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GA-EMS Thrives On Diverse Product Line

Title: President, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems

Education: Engineering degree, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

Age: 55

Recreation: Forney works out every day and looks forward to more golf and domestic travel

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Family: Forney is married and has a son in college

It is not nearly as fast as a projectile exiting a railgun. For a big business, however, the acceleration is remarkable.

General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems has grown more than 500 percent in revenue and employee count over the last 10 years.

So says Scott Forney, the unit’s president, who said the Rancho Bernardo-based business unit’s growth outpaces that of another GA subsidiary. That would be its better-known brother, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which makes aircraft in Poway.

Privately held General Atomics does not share revenue figures, and Forney declined to give them in a recent interview. The business now has 1.5 million square feet of space in Rancho Bernardo, other U.S. cities (there is a 367,000-square-foot factory near Tupelo, Mississippi)

and some foreign cities.

The growth has come from selling a diverse set of products to a variety of customers. The business has big-ticket orders from the Defense Department, notably its next-generation aircraft-carrier launch and recovery gear. GA-EMS also courts foreign militaries, serves several industries (notably oil and gas, and nuclear power), and even caters to stock car racers.

In 2015, JTG Daugherty Racing was able to increase its standing among its peers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup from 31st to 13th place. It did so by collecting real-time data from car-mounted sensors, letting crew members analyze that information and optimizing the vehicle based on what they found. The racing team’s technology of choice? GA-EMS analytics software, combined with software and hardware from Dell Inc.

Leadership

Forney, 55, passed his 10th anniversary with the Electromagnetic Systems business unit in November. He came to General Atomics from General Dynamics Corp.’s Electric Boat unit. The Connecticut shipyard specializes in nuclear submarines. While at Electric Boat, Forney rotated through several engineering departments and eventually ran its advanced technology division.

At GA he has had the opportunity to work with advanced and even exotic technologies, dipping into the world of satellites, laser weapons and railguns.

An aerodynamic, tungsten steel projectile coming out of a railgun can travel at more than 5,000 miles per hour. It can pierce steel. A thick plate of steel with a hole is displayed in a conference room where GA-EMS executives meet visitors.

A metal armature completes the circuit between the positive and negative rails in the gun barrel and pushes on a projectile, accelerating it to Mach 7. Powerful capacitors release the electricity to get the apparatus moving. In the time it takes the gun to fire, Forney said the armature changes its state rapidly, going from solid to liquid to gas to plasma.

The U.S. Navy tapped competitor BAE Systems to produce its railgun, but there may be more work for GA in the future. The Navy has said it would eventually like to put a railgun aboard its next generation, Zumwalt-class destroyer.

General Atomics is also developing railguns for U.S. forces on land. Without a concept of operations from a customer — that is, what the commander wants — General Atomics has been assuming what the customer might want, and tailoring its guns to meet those assumed specifications. As is its habit, GA-EMS has been building the systems using its own research-and-development funds.

Meanwhile, the Missile Defense Agency awarded General Atomics an initial, $8.9 million contract for a low-power laser weapon demonstrator in November.

Catapult Innovation

GA’s EMS business is also behind a new way to get aircraft on and off an aircraft carrier. Its electromagnetic launch system catapults aircraft with a linear motor, similar to a railgun. Its advanced arresting gear reins in an arriving aircraft, absorbing its momentum. The first systems, aboard the new USS Gerald Ford class aircraft carriers, launched and recovered 346 aircraft in 2017.

Forney said he was able to watch the systems in operation off the coast of Virginia, less than a week after the Ford was commissioned in July.

In times before and since, Navy leaders and federal officials have questioned whether the new launch and recovery systems were the right equipment for the new class of carrier. Forney maintains they are. Among the benefits of the systems: they require 35 percent fewer people to operate than legacy systems.

Forney received his engineering degree from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island in 1985. “My goal at the time was to design and build ships — whatever that entailed,” he said.

In addition to his work at Electric Boat, he helped launch a small business in Connecticut, which offered some crucial training in finance.

“I’ve got to say, it is a privilege to work for a guy like Neal Blue,” Forney said, referring to General Atomics’ co-owner and chief executive.

Blue “allows his managers to make bold decisions. And his risk tolerance is out of this world. That’s the beauty of this company.”

What if you make a bad call?

“We’re all human,” Forney said. “We all make some bad calls. But I would say largely I’ve benefited from a great staff to make sure my bad calls are minimal.”

Acquisitions

The business announced three acquisitions since March 2016. Perhaps the most intriguing came in November when GA-EMS said it acquired the Colorado-based operation of Surrey Satellite Technology US LLC. Financial terms were not disclosed.

With its small satellites, GA-EMS has been offering the military what Forney calls “assured communications.” Forney said the Electromagnetic Systems unit now wants to offer intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (or ISR) through satellites, and those require more heft. That would complement another GA product line: GA’s Aeronautical Systems unit offers ISR through its Predator family of unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft, which can loiter over a geographic area for periods longer than 24 hours at altitudes as high as 50,000 feet.

Asked about acquisitions, Forney said “we get a lot of opportunities.” The trick is figuring out what makes sense. The executive said GA-EMS acquires companies to “fill holes” in its business, in places where the company would like to grow. Often GA-EMS is growing organically in a particular direction, but an acquisition lets it step into a space more quickly.

The executive declined to discuss future acquisitions, saying only that he is not ruling them out.

The Products

GA-EMS reaches foreign markets (some 69 of them) with commercial technology. The business makes electrostatic separating equipment for oil refineries under the brand name Gulftronic. GA-EMS is the world’s No. 1 provider of slurry separation equipment, with 64 percent of the market. The business unit also provides software for oil, gas

and chemical product terminals as well as explosion-proof hardware for use in hazardous locations.

Another product line is radiation monitoring equipment.

In China, GA-EMS has sold three industrial supercritical water oxidation systems. The technology subjects polluted water to high pressure, removing contaminants such as pesticides, petrochemicals and other waste.

In the near future, the business plans to open an office in Delhi, India. GA-EMS would like to sell commercial products, but it would also like to get a foothold in the market to sell military gear.

Specifically, GA-EMS would like to sell its electromagnetic launch and advanced arresting gear to India for a future aircraft carrier. France may also be in the market for such equipment, Forney said. Less clear is the United Kingdom.

Ten years into the job with General Atomics, Forney says he spends a lot of time on international flights. He logs 350,000 miles a year, and says he has no desire to travel internationally once he retires.

His ideal retirement, he said, is to visit all 50 states, get back to his golf game and live in a place where he can keep horses. His family as well as his wife’s family had horses in the past.

How long does he plan to stay president of the company?

“Until it’s not fun anymore and until it’s just time to give somebody else the reins,” Forney said.

As for that first condition?

“It’s still fun,” Forney said.

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