J.A. Air Center, on Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove, Ill., opened its doors in 1965. The company was originally based on Joliet Municipal Airport and was known as Joliet Aviation Electronics.“Shortly after start-up the name was changed to Joliet Avionics to reflect the newly emerging avionics industry,” Brad Zeman, the company’s president, told AIN. The company relocated from Joliet to DuPage County Airport (DPA) in 1975 and added engine and airframe maintenance to its growing avionics business. “Back then, and for about 20 years, Joliet Avionics was the number-one King Radio dealer in the world,” he said.
“I joined the company in 1986 as an avionics salesman about the time the company changed its name to J.A. Air Center to reflect its expansion into the FBO business. It quickly became a favorite for corporate fliers traveling to the Chicago area,” he said. “In 1990 I was promoted to vice president of sales and that same year the company sold the FBO fueling rights to the DuPage Airport Authority. At that point J.A. got out of the FBO business and concentrated on a continuously growing maintenance and avionics business,” Zeman said.
In 2006 Zeman was promoted to president and over the next two years the business grew to the point where it needed more space. For the third time the company pulled up stakes, and it moved to Aurora Municipal Airport (KARR).
“Scott Fank, our vice president, and I did all the planning for the move from our 40,000-square-foot facility at DPA to a 150,000-square-foot facility at KARR. Together we planned the entire facility from the ground up. One of the biggest challenges was dealing with lease and government issues,” Zeman said.
“We had informed DPA we would be moving, then, when the Democrats took over Congress in 2007, we lost the earmarked congressional funds for the ramp. The problem was we were committed to the move. Fortunately, our builder, the airport manager and the city of Aurora met with us to come up with an alternative plan to develop a workable solution. That solution turned out to be purchasing and renovating an existing campus of four buildings. We had already obtained approval for a $9 million loan for the new facility, and when we studied the situation, it turned out that for about 10 percent more we could renovate the entire existing complex. In the end I think we ended up with a better campus,” Zeman said.
Part of the solution included purchasing a facility that had once belonged to BP. Zeman noted that the city of Aurora arranged for tax-free facility bonds for the entire $10 million, which the bank purchased and mortgaged back to J.A. “The advantage to that over getting a straight bank loan was it gave us a lower cost basis,” he explained.
In 2007 the company added an aircraft-detailing department. “We sent a crew to a school in Texas to be trained to do detailing the right way and then started offering it for small aircraft. Today, detailing has become a significant department, with more than 20 aircraft detailers on staff. It has become a very high-demand option and we regularly work on aircraft ranging from a Cessna 172 up to a Boeing 767. We do everything from a quick trip wipedown to a full detailing, including bright work. We’ve developed our expertise to the point where we now operate our own training program and we have trained technicians from all over the world,” Zeman said.
Today, the company has 11 acres of ramp space, a distinctive arrival/departure canopy large enough to accommodate a Global Express or G650, and a total of four buildings accounting for more than 150,000 sq ft under roof.
J.A. now offers full FBO services, including piston and turbine aircraft maintenance, and avionics sales and service, operating out of a dedicated 55,000-sq-ft facility with 28-foot doors. The FAA/EASA Part 145 MRO works on the Cessna Caravan and Citation, Beechcraft King Air, Learjet 45 and Falcon 50. The company also offers parts sales, aircraft sales, aircraft detailing, flight training and aircraft charter and management. It currently employs 85 full- and part-time employees, including more than 30 full-time avionics and maintenance technicians. “We were voted number one in the Americas in the 2010 AIN survey; not bad for being here for only two years,” Zeman noted.
While J.A. offers a full menu of FBO services, it continues to be best known for its avionics work. “We’re well known for our work on the King Air line. Customers bring us their C90, 200, 300 and soon to be 350, and we replace all existing avionics and flight controls with the Garmin G1000 flight deck system. It takes three to four weeks and a little over 1,000 man-hours. Depending on the options chosen by the customer, it’s going to cost about $300,000. We also encourage operators to do simultaneous maintenance, such as a phase inspection, so they kill two birds at a time,” Zeman said.
“When we look toward the future we feel we’re in a comfortable position. We have all the necessary departments and the skilled labor pool to meet the demand and continue to expand the business. It appears 2012 is going be a better year than the past several and we feel we’re in a position to capitalize on the growth potential.”