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Carol Craig is Making Opportunities

As publisher of Florida Today newspaper, Mark Mikolajczyk put in his share of time at chamber and economic development functions around Cape Canaveral. From time to time at such events, he would exchange pleasantries with Carol Craig. She ran a small, government engineering contractor with a fraction of Florida Today’s revenue and local workforce. After one economic development commission board meeting, they agreed to grab a beer sometime and met at a happy hour a few weeks later. He chatted with her about what Craig does; she chatted him up about what exactly a publisher does. “Just kept talking and talking and after a little while in the conversation, she says, ‘You need to come work for me.’ He pauses. “I said, ‘What?’ ”

It may have made his jaw drop, but in him Craig saw opportunity and Craig has never met an opportunity she didn’t like. Take this one: Some time ago, she figured $60,000 was all she needed for machining equipment that would let her offer prototype building and machining as a complement to her firm’s engineering services. Opportunities kept rearing their heads, however, and now she has invested $2 million into what she calls the Aerospace & Defense Manufacturing Center. The investment has included leasing a cavernous facility on Astronaut Boulevard and acquiring from NASA and NASA-contractor United Space Alliance some 2,000 pieces of speciality equipment in it that were used to do much of the parts maintenance and repair work on the shuttles.

Sunglasses perched atop her hair, silver accessorized, Craig says she’s “fabulous at 46.” Few CEOs are as open as she is — to the point of confessing to insecurities and occasional tears. She speaks in laid-back phrase-bursts — “totally, totally … good to go … it’s kind of cool” — but has three engineering degrees and can shift into that language with ease. She has built her engineering services company to $40 million in annual revenue and 375 employees in 20 states, 150 of them at Cape Canaveral.

Craig is active on local boards and charities. Last year, her company gave $175,000 to charity. She does all this with — as people say — usually a beer in hand at after-hours events.

“She’s always had the attitude, ‘I can do it. I can do it.’ And, by and large, she does,” says Florida Institute of Technology President Anthony Catanese. “There’s only one way to describe Carol — Superwoman.”

Humility

Craig, like Clark Kent, was raised by adoptive parents in the Midwest. Craig’s biological mother, an Illinois college-student daughter of a Cuban immigrant, put baby Elizabeth Sanchez up for adoption at 3 days old. “Back in that day, of course, abortion was not legal — thank goodness.” Carl and Thelma Bovard took her home when she was 9 days old, their “Christmas Carol.” They never kept her adoption secret from her. Her adoptive parents told her, “We wanted you. We’re so blessed to have you.” She came home to an adopted brother and later a biological sister. “My adoptive parents are very mellow. My brother — kind of a quieter guy. My sister, quiet. And I was the cruise director of the Bovard family.”

Her biological parents were musicians, and her adoptive parents nurtured her talent with piano and violin lessons during school. She ran track, was in the flag corps and math club and played hand bells in church. “My mother is this amazing Christian — the woman’s never drank, never smoked, sees the good in everyone. She’s just such a solid individual, and that’s where I’ve gotten my faith. I’m not perfect, and we all have our doubts, but I’ve always been involved in churches,” Craig says. Her mother also taught her about humility — “not to become too-big-for-your-britches. Anything can happen to anybody. Nobody’s insulated from anything.”

Craig earned her bachelor’s in computer science from Knox College, where she still holds several school records in the high hurdles and high jump. She has a bachelor’s in computer engineering from the University of Illinois and a master’s in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Massachusetts. For the Defense Department, she developed cockpit software. The reference point she offers is that of the Kelly McGillis character in Top Gun, the one explaining to the fliers how to use the equipment.

Craig discovered the disconnect between what an engineer thinks is a good solution and what the user thinks is a good solution. Her resolution: She would become a naval aviator, something with added attraction for her because she was afraid to fly. She hated the idea of fear beating her, and she joined the Navy in 1991.

She met John Craig, a fighter pilot who became her husband, in 1994 while both were stationed in Jacksonville, she flying in the P-3C Orion anti-submarine and surveillance plane. (He now flies for commercial airlines while continuing in the Reserves as a Navy emergency preparedness liaison officer and acting as government liaison for Craig Technologies.) Craig by now had four strong skill sets going for her. Engineering meant problem-solving and focus. Flying taught situational awareness — the ability to be hit with tons of information and stay focused on critical factors like where the ground is — and it taught compartmentalization. An injury in survival training in 1996 ended her flying career. (Her knee still swells up after even a short run.) She founded Craig Technologies in 1999 as a one-woman consultancy, and that’s what she was doing as a trailing spouse in Virginia in 2001 as they awaited the birth of their first child.

