Duncan Aviation celebrates 50 years of family-run operation

 - January 31, 2007, 9:04 AM

The old saw “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” could conceivably have been first uttered by a Duncan Aviation employee. “Vast capacity” would be a fair assessment of what this giant in the MRO industry offers.

Duncan Aviation’s list of capabilities includes airframe and engine maintenance; interior and paint completions; avionics systems installation, modification, repair and overhaul; accessory and propeller repair and overhaul; parts and components; aircraft acquisition and consignment; fuel and pilot services; and government programs and support services.

Established in 1956 by Donald Duncan, the company is based in Lincoln, Neb. with 20 satellite avionics shops across the U.S. and 1,750 employees, making it the largest family-owned aircraft support facility in North America.

The Lincoln Municipal Airport facility covers a total of 430,000 sq ft, with almost seven acres under roof, and the company’s Battle Creek, Mich. facility adds another 200,000 sq ft on W.K. Kellogg Airport. In all, Duncan Aviation has more than 18,000 active accounts. Most amazing is that in the past 12 months the company has opened 1,114 new accounts, an average of 93 a month.

Duncan Aviation-Battle Creek was Kal-Aero until Duncan purchased the facility in 1967. Duncan acquired Kal-Aero’s second facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1998. The MRO’s services are so expansive it’s difficult to get a good feel for just how large an operation it really is. To provide some perspective, consider that more than 175 bench technicians maintain a 24-hour work schedule supporting sales, service and warranty work for more than 50 major avionics, instruments and accessories manufacturers. The company maintains a $7.5 million inventory of free loaners for avionics and instruments.

While many MROs consider parts inventory a necessary evil, Duncan has raised the bar significantly. The company’s Parts Support Services, formerly known as AvPac, maintains an inventory of more than 370,000 line items worth nearly $100 million. It includes avionics, airframe, engine, rotables, propellers and miscellaneous parts housed in a 47,000-sq-ft complex. During an average month the company will receive more than 10,000 parts inquiries.

Family Business
But a list of the extensive ratings, certifications and approvals, infrastructure and the legion of employees does not do the company justice. More important is that Duncan Aviation is a family business with strong, Midwest family values it extends to both customers and employees.

Robert Duncan, Duncan Aviation’s chairman, grew up on a typical Iowa farm where his father, Donald Duncan, always had an airplane. The younger Duncan grew up around airplanes and when his father bought the Beechcraft distributorship in Omaha, Neb., in 1956, Robert began learning about business aviation.

In 1958, 16-year-old Robert was taking flying lessons and by the time he had his commercial pilot’s certificate Duncan Aviation had a charter department, so Robert started flying for his father. While still in high school, he sold his first aircraft for the company.

Within a year of graduating from Northwestern University, Robert was married and general manager of Duncan Aviation’s second facility, this one at Lincoln. As the only charter pilot, he still managed to find time to supervise its 15 employees, pump gas and even sweep up when necessary.

Next year Duncan Aviation will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and under the guidance of Robert Duncan it remains a family-owned and -operated business. “It gives me a great sense of accomplishment and gratitude when I meet second-generation team members and second-generation customers,” Duncan told AIN.

“It stands as great testimony to our values and the quality of our services when parents recommend Duncan Aviation to their offspring for employment and a customer recommends us to the next generation for service. I expect this tradition to continue and believe there will be a day when my son Todd, who today is active in the business, will meet and work with third-generation team members and customers.”

Leadership Changes
So it was not without some trepidation that employees greeted the arrival of Aaron Hilkemann some years back. Hilkemann had been chosen to take the reigns as Duncan’s president, but he was an outsider on two counts: he was from outside the family and, worse, he was from outside the industry.

But Hilkemann turned out to be a perfect fit. Soft-spoken and affable, he keeps one eye on the bottom line, but he’s a people person and delights in interacting with customers and employees alike.

Hilkemann shares the Duncan family vision. “Despite the recession, we kept our workforce intact,” he said. “We’ve never laid anyone off in our almost 50 years. We’re dedicated to our employees,” he said enthusiastically. “We’ve come out of the downturn and have continued to gain momentum for the past 18 months.

“The first quarter of this year appears to be starting out much stronger than the first quarter of last year. We are optimistic that our business volumes will continue to grow this year and we continue to evaluate facility expansion and acquisitions,” Hilkemann continued.

“We sense the momentum building in our avionics installation and our refurbishment businesses as new technology continues to arrive in the marketplace. Our maintenance and repair businesses are strong due to the continued increase in flying hours. We have tremendously gifted employees who enthusiastically serve our customers with confidence and a great work ethic.”

Clearly the family ethic starts at the top, and Robert Duncan continues to be a primary force in customer relations, with a customer advisory board and his chairman’s dinner once or twice a year with key customers to get their feedback. But the ethic is now an entrenched part of the Duncan Aviation culture.

When you walk around the facility, two things stand out. Most of the offices and cubicles have models of airplanes and aviation memorabilia. The people
at Duncan Aviation love aviation. The second thing you notice is that everyone appears to be friends, an unusual circumstance for such a huge operation.
Employees like one another, their customers and management.

For its part, the company provides employee benefits that include many company-sponsored family-oriented activities, scholarship programs for employee children, profit-sharing bonuses, wellness programs and activities, and recognition for outstanding work and service milestones. As a result, Duncan Aviation has appeared in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies To Work For” since 2001; its lowest rank was 77 and its highest was 25 in 2003. If you ask Robert Duncan, he’ll tell you happy employees make happy customers.

Customer Service
At Duncan, every aircraft is assigned a project manager who oversees a given aircraft’s journey through perhaps numerous services and shops. The project manager, who communicates with the customer, reviews project invoices and provides follow-up support, is available via radio, pager and cellphone 24 hours a day to answer questions for as long as the aircraft remains at Duncan. It’s that relationship that makes customers feel more like part of the family than customers, and Steve Gade, vice president of sales and marketing, has figured out how to make it even better.

Gade doesn’t rely on just buying ad space to attract customers. He is proactive about customer relations. He publishes Duncan Intelligence, a quarterly publication for each of 10 different core engine and airframes, a total of 40 newsletters a year. He also publishes two Duncan Debrief magazines a year and shepherds numerous customer appreciation events such as Nascar and air race outings and outdoor trips for wilderness fishing and mountain hiking.

Duncan Aviation Core Values

Several years ago, employees at Duncan Aviation were asked to write value statements that reflected the foundation on which the company was built. The company identified the following “core values” as most important to its heritage, growth and future success.
• deliver high-quality products and services
• charge fair prices and provide efficient turn times
• lead through action and innovation
• focus on solutions rather than problems
• respect others and be accountable for our actions
• maintain a team approach and offer positive suggestions
• value honesty, integrity, loyalty and trust
• support our communities and encourage volunteerism