Elliott’s new completions site beefs up the company résumé

 - January 21, 2008, 5:52 AM

“This facility gives us the ability to triple our capacity here,” said Wynn Elliott, president of Elliott Aviation at Quad City Airport (MLI), Moline, Ill. The company dedicated the new completion center in February. “If you take our historic revenues and plug this new tool into that mix, we believe it will give us the tools we need to triple our revenues because we can handle larger jobs.”

Founded in 1936 by Elliott’s parents, Herb and Arlene, Elliott Aviation today employs approximately 400 people at its facilities in Moline; Des Moines, Iowa; Minneapolis; and Omaha, Neb. “We will be doing some facility upgrades at our other locations, but at this point we intend to refine and perfect what we have here and continue to expand our reach within our market niche–light to midsize jets and turboprops,” Elliott said. “We now offer a serious alternative to our competitors.” Previously, the FBO did interior and avionics work but had to send aircraft elsewhere for paint.

Elliott said management focused on fundamental areas in the development of the completion center. “Our craftsmen, our procedures and processes and our technology are what we paid attention to,” he said. “Our facility, no matter how well conceived and constructed, is just a structure containing specialized equipment. It is the people and the procedures and processes they are trained to follow that make the difference. The average experience of our specialists is 18 years for paint, 17 years for cabinetry, 14 years for cabinet finishing and 23 years for sewing. We have hands-on experience with Raytheon, Cessna and Bombardier products.”

According to marketing director Michael Turner, Elliott’s $6 million addition took 3.5 years of planning, including just short of one year to build. “This facility now allows us to very literally be a one-stop completion center, including paint, interiors, cabinetry, cabin amenities and avionics modifications. There’s no need to move the aircraft anywhere; everything is now done right here. In fact, once the aircraft is rolled into the facility, it never goes outdoors until it’s a completed project. We have an interior set of doors that allows the aircraft to go directly from the paint bay into the detail bay without going outside. This is a very well thought out, efficient facility.”

Clients who visit the 48,000-sq-ft completion center start in the conference room. There they discuss their needs and are given the opportunity to see how the finished project would look. A computerized visualization system allows the client to view how different fabrics, woodwork, carpeting and paint schemes would appear in a rendering of their own aircraft. First stop for the project is the 10,000-sq-ft sanding and preparation bay. From there, the aircraft moves into a 45-foot high, 8,500-sq-ft paint bay.

Elliott said the paint booth’s temperature and humidity control system is a downdraft design featuring dual-plenum, computer-controlled four-stage filtration. There is a touchscreen to control the fully computerized system, which includes off-site airflow monitoring and troubleshooting capabilities. “We have a dedicated dataline with the manufacturer so they can look at the pressures in the booth at any given moment,” Elliott said. “Computer-balanced airflow allows us to recirculate 60 percent of the air used in the booth, requiring only 40-percent makeup air. When you consider the energy consumption required to control the temperature, humidity and filter the air that’s in there, particularly at this latitude, it can be significant. The system not only provides better filtration than other facilities, but it results in lower energy consumption. A computer module tracks all utility consumption, including actual gas and electricity used for each paint cycle, allowing better energy management. There is also a dual dry mode for faster cure times and better gloss and paint adhesion.”

Process and Procedures
While having the proper facility is important, it is only one part of providing a high-quality product, according to Elliott. Another key element is the process. “We’ve become a very procedure and process oriented company,” he said. “A year ago we began writing a detailed and complete procedures and processes document in an ISO 9000 format. Then we digitized everything, including the maintenance manuals and work cards. There’s a personal computer at each workstation so the technician or mechanic can get whatever information is required without leaving the immediate work area.

“Depending on the size and complexity of a paint job, it takes generally 24 to 36 hours to complete,” Elliott explained. “We’ve created a highly efficient system that, in most cases, can complete the paint cycle in about 12 hours.”

Elliott Aviation has been a leader in avionics STC development for quite some time. In the past decade the company has garnered more than 50 STCs, including 35 for TAWS and TCAS installations alone. Currently, the company has 15 additional STCs and multiple avionics modification programs in the works. Elliott said the company is well positioned to expand as demand grows.

