Early on in his tenure as CEO of Adranos, Chris Stoker understood what many savvy leaders come to learn eventually: he can’t do everything himself.
“There are a lot of things I’m good at and should keep doing, and there are a lot of things I don’t know how to do, nor would I know how to teach people to do,” says Stoker, who also cofounded the manufacturer of solid rocket motors and fuel. “So I have to hire people who know how to do those things and can do them at a high level.”
Aggregating talent operating at that high level is what creates the company’s culture, which “affects everything else you do,” he adds. “So it never ceases to be one of the most important things you do as an organization—attracting people that fit your culture and can deliver the outcomes and the service that you want.” So important is talent strategy, in fact, that Stoker estimates he spends up to 40 percent of his time on that alone. “It’s something that I’m reluctant to delegate, because people selection is so critical.”
Stoker has big plans for expansion, including hundreds of new hires. With limited suppliers of solid rocket motors in the U.S. and increasing market demand, there’s a huge opportunity for us to grow, he says. He expects the company’s location for its 450-acre R&D and manufacturing site to help; in coastal Mississippi, Adranos has access to top engineering talent and critical manufacturing skills. Stoker’s multipronged approach to recruitment includes:
1. Drawing from the ecosystem. Adranos is located within a hub of aerospace and defense companies, creating a natural recruitment pool. Add to that a business-friendly environment with a built-in support infrastructure. “Mississippi’s got a really deep heritage of aerospace and defense, and for us, it’s really important that you have stakeholders at the local, state and federal level that understand your business and can support you. They’ve been through it before, so they know how to help you be successful,” says Stoker, who points to visits from Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith. “They’ve been incredibly gracious with their time and support. In a lot of other places, you don’t get congresspeople coming to your manufacturing site.” Smaller companies, in particular, can get short shrift when it comes to attention from legislators, he adds, but Mississippi’s legislators “see a small company that can become big. That takes vision.”
The state’s favorable tax rates and cost of operation have also made it easier to compete in an inflationary environment. “If you can offer lower-cost products to your customers, they’re going to buy more,” Stoker says.
2. Filling the pipeline. The state boasts eight public universities, four research institutions and 15 community colleges, all producing the next generation of talent for companies like Adranos. “Mississippi State and Ole Miss are very advanced in terms of the future engineers that are going to design solutions for our customers, and then there are other local universities that are focused on the skills that help people build the stuff that our customers are going to use. You need both, and this state has that.”
Stoker adds that while manufacturing has had its share of challenges attracting the next generation of talent, it’s been a bit easier for him. “It’s not too hard to get people excited about building rockets.”
3. Recruiting from elsewhere. Stoker estimates that 50 percent of new hires come from out of state, with the area’s low cost of living, easy pace and mild climate serving as a collective draw. And transplants from other areas don’t have to feel cut off from family given the proximity to Gulfport-Biloxi International airport, which, Stoker says, “is so easy to get in and out of, it almost feels like you’re flying private.”
The state’s Southern hospitality is a bonus, making it easier for new entrants to acclimate. “It’s really a very warm culture,” he says. That’s matched by the warm weather, which opens the door to a host of year-round outdoor pursuits, including fishing, hunting, biking and golf.
“You couple all those things together, and you tell your employees that they’re going to be 20 minutes from the beach,” says Stoker. “It’s compelling.”