Pam Spooner works harder than anyone I know and she keeps our Production Lines running and our products shipping. Brian Bailey and Mazy Blais in Accounting and our CPA Steve Farrington have done an excellent job watching our finances. Adam Krumbein for leading our marketing and advertising efforts and building our corporate brand.

Our Board Member – James G. Watt (Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior) for his keen insight, high level thinking and stellar advice and leadership. All of our production staff, everyone contributes at a high level in our company. Of course, I cannot forget to mention our banking partner Silvergate Bank and their Vice President of Commercial Lending – Jeff Wilber. Without their support we would not have been able to grow as fast as we have. They also take a unique role in helping us with our business plans and this has been key to our success.

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