Entrepreneur. Ken Sanborn, Sarasota
Industry. Security, film, aviation
Key. Entrepreneur is building four companies, fresh off a big success with a past business.
Ken Sanborn is clearly incapable of resting.
What other explanation could there be for the fact Sanborn is building at least four startup businesses — mere months after he hit the mother lode of all entrepreneurial jackpots by selling his last company for hundreds of millions of dollars?
“I'm not doing this to build another $500 million company,” says Sanborn. “I'm doing this because I want to build something.”
Sanborn's new companies run the gamut of his diverse career, which began more than 35 years ago as a reporter-cameraman for WFLA in Tampa. The one major theme now, as it was then, is that the businesses revolve around Sanborn's two passions: filming and flying.
One company, Stabilized Camera Systems, is essentially a sequel to his last successful effort, which was a company that sold cameras to assist the military in detecting hidden roadside bombs.
Stabilized Camera Systems is developing high-tech cameras and related equipment for use in several commercial security markets. The patent-pending cameras, which Sanborn named the I-360 Vision, are designed to work from rooftops of places such as schools, power plants and airports.
Another company, Lost Films, is a TV and film production business that has already produced one film and a short documentary. Sanborn even spent parts of the last three months of 2009 flying back and forth from his Sarasota home to Los Angeles, where he met with Warner Bros. executives.
During one trip to Hollywood in late November, Sanborn says a few studio bigwigs told him his movie, “Lost Paradise,” has “the bones of a great film.” Sanborn served as executive producer and supervising director of the movie in Bradenton in early 2009, working with an acting and production crew of Bradenton-area high school students that included Sanborn's son, Harrison Sanborn. The movie cost $50,000 to make.
Other new Sanborn businesses include Phoenix Tech Enterprises, which is a consulting firm for military surveillance officials, and Air Phoenix, an aviation service and aircraft maintenance firm based out of a hangar at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Air Phoenix is also developing a fractional airplane ownership program out of its hangar, which Sanborn is renovating.
One major difference with these businesses as compared to the last time is the source of capital to fund the operations. “I'm spending my own money now,” says Sanborn. “There are no investors.”
Of course, since Sanborn sold his last company, Gyrocam Systems, for what was likely well north of $100 million, he's in the rare position of being able to self-fund new business ventures. Sanborn left the firm after the new owners, Lockheed Martin, took over last summer.
So with all this personal financial risk and multi-faceted business activity, Sanborn, 57, gets asked one question frequently: Why not just retire?
Sanborn says it isn't in his nature to sit around and enjoy his past victories. He's been pitched to invest in other ventures, some revolving around real estate, but he prefers to take the build-it-himself approach. “When the light goes off and I believe I can make a difference in something,” says Sanborn, “I will do whatever it takes to be successful.”
Sanborn did however, make the obligatory Gulf Coast semi-retired executive purchase. “I did buy a new set of gulf clubs,” says Sanborn. “I haven't picked them up yet.”
A strategy play
Some of Sanborn's entrepreneurial zeal can be traced back to being from a family of risk-taking entrepreneurs. His grandfather on his dad's side, Harold Sanborn, was the family leader in that department.
Harold Sanborn ran one of the largest military clothing businesses in the country out of New York City during World War I. But after he lost the company in the Great Depression, he decided to pack up his family and drive from New York to Miami to start over.
The family ran out of gas, and money, however, when it reached Wauchula in Hardee County. Desperate, Harold Sanborn struck up a conversation with a local ranch owner, who agreed to loan the New Yorker money to build homes in the area so he in turn could entice his fellow New Yorkers that once worked for his clothing company to move south.
With that, Harold Sanborn became one of the region's first mass homebuilders.
Ken Sanborn, meanwhile, went into the TV industry by following his father, Dan Sanborn, who owned a cable TV station in Lakeland. Dan Sanborn was also a well-known local commercial airplane pilot who traveled in elite political circles around town. Sanborn was part of that circle as well. He recalls shaking hands with state officials while he was a teenager cleaning up airport hangars.
Sanborn took that passion for TV to the height of the industry. He landed a job with ABC News and the 20/20 program after his WFLA gig and would go on to document some of the world's most famous interviews, such as one with Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. Sanborn later launched his own aerial photography business.
