All In The Family

When Wilt Paulson began tinkering with electric mink feeders, golf carts and wind machines in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he probably had no idea that one day his company would become a major producer of electric towbarless aircraft tugs. He probably also would have been surprised to know that in 2007, when many companies were finally scrambling to find alternative fuels, Lektro could be considered a veteran in the green movement.

Lektro began as the Willamette Aircraft and Engine Company in 1945 when Wilt Paulson and his wife Violet began converting old military training aircraft for civilian use. The business, originally located in Beaverton Ore., moved to the Paulson’s home town of Astoria in 1948. While the company’s original focus was converting aircraft, Wilt became increasingly interested in puttering with accessories. His inner inventor really started to shine after his gadgets began to gain attention, producing solutions to the everyday problems many local business owners were facing.

Thanks to Wilt’s progressive inventions, Lektro has been utilizing green power since the conception of his electric mink feeder. A friend came to him and explained how the noisy gasoline feeder frightened the mink, prompting them to eat their young (yes, you did read that correctly). Wilt responded with the electric Lektro Feeding Cart. Wilt gained further electric motor experience when he teamed with General Electric to build the first electric golf cart for the local Astoria Golf and Country Club. Over the years, several companies have contacted Lektro for their electric-motorized needs, including the Walt Disney Company, who uses Lektro tractors for its parades.

“My dad pioneered almost everything he did,” says current Lektro President Eric Paulson.

Eric shadowed his father on the job from an early age. He worked various odd jobs around the property until he left for college in the early 1980s. However, his time away didn’t last long, he returned in 1982 after his father fell ill. Eric was faced with the challenge of keeping his father’s business afloat after the bank appeared to lose interest in the company. Lektro had been removed from the local branch and placed on the bank’s list of companies destined for liquidation. Eric met with the bankers and detailed his plan to save the family company. To cut costs Eric took on the roles of general manager, parts manager, sales manager and purchasing agent. It was during this time the company shifted its focus to the towbarless aircraft tractors.

“In 1967 my dad built the first towbarless aircraft tug and they sold a few of them through the 1960s and 1970s but his focus was primarily forklifts so he didn’t promote it very much,” Eric explains. “When I came back from college, the domestic forklift industry was getting taken over by foreign competition. Our consultant reviewed our product line and felt the future was really in aircraft tow vehicles and not the forklifts. At that point we decided to put our energy into aircraft tugs and it paid off.”

In 1985 at the age of 23, Eric purchased the company from his father so his parents could retire. Eric believes his taking over the company when he did prolonged his fathers life by at least a decade. Wilt died of a heart attack in his home at the age of 82.

Ever since the landmark decision to focus on aircraft tugs, the company has enjoyed steady success, however it has continued to explore other electric vehicle applications.

“I think electric vehicles are going to continue to become more and more popular,” says Eric. “Especially with today’s environmental concerns and worldwide emission factors. Being a green company is very big right now. When you look at our reliance on fossil fuels and what’s going on in the Middle East, electric is quickly becoming the way to go — although we have been in the electric vehicle business since the 40s. Electric is better not just because it's cleaner, but it's quieter, less expensive and it can be used inside the hanger without the fumes. It’s becoming a more popular method of powering a vehicle and it’s convenient.”

The popularity of the electric tug proved true at this year’s Aviation Industry Expo when Lektro sold its 3,000th tug to American Eagle. According to Eric, the environmentally-friendly tractors are not only gaining popularity in the United States, but worldwide as well.

“The first two months this year we exported 55 percent of our units,” he said at his 2007 AIE

While Lektro continues Wilt’s tradition of “pioneering”, Eric says what he really enjoys at the end of his work day is making his customers happy, something his father began with his unusual inventions more than 60 years ago.

“The most enjoyable part of my job is getting feedback from the customers,” he says. “I like solving their problems and making their lives easier.”