This year’s Ground Support Lifetime Achievement award honors Alan J. Janis, co-founder of J&B Aviation Services, who passed away at the end of last year after spending four decades in the GSE industry.
Accepting the award at the 2014 AviationPros LIVE trade show last March was Alan’s son, David A. Janis-Kitzmiller, operations manager of ITW GSE Americas – J&B Aviation.
“I’m going to be really brief and read to you some words that my father wrote once the company was sold in 2002, and he decided that at that point it was time to retire and step back from the industry,” David said before the crowd. “He wrote: ‘As I sit here pondering how to best convey my thoughts after almost 40 years in the industry I think that it’s best said by simply saying, thank you. Thank you for your trust. Thank you for your support. Thank you for allowing me to be a participant in this industry. Thank you for your friendship.’ ”
Also on hand was Bruce K. Warne, who together with Alan built the business into one of the most recognized names within the GSE industry.
“Al and I exchanged a few emails before he passed and this is what he said in his final email to me,” Warne told the crowd. “Basically he wrote: ‘I, too, am grateful for what we were able to accomplish. We had some very talented individuals who contributed greatly to our success and our endeavors. I think of these people often and how they contributed and how it impacted everybody’s life.’ He thanked me for our partnership and friendship. That was the last thing I heard from Al.”
While pictures of Alan’s career flashed on a screen on stage, Bruce added: “I, too, am grateful. I think it was divine intervention that Al and I got together. But we really grew because of our relationships with our employees and our customers. Al did a lot in the industry and knew a lot of people. Those relationships with the customers were paramount, and we wanted to build a business the right way.”
And build it the right way the two did. Alan and Bruce met one another while working at McCormick Morgan Power Systems in the 1970s. At the time Morgan Power was a major purveyor of power systems and accessories to the aviation industry and other transportation markets. And during the next couple of decades, Alan and Bruce certainly learned a thing or two about these products and the market and the customers.
So when the company shut down, the two saw a chance to market what McCormick Morgan left behind.
“We knew the cables could give us access to every customer out there,” Bruce said, “and we knew we could build relationships off of that.”
So in 1991, the two opened J&B Aviation Services, Inc. with a 2,400 sq. ft. office and warehouse facility in Fairfield, CA. It helped the partners’ fortunes that they started out as an exclusive distributor of a power cable featuring a number of patents that helped lock the product into making it one of the dominant type of products for the industry.
That’s basically what started the company. Sales also went up, up, up with most every year ending with double-digit growth as the company traded on its multi-faceted expertise in 400 Hz power distribution, and moved into a “one-stop shop” for GSE, including preconditioned air, potable water, lavatory service, air starts, and various other aircraft systems.
Along with its unique cable assemblies, for example, another product that helped the company stand out was its PC Air Connector. While most companies were selling a heavy, metal connector prone to denting and other ramp mishaps, J&B came out with a lighter-weight, nylon-reinforced connector.
ANSWER THE PHONE
But products only go so far in determining a company’s success.
“Customer service is the big thing that J&B has been known for, especially during that time frame,” David explained.
The office never had voice mail. Which meant a phone could not ring three times because by the end of the second ring, somebody had to get the call and the customer always got a person on the other end.
“It didn’t matter what else you might be doing in the office at the time or what your position was, you answered the phone,” David said. “Even if it meant just saying hello and putting the customer on hold until you could find the appropriate person. That’s just what everyone did.”
The company fostered a real commitment to make sure that the customer was satisfied in other ways, too.
“Even on products that had a warranty, quite often we would go beyond that warranty period just because it’s worth satisfying that customer and making sure that things work the way they’re supposed to,” David added. “We don’t want a customer to walk away with a bad feeling.”
By the time David joined the company in 2000 as a controller, the company had expanded to an 8,600 sq. ft. location and opened a service division to offer system design, start-up, installation, project management, training and specification review. It was also around this time that the two partners had walked away from more than one would-be suitor. Neither of them had ever actively shopped the company since both enjoyed the industry.
“I know my dad would have been very pleased to have received this award because he always felt very connected to this industry and enjoyed working with everyone in it – vendors, customers and employees,” David said.
Eventually, however, another interested buyer showed up that looked like it could offer the company a way to make more connections within a bigger company.
“When ITW approached,” David said, “his first priority was how his employees and customers would be treated.”
David found that interesting since his father was a straight-forward, no BS businessman.
“But under that was the person who cared,” David added. “I guess he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but he would’ve been a marshmallow underneath everything else.”
In 2002, J&B was acquired by Illinois Tool Works and joined Hobart Ground Power, Trilectron Industries, Air-A-Plane, Houchin Aerospace and AXA Power to form the ITW GSE Group.
Alan, only 60 at the time, stayed on as a consultant for about year afterward. When he finally did leave the office behind, he spent his days traveling, golfing and spending time with his grandchildren and other family members.
But his connection to the industry never really ever stopped.
“Even though he was retired for all those years,” David added, “I would get a phone calls from him all the time, just checking in to see how things were going. He always wanted to know how business was, if we had any new products or how someone he remembered was doing. He talked with so many people over 40 years that I think he just missed talking with them.”
David made sure to answer the phone by the third ring.