When Donald Duncan founded Duncan Aviation in 1956, the business was a sales-driven one, with all other activities advancing the goal of selling airplanes. As the business expanded to include more members of Duncan’s family, the emphasis shifted. What did not change as the business expanded, however, was the company’s emphasis on service and a desire to foster a family atmosphere–all of which landed Duncan Aviation on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list from 2001 through 2004.
The family nature of the business is evident today. Robert Duncan is the company’s chairman, and his son, Todd, is vice chairman, as well as president of Duncan’s Component Sales and Service Center. The family connection doesn’t end there. “We used to have a rule against family members working for the company,” Robert Duncan said. “It was absolutely the silliest thing in the world. I suppose way back at the beginning they were worried about paternalism issues, but it just wasn’t appropriate for our corporate culture and today there’s easily 100 or more employees with relatives here.
“We are like a family. But that’s not simply because so many people have relatives here. It’s because there is mutual respect and trust up and down the company,” he said. “That’s why Aaron [Hickman, company president] fits in so well.”
Robert Duncan said even before 9/11 the economy had begun to go soft. “We developed a three-step plan about how we’d deal with a slowdown in business and none of the steps included a layoff,” he said. “The first step was a wage freeze, the second a reduction in hours and the third was salary reductions for everyone. Aaron kept everyone involved in the planning; they all knew what was happening. Then, when we did have to implement a wage freeze, there wasn’t a single complaint. Fortunately, that was sufficient to get us through the bad times.
“The point is, our employees know we’re going to take care of each other because we’ve done it hundreds of thousands of times over the years in many different ways. We have had a lot of instances where one employee will have a family or medical problem and other employees will donate vacation time so they will have more time to do what they need to do,” Robert explained.
The unexpected loss of 58-year-old Donald Duncan in 1981 was “difficult, not only personally but professionally,” Robert said. “When my dad passed away, the company lost its driving force and it happened at the worst possible time economically. Interest rates were at 20 percent, we’d bought a bunch of new aircraft on speculation and the investment tax credit was repealed right about then. Fortunately, I’ve always been very fiscally conservative so I’d built up quite a cash reserve, which got us through, but it was close.”
Talking about his son Todd, Robert reflected, “He’s been in this business all his life and I’m sure it’s been tough for him. He now actually owns more of the business than I do, but long-time employees and customers continue to look to me for decisions. “I’ve been easing myself out of the loop since Todd became vice chairman a couple of years ago. I’ll be 64 this fall and I intend to retire as chairman in a year or two. I really love being involved here and I’ll surely miss it, but if I don’t bow out soon how is he ever going to be able to take charge? It’s a new day and Todd is the new man.”
It seems every employee has a story to tell about how well the company has treated him or her.
Lee Bowes, who works in the parts/components department, said one of the reasons he likes working at Duncan is the company’s flexibility. “They give me the freedom to play in a band. I’m a guitar player and if I want to get out a little early on a Friday to make a band job they work it out for me. They even let me take off one summer a couple of years ago to tour with a band. How many companies would do that?”
Jamie Svoboda Dallegge, an avionics parts sales rep, said her dad had worked for the company for 22 years as paint shop manager. “He was responsible for getting me hired in shipping and receiving ten years ago,” she said.
Mike Mertens, chief inspector/DAR, has had offers from other companies over the years but says nothing compares to the camaraderie he has at Duncan. “I started 29 years ago, and early in my career here I asked if I could have a six-month leave of absence to fly with AirServe International in Mozambique. When it turned into a year, they still agreed.”
Mertens returned, eventually got married and later he and his wife decided they wanted to work for AirServe for the rest of their lives. “When I left Duncan I was told if I changed my mind and decided to return to the U.S. I should call Duncan before making a decision to go elsewhere because the company had been grooming me for the chief inspector position and the current inspector was planning to retire in two years,” he said.
Lori Johnson, Duncan’s marketing communications manager, said, “You hear all the stories about everything the company has done for the employees but you have to understand that our employees are enormously productive. We accomplish a tremendous amount of work here and they are all looking out for the best interests of our customers as well as the company. It is precisely because we have such a good group of employees that the company is able to treat them so well. I don’t know which comes first but I don’t think one could exist without the other.”
But many employees are quick to say that the company culture is the reason. It emphasizes that if you take care of the customer first, everything else falls into place. Today, Duncan Aviation has more than 18,000 active accounts and employs more than 1,700 people. The Lincoln facility tops 430,000 sq ft and Battle Creek has 200,000 sq ft with another 125,000 sq ft of space under construction.
Don Fiedler, manager for new business development, agrees that putting the customer first is the key. He’s been with the company 40 years. “I began as an avionics technician installer in 1966. We had 17 employees at the time,” he said. “In the mid-70s we were selling a lot of Learjets and I was managing the avionics shop. One day Robert Duncan and I went to lunch and he told me he wasn’t worried about making money with the avionics shop. ‘Making a profit may not be an easy thing to do,’ he said. ‘So you just concentrate on supporting and taking care of our customers, especially the ones who buy airplanes from us.’”
Any look at corporate culture certainly has to focus on the company’s president–in this case, Aaron Hilkemann. “In new employee orientation I always stress that every position is important,” Hilkemann said. “Nobody brings an airplane to Duncan Aviation because I’m here. In most cases they come because they’ve built a relationship with our employees. We really stress that every position affects the perception of that customer in one way or another.”
Hilkemann urges managers to spend time in the hangar and shops with the employees, talking to them and learning what’s going on. “If you have a relationship with your employees, information is constantly coming in,” he said. “When I look back at the ten years I’ve been with the company, the best ideas, the things we’ve done that have made the most sense, have come not from managers or senior managers, they’ve come from the employees doing the job.”