AURORA, IL — Once known as Joliet Avionics, 44-year old J.A. Air Center is redefining itself again, this time as a first-class, full-service business aviation service center. At its new facilities in Aurora, the fixed base operation is positioned to seize market share by offering an alternative for the region’s growing corporate presence. A completely renovated 150,000-square foot facility and direct tollway access to the Chicago Loop is just what J.A. needs, as owner Bernie Klotz asserts, “to take the company to the next level.”
A lease situation at the FBO’s former location, DuPage Airport, along with facilities which the company has outgrown, began signifying major change for J.A. more than three years ago. President Brad Zeman relates, “There were certain things that we wanted the company to be doing, and it wasn’t doing them at DuPage.
“We wanted to get back into the FBO business; we wanted to sell fuel again,” says Zeman.
A 38-year general aviation industry veteran, owner Klotz says fuel was a factor, but not the most critical. Lease term length and needed expansion were the major considerations for leaving, says Koltz. “There was no capability for us to grow at DuPage and the industry demanded expansion; we tried to open up communications with the airport authority, but we could not put a favorable program together.”
When J.A. sold its buildings back to the airport ten years ago, the company tried to negotiate a long-term lease. DuPage would offer only five-year lease periods, which limits any long-term planning, says Klotz. Furthermore, J.A. was constricted by its facilities, particularly the height of its hangar doors. It was recognized that larger facilities were required in order to service the next level of aircraft.
“Not to diminish DuPage,” says Klotz, “our partnership was continually weakening instead of strengthening. We saw the opportunity to partner with Aurora, and the rest is history.”
Finding a home
J.A. had, over the years, built a relationship with Aurora’s director Bob Rieser, and discussions about a possible move had taken place in the past. Klotz relates that Rieser was eager to help put something together. J.A. and Rieser came to an agreement which includes a 30-year lease with a 10-year option, and 1.5 percent of J.A.’s gross income.
“As long as we can maintain a positive relationship with the airport, and grow a little here and there, we are looking at staying here for at least 40 years before any further major negotiations,” says Klotz.
J.A. also had to meet Rieser’s strict minimum standards for a full FBO lease. These standards include minimum hangar and public lounge space requirements as well as flight training capabilities.
“This location allows us to get back in the FBO business, in a first-class facility, with more space to accommodate growth,” says Zeman.
Klotz likes the fact that J.A.’s facilities at Aurora are outside of the terminal control area, keeping the FBO’s operations out of the way of neighboring airport tenants. He also believes that the suburban airport is much more accessible than DuPage, located on Route 30 in Sugar Grove, 35 miles west of downtown Chicago and just minutes from major business parks and the East-West Tollway Research and Development corridor (I-88).
Realizing The FBO
“When they presented me with the plan a couple years ago, I had no idea it was going to come out as fine as it did,” says Klotz. “They didn’t miss a trick.”
That plan, referred to as plan A, did not come into fruition as expected, and the result is J.A.’s current $9.4 million renovated four-building campus. The original plan, which the company spent six months designing, consisted of an entirely new 107,000-square foot facility. While plan A came together well, says Rieser, it necessitated getting FAA grants to build necessary apron and ramp infrastructure; grants which were not attained.
J.A. had already informed DuPage that it was moving on, leaving it with less than a year to work out plan B and make the move in order to open the facilities at Aurora by the designated start date of December 1, 2008.
J.A. worked with Rieser to identify possible alternatives that would allow the FBO to be capable of all the services included in plan A. The ultimate solution, a result of a collaborative effort, and according to Rieser, “A lot of give and take by both parties involved,” consisted of completely revamping an old BP hangar and three additional buildings, which already housed several tenants with short-term lease agreements.
The new arrangement did displace the tenants of the existing buildings, yet most were able to remain at the airport by moving into alternative facilities. “We had to adapt and improvise,” says Rieser. “By and large, I think it all worked out well.”
J.A. contracted a corporate client, Ryan Companies, a commercial real estate design and build firm, for the construction and renovation of the existing facilities. Ryan was able to complete the project in less than four and a half months, ensuring that J.A. would be operational by the projected opening. “Ryan was very proactive from the get-go, and they have a fantastic reputation for being on-time and on-budget,” relates Zeman. “It was a race, but it got done.”
Owner Klotz describes plan B as a “magnificent solution” and credits Zeman, Rieser, and J.A. sales manager Scott Fank with effectively cooperating with each other to refine a plan that reflects the FBO’s capabilities. “The attitude and willingness of the airport authority made the deal a slam dunk,” says Klotz.
Private activity airport bonds were authorized to fund the project, explains Rieser. “The city looked at their financials and felt comfortable; they have been very supportive of what we have been doing out here.
J.A. Air Center sales were down some 15-20 percent last year; however, the last couple months have shown significant growth. Since its opening, J.A. has already added some 100 new customers to its base. Zeman attributes this to their full-service capabilities. “Many people were doing business elsewhere because they had to; this airport was looking for an alternative, and we offer that,” he says.
Randy Fank, operations manager for J.A., relates that most FBOs are not typically a one-stop shop. “We have it all; we have a company that can be an entire support system for an aircraft,” says Fank.
“Having everything at one location just makes it easier for the customer to decide,” says Zeman. “We always provided these services, we just didn’t have the FBO part, so we had no customers based with us.
“Now that we offer first-class basing accommodations, we offer a real viable alternative for the business aviation community.”
J.A. is a Part 135 charter company and a Part 145 repair station, which includes avionics and maintenance. Additional profit centers include fuel sales, transient storage, flight instruction, aircraft sales, detailing, and a pilot shop. The new facilities consist of more than 90,000-square feet of hangar space, 60,000-square feet of corporate office rental space, and a 20,000-square foot arrival/departure canopy large enough to handle corporate jet aircraft. The expansion has necessitated the addition of 20 new employees, an increase of 25 percent.
The new 11,000-square foot FBO terminal offers premium amenities which include conference rooms, a business center, a VIP lounge, sleep rooms, private showers, a game room, and an exercise room. “We knew we needed to give a high level of finish to the FBO facility,” says Zeman. “The business customer expects it.”
Relates Klotz, “The larger facility will help people realize that we can handle avionics and maintenance at all levels.
“The perception of J.A. coming out of the smaller facility at DuPage, and moving into a larger modern facility gives us a lot more credibility.
“There are few FBOs that have the kind of full-service capabilities we have. We liken ourselves to an aviation campus that can start you out in a [Cessna] 150 and end you up in a G4.”