A CFO Gets Ready for Takeoff

Space-tourism company Virgin Galactic gets its man, the first CFO in a fledgling but most exciting industry.
David McCannAugust 9, 2011

Virgin Galactic, the space-tourism company scheduled to start sending commercial flights 62 miles above Earth next year, has completed its CFO search by hiring Ken Sunshine, a veteran aerospace-industry finance executive.

Sunshine has been CFO of the National Institute of Aerospace, Aurora Flight Services, and Orbital Science. Earlier in his career he served as an engineer with Draper Labs after receiving an engineering degree from Tufts University. Following is an edited version of the interview.

So there’s no truth to the rumor that you were hired because of your last name?
No! I’ve been in the space business my entire career, though maybe, given my name, that was just meant to be.

In fact, looking at your background, it’s hard to believe the company would have chosen anyone else. Often we hear that CFO skills are transferable across industries. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides had told us that he might consider someone from outside the aerospace industry. Do you think that could have worked?
Pure accounting and finance skills are transferable, but the ability to understand this business is not. I’ve been involved in it both as an engineer and on the business and finance side of a broad range of space-related technologies and projects. If you’re looking at a very complex project like this one, and you want to make sure you’re tracking all the relevant costs and doing effective forecasting and budgeting, for example, it helps to understand what’s really going on.

Understanding the dynamics of the supply chain is important. There’s a somewhat unique group of companies that build the raw materials, subsystems, and components that ultimately get fabricated into more complex systems.

George also wanted someone with a lot of experience raising funds from both private-equity investors and public offerings.
Absolutely. I’ve been involved in almost every flavor of debt and equity capital activities known to man, worked for small start-ups, large established companies, and nonprofits. At each I raised funds from various types of debt and asset-based instruments, as well as private and public equity.

Then there was the requirement that the new CFO would “be able to integrate work and fun,” like Virgin chairman Richard Branson. Are you that person? How will that manifest in your case?
I’m still figuring out what the Virgin brand is and Branson’s concept of integrating fun and work. But I certainly am not the type to take things so seriously that you’ve got to be walking around focused on nothing but work 24/7. You increase morale and productivity by having a good time at work and making it enjoyable for the whole team. You can try to squeeze nothing but pure work out of people, but ultimately that approach backfires.

Do you have any sense of what the early challenges will be?
I’m not at the point where I would single out any one finance-specific thing. But the entire team is collectively focused on building an incredibly safe vehicle to take tourists into space. That’s everyone – not just the engineering and operations, people, but human resources hiring the right people, and finance putting in all the right internal controls and processes.

We saw two space shuttles go down. Why should the public have confidence in the spacecraft’s safety?
We will have flown this vehicle over 100 times in our test regime, and we are going to prove out the reliability and safety of every component and subsystem.

I assume you want to take a ride into space yourself. Is it going to be a perk of the job?
I don’t think we’ve made any decisions yet in terms of who might get to fly as a perk versus who might have to buy a [$200,000] ticket. But will I have the opportunity to fly? I’m planning on it, absolutely.