Peter Beck’s moment of truth

Rocket Lab faces a key test with its first commercial payload launch in the next fortnight. Founder Peter Beck faces his own moment of truth. Can the hard-driving entrepreneur convert his corporate rocket ship into a cruiser with happy staff? Nikki Mandow reports.

Mission Control at Rocket Lab’s Auckland headquarters is exactly what you see in the movies. Backs of heads sitting at rows of tables with big screens, all pointing towards the front, like at school. But where the blackboard would be, there are huge screens on the wall. Scary charts. Incomprehensible numbers. Houston eat your heart out.

I don’t get inside Mission Control, but security is tight even to get to look through the big back windows. Probably not NASA tight, but there’s a sign on the door saying “This is a secure site” and after you buzz through the locked front door there’s a big guy, not a pretty woman, on reception.

The protocol to get to mission control involves putting away your mobile phone and laptop. Very secret. Very Silicon Valley. Then there’s a visitor sign-in pad with a picture of what looks like an explosive rocket launch on it, and a warning that if you break the small-print confidentiality agreement you’ll get pushed out into orbit on the next mission.

Well, I suspect it says that; I don’t actually get to the bottom before I give up and click “I agree” about not leaking any secrets.

Rocket Lab mission control in Auckland. Photo: supplied

The timing of my visit is particularly exciting; there’s a major rocket launch planned for the next day - last Saturday. It’s the first commercial flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron flagship.

Code-named “It’s business time”, the launch sees an Electron carrying paying satellites for the first time. There have been a couple of test runs in the past, one successful, one not. The latest one saw the disco ball (code-named the Humanity Star) launched into space, causing all that hoo-haa with killjoy space boffin Ian Griffin talking about “Polluting the night sky. For all humanity.” 

Actually, the inaugural commercial launch should have taken place in April, but was abandoned after technical issues. And as it happened, Saturday's launch had to be put off because of some problem in the Chatham Islands, and then launches on Monday and Tuesday were dogged by bad weather.

Meaning Rocket Lab is hoping to get Electron and its payload into orbit today. The window of opportunity for this launch lasts until July 6.

Whenever it happens, this flight is the latest step in a well-publicised, but no less extraordinary journey for Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck. The Southland native built his own telescope when he was a kid, and designed a rocket-driven bicycle in his spare time while doing a tool-making apprenticeship at Fisher & Paykel, using titanium offcuts scrounged from long-suffering workmates.

He started tinkering with real rockets while working for Industrial Research Ltd in Auckland, founded Rocket Lab in 2006, and sent his first prototype craft, Atea 1, into space in 2009.

And making rockets isn’t like making widgets. At the same time as defying gravity, Beck has had to lobby the government for legislative and other conditions to make his audacious scheme possible.

Supporters along the way have included former merchant banker Sir Michael Fay (who let Beck use his island for an early launch) and The Warehouse founder Sir Stephen Tindall, who put money in through his K1W1 venture capital fund. But mostly Rocket Lab’s funding (a cool $200 million of it) as well as his board of directors have come from the US. That’s where the company - and about a fifth of its 250 staff - is now based.

Coming of age

The inaugural commercial flight marks an important coming-of-age point for Rocket Lab and its founder. His first pay packet, so to speak. Money coming into the bank account, not just going out.

But with that coming of age comes more responsibility. Beck will now have customers to placate, shareholders who will start thinking about a return, staff for whom a rocket launch will cease to be an awe-inspiring, groundbreaking project, but instead a routine part of the job.

Beck plans to send an Electron into orbit each month by the end of the year, and one every two weeks next year.

It will be interesting to see how Beck handles this next stage of his career.

He is undoubtedly a charismatic leader. To have got to his first commercial launch has required extraordinary determination, an ability to hold onto a dream, and to inspire people around him - scientists, funders, Government officials - to believe in that dream.

But steely determination can be both good and bad. Slave driver is too hard a term, but certainly Beck expects his staff to strive relentlessly towards his goal of “removing the barriers to commercial space to positively impact on people’s lives”. Getting small satellites - for GPS systems, for communications, for weather forecasting and more - into orbit cheaper and quicker than other people.

Staff are expected to work hard. Long days, weekends.

High expectations and frustrations

Insiders say Beck is frustrated when others aren’t as energised as he is. Beck says that’s the only way to achieve great things.

“I have very high expectations. I’m a very driven person. We wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case. If you look at any kind of entrepreneur there’s a recipe that’s consistent. You don’t sit on the couch and wait for things to happen," Beck says.

“Of course I expect people to work hard and long hours. You aren’t going to achieve the magnitude that’s been achieved by this company by working 8 to 5 with no stress.”

Rocket Lab's Auckland team. Photo: supplied

But there’s another side too, he says.

“Family for me has always been family. Anyone would agree I’m not entirely unreasonable when it comes to family.”

Burn out?

Still, most people can only handle stress and long hours for so long. And that’s a risk. Rocket scientists are hardly two a penny, especially in New Zealand. Beck says some of the specialist science and engineering people at Rocket Lab might be among only a few dozen people in the world qualified to do the job they do.

Hypersonic aerodynamicists, for example.

“They are incredibly rare people, and recruitment of people like that is incredibly difficult.

“We aren’t ashamed of the fact that we only hire A-team players, incredibly high-performing people. And we’ve been successful in attracting these high calibre people.”

True, but one insider worried that such a high-pressure atmosphere could lead to staff becoming exhausted, or leaving, or both.

“Then there’s the risk that you start missing operational deadlines.”

Rockets not launching on time. Or worse. And investors, particularly US ones, will have little tolerance for failure.

The insider says not all workers in the company share the same drive as their boss.

“His only mission is rockets, but other people might have other missions. Maybe it’s family or lifestyle. As the company grows he needs to make other people’s goals connect with his.”

The hero leader

There’s no shortage of literature around the hero leader, the charismatic boss. Our Kiwi spirit loves its frontier heroes, its pioneering inventors, its rugged individuals boldly going where no one would expect someone at the arse end of the world to go.

Peter Beck is one such hero - with a cherubic face, frizzy hair and hint of mad scientist added in. We love him.

Just this month he won a Kea World Class New Zealand award and a Blake Leader Award, named after another rugged hero, Sir Peter Blake. He’s been NZ Entrepreneur of the Year, Supreme NZ Innovator of the year, and more.

But as a Harvard Business Review article entitled “The curse of the superstar CEO” points out there are negatives as well as positives associated with charisma.

Beck now needs to prove he can also run a billion-dollar, 250-person organisation. Preferably a profitable one.

He’ll need to think about organisational structure, devolving responsibility down the chain, maybe even stepping aside from day-to-day running of the business, as Xero founder Rod Drury did earlier this year. (Drury said he was not the right person to lead a multinational tech giant, instead choosing to concentrate on strategy and innovation as a non-executive director.)

Beck says he doesn’t have any thoughts about stepping down. And while he agrees he has been criticised for being a micromanager, he says that’s inevitable with a start-up company, and that’s changing.

No leeway for error

Communications manager Morgan Bailey says Beck’s wealth of ideas don’t exclude others.

“He’s happy to be challenged on ideas. He wants people to bring new and better ways to do things, and he’s happy to be wrong.”

Not too wrong, one hopes. Because as Beck himself acknowledges, there’s not much leeway for error with rockets.

“It’s a brutal industry. You’re always fighting physics. You spend months building a rocket and it lives for 160 seconds. It only takes one tiny thing and you can create a firework, not an orbital launch vehicle.”

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