They named him Danny. The Navy doctors said he was born without part of his brain. “I still remember waking up with my skin crawling — like you wake up from a bad dream but, nope, I’m waking up to a bad dream.” The doctors were wrong about Danny’s brain, but he did have Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disability that requires lifelong management. Craig dealt with it by trying to control it. “When we thought it was brain damage, I was researching brain damage. And that’s how I kind of kept it. It’s the same thing with the business. If I start to stress, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to be more diversified. We need more customers.’ OK, I need to get online. I need to make phone calls. I need to get on the road.”

Daughter Gillian was born in 2002, the year before John Craig moved into the active reserves and Carol began building her company into something greater than just her as a consultant. As she was doing that in 2004, the family moved to the Space Coast.

Breaking the rules

To build Craig, she mortgaged their home, maxed out eight credit cards and built the company while also raising Danny, launching the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research, raising Gillian, singing in the choir and playing hand bells and piano at churches. “I can compartmentalize pretty well. Maybe with aviation I learned a little bit of that. Although I have my moments — you know, break down in tears. Might last for a few minutes and then I’m good to go. Ask some of these guys. They know. It’s usually something random because somebody said something mean about me or because I feel bad about Danny but then I just go, ‘No, OK. I can make this better. Crying is not going to solve it. I’m going to get on the internet and figure out who’s the next best doctor or I don’t care what these people say I’m going to succeed and that’ll show them.’ Moments of weakness. I’m real, you know.”

Craig Technologies made its living providing IT and engineering services as a government subcontractor. Any prime contractor that put her company on its team benefited in six scoring categories: Minority-owned, woman-owned, veteran-owned, service-disabled veteran owned, small business, operating in a hub zone.

From the start, friends and family were central to her business. She hired her mother, who still works for her, and her best friend from college, the first of many family-and-friends hires. She is CFO. While still a tiny business, she reinvested profits to establish policies and procedures — industry standard quality certifications, for example — to support the large organization she planned to build.

Her kids shaped a key component: Employee benefits. Wages are in line with regional averages. The company pays all employee medical premiums and 80% to 85% of dependent premiums, plus premiums for employees’ short- and long-term disability and triple of salary life and disability coverage. Craig always wanted top benefits. The first core value on the company list is “family.” She also has a favored list of sayings: No Regrets. No apologies. Semper Gumby (always flexible) and Did anybody die?

Higher margins

Craig Technologies grew well, but contracting still is an iffy business, and services is low margin, 5% to 7% most of the time. In search of higher-margin work, she thought of manufacturing.

In Craig Technologies’ new headquarters on Astronaut Boulevard sits the highly specialized equipment for reverse engineering shuttle parts, to peer at a turbine blade for microscopic cracks or to take a shuttle pipe and expose it to extremes of heat and vibration — “shake-and-bake” — to test for failure. Much of the equipment she got in a trade with NASA in return for maintaining it for five years. A walk — a very long walk — through the old shuttle center displays both the depth of equipment and capabilities — design-to-production, avionics, X-rays, environmental testing, a clean room, a composites oven with doors blast-furnance thick. So far, jobs are scant, and vast rooms of cubicles sit empty.

President of the 25-worker Aerospace & Defense Manufacturing Center is former Florida Today Publisher Mikolajczyk. “She convinced me it was an opportunity, and I thought, you know, 52 years old, I’ve got another career in me,” says Mikolajczyk, who joined her in January 2012. “You can find pieces of this equipment across Florida but nothing in one location like this.”

In June, he was at the Paris air show selling the center’s services. Craig, meanwhile, is pitching Florida manufacturers to use it as a subcontractor. Ahead, she expects to bid more engineering services work as a prime contractor. She has started a software company for business data applications, also a higher margin business, called GCC Innovative Technologies. She named the firm after daughter Gillian, who complained that Craig had never named anything after her. “She’s got my personality, I think,” says Craig.

Danny’s doing well, she says. “Everyone has their challenges, whether you’ve got typical kids or kids with disabilities.”

Meanwhile, Craig is active in Brevard Workforce, the local economic development commission, the Florida High-Tech Corridor Council, the University of Central Florida Foundation, the Women’s Business Center at Florida Tech, Junior Achievement, United Way, a local disability council, and she’s one of a dozen members, and the only woman, of the Panthers Football Founders Club, who collectively pledged $1.2 million to launch a football program at Florida Tech. She started the Danny Craig Foundation in 2010 and is pursuing a doctorate in systems engineering at Florida Tech. (A Ph.D. she started at UCF is on hold.) “I hate school. My attention span — I can’t sit still for three hours,” she says. “I am definitely the dumbest person in those classes and feel like it.” She recently bought an electric violin and electric cello — because her grand piano doesn’t travel, nor does her drum kit. She’s pushing to found a clay-shooting business in Brevard.

“My dad always said, ‘When God made you, he broke the mold — thank God.’ What is it? Is it my personality? Is it my parents who brought me up to want to do just about anything? To be excited about life? To be excited about everything around me? I have these moments of mortality and panic where I go, ‘I don’t want anything to happen to me because there’s just so much more to be done.’”