The Iconoclast Celeste Ford/Stellar Solutions
By Julie Sloane

(FORTUNE Small Business) – You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be a great boss, but for Celeste Volz Ford, it helps. An aerospace engineer by training, Ford spent 17 years calculating orbits and managing satellite launches for Comsat and other large aerospace companies before launching something of her own. She'd tired of big company bureaucracies and their inflexible benefits, such as "use it or lose it" vacations. So in 1995, at age 39 and with three young children, Ford founded Stellar Solutions, an aerospace engineering services firm that does contract work for government agencies like NASA and the Defense Department and for commercial businesses such as those delivering TV and radio by satellite.

CEO-hood posed new challenges for Ford, but having been a problem solver in her engineering life, she applied the same discipline to develop her ideal working environment. Studying what had and hadn't worked over her career, she selected an array of employee perks and programs designed to balance the long hours and deadline pressures endemic to her business.

The key to Ford's program is to help each of her 55 full-time employees and 20 part-timers pursue his "dream job," something that's discussed at the firm's annual meeting as workers plan corporate and individual goals. Kris Henley, 56, a retired Air Force colonel, took a job at Stellar as director of national intelligence programs because it offered him hands-on defense work, not just administrative duties. "When you put people in jobs they want to be doing, they do them extremely well, and the customer notices," he says. That approach has helped the private Stellar Solutions grow an average of 15% annually for the past five years and reach $10 million in revenue, according to Ford. The firm has earned citations for superior work from Lockheed Martin and the CIA.

Because the staff is spread out in California, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., and most employees work on-site with clients, Ford makes extraordinary efforts to foster camaraderie. On someone's first day of work, Ford sends a cookie bouquet and arranges for all area employees to take the new person to lunch. On birthdays and work anniversaries, she sends cards. Says Ford: "These little things remind them that they're part of Stellar and that they're valued."

That message is reinforced by the benefits package. In addition to medical, disability, and life insurance, maternity and paternity leave, tuition reimbursement, and generous retirement contributions, Ford donates $1,000 a year to each employee's charity of choice. Every worker also receives an individual benefit account, which Ford invented. A lump sum equal to 25% of each salary goes into a modified flexible spending account that can be drawn on for extra medical expenses, child care, counseling--even vacation (in accordance with IRS regulations). Rather than being assigned days off for holidays or allotted a certain number of sick days and personal days, employees get six weeks of vacation to take as they please. One worked around the clock for months and then took six weeks off to go to Africa. Ford also encourages workers to spend another week on training or conferences--in fact, they won't receive their full bonus if they don't.

Even with this litany of benefits, Ford faced a crisis at the peak of the high-tech bubble a few years ago as her employees were being lured by the prospect of startup riches elsewhere. She responded by giving workers a stake in Stellar Ventures, a capital fund she created to invest in startups and spinoffs. QuakeFinder became Stellar's first spinoff in 2001, and it launched a satellite this past June in the hope of predicting earthquakes from space. Says Ford: "It's motivating for our employees," who stand to share in the profits.

Ford sums up her vision in a sentence: "We satisfy our customers' critical needs while realizing our dream jobs." The proof that her formula can work? Her first two bosses now work for her. --JULIE SLOANE