That company, Gyrocam Systems, became Sanborn's genuine David vs. Goliath triumph.
Sarasota-based Gyrocam manufactured and sold a patented high-tech camera used by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cameras, with a heat-sensitive thermal imaging component, could rotate 360 degrees and be stabilized up to 30 feet above a vehicle. That made it perfect for one essential battlefield task: Detecting hidden roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
By the spring of 2009, after going through several mission gyrations over the preceding 15 years, Gyrocam had been awarded more than $500 million in contracts from the Pentagon to build and deploy the cameras. Bethesda, Md.-based defense giant Lockheed Martin bought Gyrocam in a deal announced July 22. The purchase price hasn't been publicly released and Sanborn declined to comment on it.
But that success belies the struggles and risks Sanborn underwent as he grew Gyrocam. For instance, in 2006 Sanborn used $20 million of borrowed money and funds from Gyrocam's biggest private investor to buy up parts used to build the cameras. The dual purpose of the buying binge was to stock up on materials while preventing competitors from getting them.
Problem was, Gyrocam had no contract to actually produce the cameras at the time of Sanborn's purchase. The risk — Sanborn called it a strategy play at the time — ultimately paid off when the Pentagon decided to order 60 cameras, at a cost of about $350,000 a piece.
Against all odds
Other startup struggles tested Sanborn at Gyrocam. He barely met payroll several times in the early going, for starters. Other times, staff was stretched so thin that he answered the door for the FedEx guy.
And Gyrocam's major investor, Australian-based private equity firm Jagen Investments Party Ltd., nearly sold its interest in the company several times before Gyrocam won its first military contract. Sanborn himself estimates he put at least $3 million of his own money into Gyrocam, while Jagen invested at least five times that amount.
But the ultimate struggle Sanborn faced was that the defense industry establishment ridiculed Gyrocam at first. Sanborn was told multiple times that there was no way his idea for a stabilized camera on top of a military vehicle would work in a real-life situation.
Turns out, however, the cameras did work. The achievement follows Sanborn's Jack Welch-like mantra of picking the one or two things in business you could be successful in and working like heck to be the best at it.
“I don't want to do what someone else has done,” says Sanborn. “That's too hard.”
Sticking with what he knows and what others haven't done is a key component for the I-360 project, one of Sanborn's most promising ventures. The idea, says Sanborn, is to take the power of the Gyrocam cameras and translate it to something that could be used in more common applications, such as building and campus security. Sanborn also says he wanted to “make something inexpensive enough that it could be used everywhere.”
Moreover, Sanborn wanted to utilize a lesson he learned from Iraq, where he heard one complaint in particular from soldiers regarding Gyrocam: Its cameras didn't record for a long enough period of time.
So the I-360 can record images for up to 30 days, sounding an alert if and when pixels change.
Sanborn has been speaking with potential buyers for the I-360, which is still in the development phase. “This system doesn't require someone to sit with their eyes glued to the monitor,” says Sanborn. “I think this is going to revolutionize homeland security.”
Coming from someone without Sanborn's kind of track record, the last part of that statement might seem a bit hyperbolic. But with his Gyrocam success in his pocket, Sanborn is even taking on Hollywood, courtesy of Lost Films.
The odds of Sanborn making it in Hollywood are steep, reminding him of his earlier rejection-filled days of Gyrocam. One big difference this time, says Sanborn, is that he is already getting paid in pride by providing opportunities for his son to reach some of his goals. Harrison Sanborn, in fact, has already moved out West to pursue a career in movies.
“If this movie makes money, that would be great,” says Sanborn. “But if it never makes a dime it would still be worth it to me.”
Sarasota-based defense products firm Gyrocam Systems was so successful that President George W. Bush and the Review recognized it in the same month in 2006.
The former president visited the company during a campaign stop in October that year for Vern Buchanan, who was then running for his first term for the U.S. Congress. The Review, meanwhile, named Gyrocam as the top technology innovation company for the Sarasota-Manatee region in 2006.
To read past stories about Gyrocam and its founder Ken Sanborn, go to Review.net and search: Sanborn.
Mark Gordon covers the Sarasota-Manatee region. He can be reached at [email protected], or at 941-362-4848