Secrets of Gulfstream’s success in support arena

 - September 21, 2006, 10:56 AM

AIN’s annual product support report (scheduled this year for the August issue) can usually be counted on to generate an article or two downstream about how the low-ranking players say they are going about improving the way they take care of their customers after the sale.

The article here, however, takes a different tack in that it examines how the highest-ranking OEM got to the top of the list and how it intends to stay there. For the third consecutive year, in last year’s survey Gulfstream Aerospace ranked number one in both age categories (airplanes less than and more than 10 years old) for how it supports operators of its large-cabin business jets and the types it acquired from Galaxy in 2001 (but not including the Westwind fleet).

The story of how the Savannah, Ga.-based airplane builder got to the pinnacle of product support has to begin with the fact that it alone among its peers has someone designated as president of product support. That man is Larry Flynn, who sums up the mission thus: “What better way to sell new airplanes than to have great product support?” Gulfstream currently has 7,800 employees, and 2,500 of them are in Flynn’s organization. In other words, almost one-third of the company’s resources are devoted to product support.

Apart from the fact that a reputation for top-notch service can clinch the sale of a new airplane, Gulfstream through its General Dynamics Aviation Services (GDAS) arm is also in a position to get early word on an operator’s possibly selling its airplane, since GDAS maintains not only Gulfstreams but also competitors’ airplanes.
“Service work,” notes Flynn, “can give early word that an owner is looking to change aircraft.” This is of course no secret in any manufacturing business (the local Chevy dealer near AIN’s editorial offices seems to be moving plenty of vehicles with its slogan, “service builds sales”), but not all OEMs see the light quite so clearly.

Gulfstream Aerospace and GDAS, together forming General Dynamics Aerospace, account for some $3 billion a year in revenue. Whereas Gulfstream’s product line in 2000 consisted of just two aircraft (the GIV-SP and GV), today the company has seven production aircraft on offer, following acquisition of the Galaxy line in 2001 and introduction of the G series of large-cabin derivatives the following year. Of his boss at GD, chairman and CEO Nicholas Chabraja, Flynn says, “He is extremely interested in my end of the business, and I have been given everything I asked for.”

There is also continuity in the senior management of Gulfstream itself, with Flynn being one of eight people on president Bryan Moss’s leadership team who have worked together for the past eight years.

Through its customer advisory board, Gulfstream management and senior leadership from its vendors (such as Honeywell and Rolls-Royce) gather for two days twice a year to meet with operators and hear their needs, their gripes and their successes with current products and their wants in future products. In assembling the customer advisory teams, Gulfstream looks for diversity (geographic location, pilot role, maintenance role, type of airplane operated and so on). Moss presents an overview of product support, and Pres Henne (senior v-p of programs, engineering and test) gives a product overview.

The object is to show customers that Gulfstream “is committed to taking actions and closing issues,” said Flynn. Not surprisingly, NetJets is one of the driving forces shaping Gulfstream product support (the fractional pioneer replaced the Department of Defense as Gulfstream’s biggest single customer a little over a year ago) because of its high utilization and “baseless” ops.

Gulfstream maintains a worldwide parts inventory worth about $275 million. “With older aircraft, ‘look back’ drives the composition of the inventory,” notes Flynn. “With a new model, you have to project parts inventory needs. Look back and you’re too late.”

Beyond the Big Picture
Despite all the brains at work on the drivetrain of Gulfstream’s customer-satisfaction juggernaut, it’s at the FSR (field service reps, 38 of them) and shop level that the rubber meets the road and the customer gets to experience the success or failure of management’s grand design. Service teams working on the large-cabin Gulfstreams can earn trophies for their performance.

The big prize is the “how-to” template that the winner is invited to pass companywide, the victorious team thereby being recognized for its improvements to the template before passing it on for adoption by all. This motivates improvements and the whole company benefits from local advances. Gulfstream has been driving self-improvement in this fashion for about eight years, and word on the street, according to Flynn, is that other business aircraft OEMs are adopting a similar strategy.

Those eight senior executives on the leadership team keep their fingers on the pulse of the machinery they sell. “One of us knows within an hour if a trip is canceled by a mechanical problem,” says Flynn, “and phones to apologize and discuss a fix.”

In Flynn’s book, communication is essential (“You must have full disclosure in this business”) and Gulfstream rates itself ahead of the pack on this score. In addition to the myGulf Web site, customer pilots and maintenance technicians stay abreast of technical and company issues by receiving weekly minutes from the “breakfast meetings” of senior Gulfstream support people; receiving maintenance operations letters, which promulgate information more pressing than the breakfast fodder and are signed by v-p of customer support Mark Burns; attending worldwide area meetings (10 of them a year) hosted by Flynn and Burns; attending the operators’ conference held every two years in Savannah; and participating in the customer advisory board.

Some 98 percent of all Gulfstreams flying are enrolled in the manufacturer’s computerized maintenance plan (CMP), and monitoring CMP events lets the company get the jump on failure trends. “We didn’t sub it out the way [another brand] did. A thousand people in Gulfstream look at the CMP data to see what’s happening with the airplanes,” Flynn notes with pride.

 Gulfstream and FlightSafety International co-developed and jointly teach technical training that all Flynn’s employees attend. Since 1997 about 6,200 students have attended more than 1,250 classes conducted at Gulfstream and GDAS locations. The company’s permanent training center is located in Savannah, but a road show spreads the gospel too.

The G100 dedicated to airborne product support has flown more than 700 missions in the three years it has been on call as the fastest way to speed parts and technicians to aircraft with tech problems in the U.S., and the OEM does not rule out introducing a similar airplane in the future for helping operators in Europe. Four crews (eight pilots) are on the payroll to fly the airborne-support G100 anywhere in the U.S. (where 80 percent of Gulfstream jets are based) at short notice 24/7/365 and at no cost to the customer.

Gulfstream depends heavily on receiving feedback from customers who use the company’s service facilities. They are encouraged to spend the couple of minutes it takes to complete and return (directly to Flynn) a questionnaire, and the return rate is now pushing 80 percent, a vast improvement on the 15-percent return rate that was considered acceptable when the survey was first instituted 10 years ago. Managers earn a bonus when the questionnaire return rate from customers of their facility reaches 94 percent (4.7 out of five).

Service bulletins originate in the “RQAAT process,” standing for reliability, quality, availability action team, a 20-strong group that meets Monday through Friday and, chaired by v-p of engineering Dick Johnson, works at improving the reliability and availability of Gulfstreams. The same process has been implemented to “significantly improve” the G200 fleet’s performance on those scores.

Effective this past January 1, GDAS (already responsible for supporting the Westwind fleet that came with the 2001 Galaxy acquisition) assumed responsibility for factory product support of the GII and GIII fleets. The change addresses operators’ perception that their GIIs and GIIIs sometimes take a backseat when competing with newer models for maintenance attention at Gulfstream’s factory-owned service facilities. Operators can continue to take their aircraft to Pentastar Aviation in Waterford, Mich.–the only independent Gulfstream factory-authorized service center in North America–or to other facilities not affiliated with the OEM.