It was around the time of the last GSE Expo in October 2002 that Al Janis and Bruce Warne, co-owners of J&B Aviation, were struggling with one of the toughest decisions of their careers: whether or not to sell a family-style business, built from scratch, to a large multinational corporation.
Despite the industry's woes, J&B was in a strong position. Sales had grown some 30 percent year-on-year since 1991 as the company traded on its multi-faceted expertise in 400 Hz power distribution, preconditioned air, potable water, lavatory service, air starts, and various other aircraft systems. But, they recognised the changing business environment and sensed that J&B had gone about as far as it could in its present form.
So, when the expansionist Illinois Tool Works (ITW) GSE group - the latest power base to emerge in GSE manufacturing - came knocking late last year, it raised a dilemma that has become increasingly familiar in ground support circles: to sell or not to sell, and at what price to the employees, products, and reputation of the company?
"At the time of ITW's first approach, I was considering the years I had put into the business and how it would survive when I was no longer there," explains Janis, speaking at the recent GSE Expo/AS3 event in Las Vegas.
In an industry better known for discarding rather than looking after employees as acquisitions loom, Janis's subsequent soul-searching was refreshing. "Above all, I wanted to provide for the security of employees and the identification of the products in the marketplace," he says. "Of course, there was also more than a little pride of ownership at stake."
Having walked away from one suitor the year before, Janis liked what he saw from ITW. Crucially, the product interface with the other players in the group - Hobart, Trilectron, air-a-plane and AXA Power - looked solid.
"There seemed to be a good fit," comments Janis. "From my perspective, it appeared as a way to grow J&B in a way that it could not do itself. It was also an opportunity to lock us into products with sister companies through which we could secure business relationships and offer more products and services with relative security."
ITW felt the same way. While other members of the group possessed expertise in actually building equipment, there was less ability when it came to the connectivity between each item - a clear J&B strength.
"We knew each other as vendor and supplier and liked each other," comments Dan Downey, vice president/general manager, ITW GSE Group. The transition from that to being part of the same corporation was a pretty natural conversation for me."
Equally appealing to Janis was the ITW philosophy of decentralising its corporate structure so that each company functioned on its own, but enjoyed the network benefits of a larger parent company.
Downey suggests it is an ITW hallmark to grow brands and individual companies and then leverage their power as a group. "Financially and technically as a group we are much stronger than any of our individual businesses," he says. "We try to take advantage of that, but J&B still has to be J&B. We don't want to lose the intimacy with the customer. Small is beautiful as far as we are concerned."
As the companies in the group continue to explore the 'all for one and one for all' approach, it has become clear just how much additional business each can attract for the other. Not surprisingly, cross training on products is encouraged as efforts are made to exercise more of a GSE group capability on a sales and marketing level.
Importantly, says Janis, long time J&B customers have barely noticed the change. "What they do know is that we are now part of the ITW family and can offer a range of equipment, services, and technical assistance that we could not offer before."
Six months on and J&B is very much an integral part of the ITW GSE group. The aim now, says Janis, is to create a long-range plan that will map out how each individual company can continue to further the group.
"Under these market conditions, you have to be clever, efficient and consistent," adds Downey. "Our challenge organisationally is to get more out of our capabilities and get closer to our customers at a time when it is very hard to do that."
This process may well involve additional acquisitions as the group looks to fill one or two remaining product gaps to satisfy a changing market place. "It is about having great peripheral vision, while continuing to understand the changes that are going on out there," contends Janis.