Open for Business
Advice from entrepreneurs on starting and maintaining a successful aviation business
By Michelle Garetson
Some people believe that as long as someone else is signing your paycheck, you're replaceable, so why not open your own business and be the boss for a change? Being your own boss has a nice ring to it. You're in charge, you call the shots. But, what does it really mean to be the head honcho and more to the point, what does it take, mentally, physically, and financially, to get an aviation business started? Three aviation business owner/operators, in various phases of operation, including one who just opened for business in June of this year, have offered the following caveats and confidences to those who might be considering navigating the sometimes turbulent path to business ownership.
"You have to be a risk taker," advises Michael White, Sr., CEO of RAPCO Inc. in Hartland, WI.
White started RAPCO, Inc. (Replacement Aircraft Parts Company) in 1981, in the basement of his house with a partner. His primary employer was Cooper Aviation, an aircraft wholesale distributorship in Chicago, IL, where White served as a parts salesman who piloted a company plane to call on FBOs, customers, and prospects.
Michael Brown, owner of Brown Aviation Tool of Oklahoma City, OK, agrees. "You have to take risks and not be too afraid about taking those risks. I started very young, didn't have a family or mortgage to worry about, and knew that if I failed, I still had a skill to fall back on to get me a job. You can't just wake up and say, 'I'm going to open my own business.' An example I give to people is that it's one thing to own a donut shop - it's another thing to live off of the donut shop."
Timing is everything
"Timing is important for starting a business," says White. "During a boom time, it's hard to get something going, but if people see that some of their fixed costs are going up for reasons they can't control, such as rising fuel prices, they start looking at their controllable costs and they'll start looking at alternative sources."
He continues, "I've always had that entrepreneurial spirit, and I wanted to do it. It's always logical that you stick with the field that you're working in. I knew the aviation parts field for 10 years, and in that time, I could identify at least 100 items that would be good, viable replacement parts because they'd be easy to make and relatively easy to get FAA approval on."
However, White didn't go full-time with RAPCO until he had at least 15 different parts to offer. He got his finances in order, had a supportive wife who worked outside the home, and he partnered with another gentleman, Gary Gaylor.
"It's easier to start a manufacturing business than a service business," says White, "because you can usually keep the overhead down. We started in my basement, which kept costs down."
Perceptions are important
White adds, "Even though you may start your business out of your basement, you still need to project a professional image. You have to give a bigger company image than what you may possess at that time until you can grow to a size where you can flash a photo of the business with your sign out front."
What to name the company is very important and shouldn't be taken lightly advises White. "We were convinced that we didn't want to use a family name or something like 'Mike and Gary's' as these suggest mom-and-pop-type operations. You'd never be able to shake that perception, so we had to have a big, commercial-sounding name."
Michael Brown has been building his image as a specialty tool supplier for a number of years, starting with driving to repair station after repair station and selling from his truck, to renting a very small office near the airport, to a larger facility, and ultimately to the company's new offices in Oklahoma City. Brown has developed Brown Aviation Tool Supply through mail-order and online sales.
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