Blue Origin’s New CEO On Honing The Company’s Business Practices

New Blue Origin CEO Dave Limp

New Blue Origin CEO Dave Limp.

Credit: Blue Origin

After more than 13 years overseeing Amazon’s fleet of consumer electronic devices, Dave Limp became CEO of Blue Origin in December and is getting up to speed about closed-cycle, oxygen-rich methane engines and cryogenic boil-off in orbit. Limp’s mission is to hone the business practices of Jeff Bezos’ 10,000-plus-member space company. Limp spoke with Space Editor Irene Klotz as a New Glenn test vehicle was being prepared for its first launchpad tanking test.

Why did you decide to take this position at Blue Origin? My first tenet for my next job was that it not be consumer electronics. I knew I wanted to do something else. My next guideline was that I wanted to be able to sit in a room with 100 people, tell them what I’m doing and without any debate 99 out of 100 would say that I was doing something good for the planet. That is not to say Amazon is not doing great things for the planet. I have been incredibly lucky in my career and to be able to give back to not only a team, but also to society and the planet, is important to me.

When Jeff called and asked if I would be interested in talking to him about becoming CEO of Blue Origin, my initial reaction was, “Well, I’m not a rocket scientist. It doesn’t sound like it’s the right job for me.” Jeff has very good instincts about what an organization might need at a given point in time, and he convinced me that Blue really did not need another rocket scientist. What Blue needed was some leadership around manufacturing and building things at rate and also trying to understand how to imbibe a sense of energy and urgency in the culture. That all resonated. I also love working with Jeff, and so the opportunity to work closely with him again was kind of the tie-breaker—and here I am at Blue.

How do you muster energy and create a sense of urgency when you don’t have shareholders and quarterly reports? I am not sure quarterly boundaries drive urgency. In my previous jobs, what did drive urgency is that the holiday season does not move every year, and if you do not deliver those consumer electronics on time, you have a problem.

The thing that you have to instill in people is that it is not artificial quarterly boundaries that create a sense of urgency. It is when customers want this and when you need to get these things over the line. I have a passion for that. What do you do to embody that in an organization? You hold people to high standards—you hire talent that also wants to be obsessed over customers and delivering on their promises on time. You get rid of bottlenecks and look around the corner for these types of things. It is a lot of blocking and tackling, but you can teach an organization how to ship things and how to get them out the door with high quality [while] being safe.

One of the questions I asked Jeff before taking the role was, “Is this a hobby, or is it a business?” I do not know how to lead hobbies, and I would not have taken the job [if that were the case]. I think businesses motivate the right behaviors. They drive cost out of products—they drive schedules. I look at Blue as a company that we are going to build a great business out of.

What is the market for Blue Origin services, considering the established companies in the field already? Sixty days ago, I came from a place that was buying a lot of rockets, and I believe that in five years the world is going to need a lot more launch capacity than what has been predicted. When every launch costs $60 million to $100 million, you have one set of customers. If you can get the price down by an order of magnitude, you open up [the market] to a far huger set of customers.

We have customers that are incredibly varied. We are an engine manufacturer for United Launch Alliance. We have a very large NASA contract. We have my ex-employer, which bought a bunch of missions for Kuiper [satellite launches], and we have other customers and government missions. And we have astronauts waiting in a long line to go up to suborbital. We have lots of promises to keep, and we just need to execute to make sure that those customers are happy.

With your background, what game-changing perspective can you bring to Blue? I’ve spent 34 years of my life figuring out how to build a prototype of something and then build a manufacturing line that can produce thousands of them in an hour, tens of millions in a year. Engines are different than Fire TV sticks, but the core elements of building something at rate—figuring out your supply chain, understanding how you build subassemblies, how you do quality assurance, how you build for reliability, how you build for manufacturing—whether you are building a Fire TV stick, a refinery or a rocket, there are more similarities than you would think.

Building one of something is hard, but not that hard. Building the machine that makes the machine at rate—that is very difficult. I think I will bring some expertise in that area to Blue and dramatically increase, across every metric, our ability to build things at volume.

How long do you think it will be before people will be flying on New Glenn? I do not know that. The first thing we need to do is show repeatability of flying New Glenn. I’m pretty confident we are going to make a good attempt at that this year.

You mentioned that with an order-of-magnitude drop in launch prices, there could be all kinds of new customers. Do you think that the market can support three heavy-lift launch companies in the U.S.? This is not a sports race, where there is only going to be one winner. I think there are going to be many winners, and entrepreneurs are going to come out of the woodwork to find ways to use these vehicles. But there is still a lot of work to do to get the cost to continue to go down. For sure, I think there is room for 2-3 [launch companies]. There may be room for more.

Because there is one very committed person funding Blue Origin who has a very long-term perspective on things, how do you measure if you are being successful or not? Are there some metrics you are going to implement to reach certain milestones? We can go dramatically faster. That I am sure of in my first 60 days. It is not that people were doing anything necessarily wrong, it is just that you can do things differently. Jeff has said that to be the world’s most decisive company, you have to make decisions quickly. Sometimes, for the right reasons, well-intended people—including Blue employees—want to do a lot of analysis or want to make sure that they are reducing risk profiles asymptotically toward zero. I think you can take a little more risk and still be safe, still be reliable and move faster. I do not feel Blue is lacking any IQ. It just needs to up the pace of decision-making and our ability to deliver on behalf of customers.

I absolutely believe in setting achievable but aggressive goals ... and making sure that we are held accountable for those goals as we move forward.

Have you set any goals in your first 60 days? Yes, and I will share one: We are going to fly New Glenn this year. That is a very important goal, and if we have to take a little bit more risk, so be it. We are going to learn a lot from any profile of a flight of New Glenn. We have all the piece-parts ready to go. We just need to assemble them with urgency and get the engines mated. Then we will fly it and see how it goes. 

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.