On October 15, Hillsboro Aviation welcomed customers and neighbors to the grand opening of its elegant new FBO at Oregon’s Portland-Hillsboro Airport. The event also mounted a gathering of vintage aviation and transportation technology, from aircraft to cars and motorcycles.
The new FBO facility was completed earlier this year and in May began serving customers, not just FBO patrons but also those who use the company’s aircraft sales, charter, management, avionics and maintenance services and firefighting and search-and-rescue helicopters. Hillsboro Aviation is also the exclusive commercial aircraft sales agent for Airbus Helicopters in the U.S. as well as an authorized service center for Bell light and medium and Robinson helicopters and Cessna piston singles and turboprop Caravans. The company’s charter fleet consists of two King Airs and 13 helicopters. Nearly 90 people work at Hillsboro Aviation, 25 of them maintenance technicians.
“Our goal is to create an extraordinary experience for customers,” said Max Lyons, president and CEO of Hillsboro Aviation, and this is reflected in the FBO’s warm, inviting Northwest outdoors theme: the passenger lounge has Douglas fir accents, sleek polished concrete floors, a large rough-hewn fireplace and local artwork.
Hillsboro Aviation used to be located on the south side of the airport in older facilities, but in November 2014 it sold the flight school to a group of investors, and that business now operates as the Hillsboro Aero Academy. In the middle of last year, ground was broken on the new 51,000-sq-ft FBO and hangar, and less than a year later its doors opened for business on a five-acre plot on the less developed north side of the airport. The ramp covers four of those acres, and across the street from the FBO is another 4.6 acres outside the airport housing Hillsboro’s parts warehouse and 12 offices for customers.
Before designing the new FBO, Lyons and his team spent years gathering information about what kind of FBO they wanted to build, with the goal of a facility that would remain fresh and viable for the next 30 to 40 years. The spacious lobby and passenger lounge that welcomes visitors is topped by FBO and customer offices, including two large conference rooms, one of which connects to an outdoor patio facing the ramp. The FBO offers sleep rooms, a flight-planning area, full kitchen and workout room.
The company started in 1980 as Hillsboro Helicopters, serving what was then a largely agricultural community. As high-tech industry moved into the Portland suburb, Hillsboro Helicopters expanded its services, and in 1992 the company was purchased by Ed Cooley, former chairman and CEO of Precision Castparts, a turbine engine component manufacturer. Cooley hired Lyons as general manager; Lyons had grown up in a logging family and worked as a ground-crew member (a “choker” and “setter”) on a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane before learning to fly and becoming an instructor at Hillsboro Helicopters. Lyons ran the school’s foreign student program and flew as a helicopter charter pilot before taking over as general manager of the operation.
Cooley and Lyons applied modern management techniques to the business, Lyons explained, “based on Ed’s more sophisticated business knowledge.” The pair conducted market surveys and crafted a business plan that split the company into three core businesses—flight training, charter and sales and service—that would be able to adapt to the up-and-down cycles typical in aviation. “We were profitable every year through 2012,” Lyons said. “It wasn’t just segment diversity, but geographical.” He attributes the company’s success to the culture that he and Cooley built, especially treating employees and customers properly and managing the company’s accounts rigorously.
In 1996, Hillsboro Helicopters became Hillsboro Aviation, and in 1999 Lyons purchased the company from Cooley, who passed away in 2000. With the flight training academy training thousands of pilots over the years, that part of the business eventually could stand on its own, and it was sold in 2014. “It was a challenge to manage,” said Lyons.
“We’re seeing more new customers since the opening in May,” he said, although Hillsboro Aviation still relies on all of its current eight revenue centers to remain healthy. “We couldn’t have built this on the FBO alone,” he added. “All the [other] stuff we do is what makes this work.”
Lyons attributes his company’s success to the culture that he and Cooley built: “sound business practices, know your numbers, be focused on the customer and hire quality people. What we created, the systems we set up, the culture, it worked.”