There is currently 15,000 sq ft of unused space on the facility’s second floor above the various shop areas, such as the wood veneer finishing booth. Additionally, there is sufficient land adjacent to the new facility for two more future hangars. According to Turner, the company is first looking at doing two completions a month, but it is hoping to ramp that up to six per month within the next two years. Toward that end, the company is now looking at marketing internationally.

“One benefit we have that will allow us to be cost competitive, despite building a new multimillion dollar facility, is that we did not take on any debt,” Elliott said. “We’ve been in business for 67 years and the retained earnings have been put back into the business. I don’t know that being a contrarian necessarily has its advantages, but for those who might question why, given the current market, we would do this, all I can say is it’s a good time to find and hire quality people. We’ve hired 20 more already and are looking to add about 30 more in the near term. Our goal of 100 new people will about double the existing employees at this location.

“You can have the best facilities and the best processes, but it always comes down to the people,” Elliott said. “We stress finding and keeping those who are the best at what we do. We have one employee who has been with us more than 30 years, and another with more than 25 years. I recently gave out three 20-year awards, more than half a dozen 15-year awards and about another half-dozen 10-year awards. What we’ve done here isn’t revolutionary, it’s evolutionary. We’ve been through an awful lot of ups and downs in this industry over the last half century or so. In the end, it gets down to having the right people and doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons. That’s training, hiring, the company culture, the employees’ value system and our procedures, processes and accountability. Those things have all taken shape and come together now.”

But there is still more to the formula–vision. “We could have made the paint bay bigger in case we wanted to paint a couple of GIVs. Think of the flexibility that would give us. Well, that’s not our market. If I had actually increased the cubic footage by 50 percent, what have I really gained other than making the utility company that much happier? Instead, we sized the facility to ideally fit our market niche,” he explained.

“Will we one day build a 120- by 120-foot paint booth on the available space we have here? Perhaps, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a measure of success as far as I’m concerned. I want to perfect what we’ve got here first. I want Elliott Aviation to be a recognized 24/7, one-stop completion center. A place where the customer expects and gets a 100-percent perfect job because long after it rolls out the door, the customer has to live with it every day. So whatever volume we can handle and still produce the desired result is what we’re looking for. Hopefully, profit and quality will intersect at a level that will have made this all worthwhile.”

Full-service Center
With the addition of the new completion center, Elliott Aviation really does become a single source for a full range of corporate aircraft services, from traditional FBO services to one of the largest charter operators in the Midwest. The company is a Beechcraft dealer and a marketing partner with Raytheon for its factory-direct product line. It is also active in the pre-owned aircraft sales market.

“I think the reason we’ve not just survived over the years but have been successful is because we’ve built a business around some simple principles,” Elliott said. “We’ve been self-focused. The Beech product line has been important to us, not only on the sales side but on the service side as well. I think we’ve avoided trying to be too many things to too many people. Interestingly, new aircraft sales originally were one of the single biggest pieces of our business. We started out as a new aircraft sales operation. In 1993, when Raytheon took away the upper end of the product line from the independent Beech dealers and went factory direct, there were those who thought it was the end of the world. Frankly, that allowed us to do some things that we had elected not to do before because we had a lot of money tied up in new airplane inventory.”

Elliott said that when Raytheon went factory direct, Elliott Aviation had a new aircraft inventory that included a few Beechjets, a King Air 350, 200 and C90, a Baron and several Bonanzas. “We’d had most of those airplanes in excess of 12 months,” he said. “Now do the math on that and you can see why getting out of the top end was hardly a problem. So in one sense it was a huge shift for us but on the other hand it freed us, from a capital perspective, to do some other things. We approached it as an opportunity.

“When we developed our proprietary electronic noise-canceling system for cockpits and cabins, it became standard equipment on new King Air 350s. Every new 350 came here and most owners wanted some modifications done to the aircraft. That business far exceeded what we made selling the upper-end Raytheon products. Now we ship our systems directly to Raytheon for installation on the assembly line.”