Growth Through Diversity

ROCKFORD, IL -- Steve Thomas, CEO and chairman, Emery Air Inc. says he left the family dairy farm because he didn't want to work seven days a week. He's still working every day, but with a passion for aviation and the values and work ethic instilled in him from his "Depression-era farmer" father. He says owning and operating a thriving, private airport and two FBOs hardly seems like work. The Northern Illinois native and his wife Tina continue to grow business at both airports, while benefiting from enhancements at Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport at Rockford.

Thomas was in high school when, he explains, his father Richard Thomas and he were "bit by the [aviation] bug." In 1972, Richard founded Belvidere Airport, a privately owned facility renamed Poplar Grove Airport in 1994.

The young Thomas attended Northern Illinois University and "pushed" to get through his pilot ratings to get an airline job. "In the mid-70s," he relates, "you couldn't buy a job with a gun." Thomas says he became discouraged and instead began a career in farm realty and management, while still helping out at the airport.

In 1994, Thomas purchased Poplar Grove Airport from his parents, assuming all operations of the airport and FBO, Poplar Grove Airmotive, Inc. Thomas says he and Tina "made a conscious decision to develop a lifestyle-type airport" ' one that allows pilots and other enthusiasts to live around aviation.

Since that time, he and Tina have successfully managed to build an airpark community, with 140 single-family home lots, most with direct access to the taxiway. In addition, there are 210 total hangar units, some which are privately owned on leased land. "Some people would rather own than rent," says Thomas.

In 1996, the Thomases donated 14 acres for a museum which features not only aviation memorabilia, but a hangar originally built in 1938 at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport at Springfield, a 1937 stone hangar from Waukesha County (WI) Airport, and a 1924 Sun Oil filling station.

New ownership

Thomas had had a thriving charter business at Poplar Grove; however, he says, "the more I thought about it, charter was a conflict with the community/residential neighborhood we were trying to achieve at Poplar Grove."

Looking to transition out of charter operations at the private airport, Thomas approached John Emery, owner of Emery Air Charter based at RFD, for a solution that would serve Thomas's current customers, yet bring them to another airport. "To make a long story short," says Thomas, Emery suggested Thomas buy Emery Air Charter. In early 1998, Thomas purchased the company and Emery has remained on as president.

"It was a good business here, but I saw an opportunity for improvement by incorporating our entrepreneurial spirit and management system," says Thomas. After the purchase, Thomas renamed the facility Emery Air, Inc.

Revenue shift

At that time, explains Thomas, the Rockford operation was heavily focused on charter, with some line service business from vacation charters and UPS, for which RFD is a major hub.

When Thomas assumed control of the Rockford-based FBO, Raytheon Company had a factory-owned service center at the airport, along with the majority of the line service on the airfield. In 2000, Thomas inked a deal with Raytheon to acquire the line service aspect of the operation and now provides some 98 percent of the fuel at Rockford. In the deal, Emery Air also acquired the maintenance building and a 55,000-sq.ft. hangar across the field. "They became a tenant of ours," says Thomas of Raytheon.

In 2002, Raytheon decided to close the maintenance facility and lay off all of its mechanics at RFD. "Rockford was already losing a lot of jobs," says Thomas. "I just couldn't let it happen again."

Thomas entered into another agreement with Raytheon, this time to purchase the inventory and equipment. Today, while still a Raytheon authorized service center, maintenance accounts for some 60 percent of Emery Air's business. Thomas hired a director of marketing for the maintenance operation and says he expects to hire some 40 more mechanics in the next year. "The problem is having enough help."

The maintenance side of Emery Air has been successful in securing a contract with Skyways Airlines for its Beech 1900s and Thomas hopes to grow this side of the business for regional jets. "We have a good location and the facilities to handle them," he says.

In total, Emery Air owns some 150,000 square feet of building space at Rockford; each acquisition is under a separate, long-term lease, with some 40 years remaining on each. Some 168 employees are on the Emery Air, Inc. payroll.

Air service: a boon for the FBO

Line service now accounts for some 30 percent of the company's business. According to Thomas, Emery Air pumps some 2.1 million gallons of fuel each month, mostly jet-A.

As Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport at Rockford continues to grow under the direction of manager Bob O'Brien, Emery Air is benefiting through airline servicing contracts with Hooters Air, Sunship Airlines, and Northwest Airlines, which started service in February. Thomas's employees perform the ticketing, baggage handling, cleaning, catering, and fueling for 98 percent of the operators at RFD. "What's good for the airport is good for us," says Thomas of Rockford's growth.

Emery Air purchased the belt loaders, luggage carts, and other handling equipment, as well as trained his workers to perform services for the airlines. Thomas expects this aspect of his operation to grow in coming years as RFD continues to attract carriers and existing carriers add flights. "Sunship recently announced by fall they'll probably be up to eight flights per week and Hooters Air is looking to add flights," he says.

Thomas explains that having his employees provide these services for the airlines is more cost effective for the airlines and also leads to better customer service. "We can have someone at the counter all day," says Thomas, "not just at peak times. We're able to fill the gaps."

Emery Air also handles aircraft fueling for UPS, as well as maintenance of UPS-owned fuel trucks. When Thomas first acquired the Rockford operation, UPS accounted for some 80 percent of Emery's business; a number which has been reduced to 12 percent through diversification of the company. "I like to be diversified with services," says Thomas. "I'm comfortable with the balance now."

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