West Star Aviation

WEST STAR AVIATION Grand Junction FBO grows its maintenance capability to meet the inevitable needs of aircraft operators By John Boyce, Contributing Editor February 2000 Mike McClain, right; and Louis Buescher GRAND...

The Buescher family (BFLP) came into possession of the FBO, which had been operating as Monarch Aviation since 1952, in early 1987 as the result of a bankruptcy sale. But it wasn't until 1996 that BFLP saw the necessity to grow beyond the Dash-10 program. As a result they hired Larry Graham from Duncan Aviation in Lincoln, NE, and he was the one who set an aggressive course into Lears, Citations, and Hawkers that eventually grew the workforce from 40 people in 1987 to the 250 currently employed at the FBO.

"We knew," Buescher says, "that the product line (Dash-10) three years out was going to die out and we knew that we had to get into other product lines. It became Larry's dream to take us in that direction. He was enthusiastic; he worked long hours developing the business and recruiting the people we needed. He built the program."

Some nine months after hiring on in early 1996, Graham hired McClain, whom he had worked with at Duncan in the 1980s, as vice president for marketing and sales. He then set about recruiting skilled personnel he would need for his ambitious program.

As McClain explains it, Graham saw that Duncan was de-emphasizing Lear and Citation work in favor of bigger aircraft. So, he gave many Duncan technicians the opportunity to work in a company that was growing through Lears and Citations.

"They flocked here, is what they did," McClain says. "We moved about 40 families here from Duncan. It was a huge expense. We put on about five product lines in one year (1997), moved all those families, bought all that tooling, all those books."

The expansion paid immediate dividends, McClain says. "The next year was a complete, 100 percent turnaround. We had almost a million dollar profit year, which had never happened."

Unfortunately, Graham died in early 1998, after which McClain assumed the leadership. Under McClain's stewardship, the company is still looking far into the future.

"Oh yes," Buescher says, "Mike has definitely expanded Larry's vision. We're looking at re-engining various aircraft— turbine and jet— and looking to get into larger airframes in the future. We're looking at a new maintenance hangar, we need to expand our cabinet and upholstery shops."

West Star is aggressive in its ambition but it is circumspect in its approach to growth. "We want to grow into various areas," McClain says, "but we don't want to outkick our coverage. We don't want to take on more than we're capable of handling." McClain has been approached by several people wanting the company to get into different areas of paint and maintenance, he says, and he is looking seriously at some of those but he wants to grow into them. He wants to be able to afford the tooling necessary and the hangar space without taking on big debt; And, he wants to keep the number of personnel to below 400 (it is currently at 250).

"We want to see that we're overfull for a length of time before we say we want to build a another hangar," McClain says, "because we don't want to build it and have it empty.... And I don't want us to need 800 people, I'd like to keep it under 400 to maintain that family feel. Over that and you're growing a bureaucracy."

Space is not a problem for expansion; adjacent to company offices is a six-acre parcel of land that West Star has a lease option on. However, getting and retaining skilled technicians could be the biggest barrier to expansion.

"The competition for trained mechanics is fierce right now," McClain says. "Finding qualified manpower is an inherent problem in this business. And what you have to pay them.... We've increased our labor rate an average of $2 an hour for the whole company over the past year and a half. You can't grow good people overnight so you have to keep them happy."

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