Santa Fe-based Wildflower International will go to the battlefield in the coming months, armed with a nearly $1 billion federal contract and a fleet of specially outfitted unmanned aircraft to gather intelligence for the U.S. military.
It has been a long journey for CEO Kimberly deCastro, who founded the company in 1991 in her infant daughter’s bedroom in Glorieta as a Gateway computer supplier to Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Supplying customized computer systems by the tens of thousands to federal agencies has been key to Wildflower ever since, and it has taken a one-woman company to 111 employees with $200 million in annual revenue.
DeCastro, a Santa Fe native, added an unmanned aircraft systems wing to the company three years ago and in July won a three-year, $975 million contract from the U.S. Special Operations Command.
“We are providing intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance via unmanned aircraft to fight global terrorism,” said deCastro, sitting in Wildflower’s brand-new flight operations center, housed in a re-creation of a 17th-century Spanish mission on Rodeo Road. “We are supporting the war fighters.”
Wildflower is responsible for providing the aircraft and onboard technology to capture images for Special Operations Command's use. The civilian Wildflower team — employees and outside contractors — also will operate the unmanned aircraft systems on the battlefield and download the visual data from the cameras to deliver to the military.
“The only end product is data,” deCastro said. “We are developing aircraft, technology, payload, people and systems to turn over data on a thumb drive.”
The $975 million buys images from enemy zones and covers the costs of producing the unmanned aircraft, the specialized camera systems — the “payload” — and the contracted pilots to fly the aircraft in hot zones.
“There is a lot of risk built into the contract,” deCastro said. “The payload is expensive. The airplanes are expensive. I’ll tell you what’s really expensive: I don’t know what the mean time to loss is.”
In other words, how long will an aircraft last in the field? And how many aircraft will it ultimately take to carry out the mission for three years? Wildflower has two mission-ready unmanned aircraft with several more under construction, and it will possibly need dozens more over the next three years.
“The day we are called, we will be there,” she said. “We will not disappoint them. I will go to the theater with the team — downrange, as they say.”
DeCastro did not reveal when or where Wildflower will debut overseas.
“Certainly in the next six months,” she said. “The government is not moving our aircraft. We are responsible for everything. We have our own small army of pilots and people to deliver our piece of national security and patriotism.”
The operation is essentially a third chapter for Wildflower International. In the 1990s, the company supplied computer systems to national laboratories. In 2005, Wildflower started doing the same for the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security and subsequently many other federal agencies.
Computers have gotten exponentially cheaper over the decades, eroding profit margins. DeCastro wanted to expand Wildflower into another field, and her knowledge of the federal procurement system proved to be an advantage.
“Where was Wildflower headed?” she said about 10 to 12 years ago. “I knew there was somewhere in the federal government a billion-dollar piece of paper with my name on it. I’ve been looking for it. And I found it.”
Until now, the company's biggest individual contract had been a $180 million “information technology refresher” for 22,000 computers in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That relationship in 2008 evolved into Wildflower also customizing the computers for numerous federal agencies — essentially managing the IT programs to match a given agency’s requirements.
Even before unmanned aircraft entered the picture just three years ago, Wildflower had established a presence nationwide with a second office in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; plus several people working remotely near Washington, D.C.; and still others working remotely in Oregon, New Jersey, Florida and Texas.
About 70 of the 111 employees work in Santa Fe at the St. Francis Professional Center, also known as the Clock Tower, where Wildflower has been based since 2002, and at the former Pink Church Art Center on Pacheco Street, which Wildflower acquired in 2016.
DeCastro said she believes the employees at the Clock Tower will move to what she calls the Mission, the unmanned aircraft flight control center. She just acquired the 4,600-square-foot structure in August along with three other buildings, from well-known Spanish colonial woodworker Leonel Capparelli.
“The work environment is so incredibly important for me,” deCastro said about the search for a new location.
DeCastro, 63, didn’t regard herself as a president and CEO until more than a decade into Wildflower’s existence. A Santa Fe High School graduate who also spent time at Santa Fe Prep, she studied international business at the United States International University in San Diego and the University of Hawaii with intentions to become a diplomat.
Instead, she sold heavy equipment, pneumatics and hydraulics for Avnet, a distributor of electronic components.
“I was looking to be able to stay home and support my child,” she said.
Through Avnet, she had already worked with the procurement office at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She became the lab's supplier of Gateway computers, working from her daughter’s bedroom in Glorieta in 1991.
Three years later, she added an employee and then a second employee. Later in the 1990s, she moved Wildflower “to a little sweatshop at the end of Cerrillos” near the freeway. DeCastro had seven employees when the company moved to an Eldorado office.
The next step for Wildflower came with the 2002 move to St. Francis Drive, by which time she was a supplier of Dell computers.
“We were always only a federal contractor for national security and information technology — a supplier of computers and computer services,” deCastro said.
Though deCastro says she is “not an entrepreneur,” by the mid-2010s, Wildflower had revenue over $100 million. In an executive coaching gathering, she learned robotics would soon become an area of tremendous growth. She instructed an employee to search for federal contracts involving robotics.
“What came up was unmanned aircraft,” she said. “I understand the language of the federal government. It was odd piece, but I could make it fit.”
DeCastro was one of three women among about 150 men attending industry day for the unmanned aircraft systems contract in November 2018 in Tampa Bay, Fla., where the Special Operations Command is headquartered. Industry leaders could have one-on-one meetings with government officials before submitting proposals. DeCastro was dismissed before her allotted time expired.
“It was a brutal process,” she recalled. “I walked out of there bloodied and beaten. When I walked down that hallway, I was humbled. I was embarrassed. I said in my own heart, ‘I will be back and I will not be disappointing [the federal government].’ ”
Wildflower rallied, lined up camera and unmanned aircraft manufacturers, and created a battle-worthy aircraft that was demonstrated to government officials at White Sands Missile Range in mid-March. It performed flawlessly, she said.
“As I was driving home, the governor shut the state down for the pandemic,” she said.
A day or two later, and there may not have been a demonstration flight for the nearly billion-dollar contract. But in life, as in business, it's all about timing. Nobody knows that better than deCastro.