When then 23-year-old Armando Leighton, Jr. launched CRS Jet Spares in 1982, Ronald Reagan was president, the Falklands War was raging and the compact disc was new. Today the Falklands conflict is history, Reagan has passed on and the CD is dying, but CRS Jet Spares is going strong. One of the world’s largest aftermarket aircraft parts suppliers, the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary here at the show, where it is giving away a Harley Davidson motorcycle at its booth (No. 3916), just as it does every year at the NBAA convention.
The success of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based CRS probably hasn’t surprised anyone who knew Leighton during his childhood. Though he intended early on to become a veterinarian, he was only 13 when his entrepreneurial bent and interest in airplanes led him to accept an after-school job in the shipping and receiving department of a neighbor’s aviation company. He continued to work for the firm–which specialized in government contracts for Lockheed C130 parts–through high school and into his college years.
Leighton was 19 when he abandoned the idea of a veterinary career and began to focus fully on aviation. He took a job as purchasing manager for an FAA-certified repair station in Fort Lauderdale. Two years later, he accepted a position with an FBO, where he was responsible for buying parts for Sabreliner and Learjet charter jets. After only three months, however, the company shut down. Noting that few businesses were offering discounted aircraft parts 24 hours a day and that only owners of large fleets received those discounts, Leighton decided to use $2,000 of his own money to launch Corporate Rotable & Supply (CRS). His base of operations was his mother’s Hialeah, Fla. garage, and she signed on as his only employee. Working part-time, she answered the phone and handled clerical tasks while her son drummed up business.
“I was able to purchase a small Sabreliner inventory,” Leighton recalled recently, adding, “What really got me on the map was the FAA. The FAA was flying [about] 20 of the Sabre 60s and [the parts business] was all on a bid system, so I was able to obtain a lot of the contracts and not only service and grow the company but grow the inventory. It all evolved out of common sense. I had no real expertise at the time.”
Leighton worked “so many hours he’d often fall asleep at his desk,” according to a 2009 profile in South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel. “He drove during the day to find, buy and deliver parts, and he spent evenings logging costs, prices and availability to be ready to fill orders fast, despite a small budget for inventory.”
The hard work paid off and within three years sales exceeded $1 million. Customers, who received parts via overnight mail, undoubtedly would have been surprised to learn that they were being dispatched from a family garage.
By 1985, however, Leighton was expanding into new product lines and it became clear that the garage would no longer suffice. He bought a 3,300-sq-ft warehouse to store the engines and other parts removed from a purchased Lockheed JetStar. Then, in 1987, with sales topping $3 million, the company acquired a Cessna Citation 500 for disassembly and enlarged its staff to include a sales representative and Leighton’s two sisters. In the years since then, CRS has purchased and disassembled about a dozen additional aircraft to establish more product lines and supplement existing ones.
Leighton formed Thrust-Tech Aviation (TTA) in 1987 to service starter generators, stabilizer actuators and ignition exciters for corporate jets. To compete with other repair stations, TTA offered operators the option of exchange or repair of their rotable spares.
In 1991, CRS outgrew its warehouse and relocated to one that was more than 10 times bigger–a 43,000-square-foot facility in Fort Lauderdale. Then, about 10 years ago, the company formed a parts-engineering division, Jet-Tech Engineering, to handle the approval and certification process for aircraft parts.
Today, CRS manufactures some of its own spare parts and serves customers in North and South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The company, whose annual revenues now exceed $25 million, employs more than 60 people at offices in Texas, California, New York, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, England and Brazil. (A Singapore office will open soon.) Clearly, Leighton and CRS have come a long way from his mother’s garage.