Hot Shots: USA
Speaking Your Language
By Richard Rowe
In this issue’s Hot Shots feature, we showcase three geographically and product diverse manufacturers that have contributed greatly to their particular fields of expertise. Richard Rowe begins the series with a profile of Watkins Aircraft Support Products (WASP).
Founded in 1979 by Jim Watkins, chief engineer with a local manufacturing company in Glenwood, Minnesota, Watkins Aircraft Support Products (WASP) set its stall out early. The culture has always been engineering driven with an emphasis on putting well designed products out the door each and every time.
Today’s WASP is 100 percent employee owned following an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) purchase from Watkins in December 1997. On retirement, Watkins received plenty of offers from other manufacturers keen to buy into WASP’s success, but he chose the ESOP option as a thank you to his staff. The result is a company whose employees feel a genuine sense of ownership. Perhaps it is no surprise that, at less than five percent, the turnover among the 250 staff is lower than many other companies of comparable size.
Headquartered in Glenwood a little over two hours drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, WASP has three plant locations in the Glenwood area and a further parts facility that it leases in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Established as a pure ground support equipment manufacturer, the company diversified in 1985 when it entered the package conveyor market. Today, business is split almost 70/30 in favor of ground support, with some crossover on select products.
The GSE division is headed up by John Silver, a well-known figure in the ground support after 30 years in the business. Together with his colleagues, Silver has overseen the development of a prodigious range of non-powered equipment at WASP. Baggage and freight carts are considered core products and come available in rigid mount and torsion axle styles. Each style is available in the company’s "knock down" bag cart, which ships in half the space of its regular carts, says Silver. WASP also offers open style and flat top baggage carts.
WASP produces some 6,000-8,000 carts a year, and averages about 150-175 items of GSE a week. "Product costs are kept competitive through such large quantity production," says Silver. Other solid business lines for WASP come in the shape of mail carts, pallet and container dollies, aircraft towbars, crew stairs, cargo handling systems, and mobile scissor lifts.
The company saw sales of US$40 million in 2000, and 2001 is looking equally promising, according to Silver.
WASP exports worldwide and lists South and Central America as well as the Middle East as prime markets overseas. In a slow year, exports account for 10 percent of total business and as much as 20 percent in a good year.
The first breakthrough for WASP came in the early 1980s when it secured Northwest as its inaugural major customer, followed shortly by UPS and others. Until 1990, WASP essentially doubled in size every year--"a considerable challenge in terms of maintaining customer service," says Silver. "People knew that we used good design and the major airlines started to come onboard."
WASP proved its opportunism in the late 1980s when FMC discontinued its manufacture of non-powered GSE. WASP made quick work of filling the vacuum and picked up long-time FMC customer, United Airlines.
In the grand scheme of things, WASP’s products are hardly the most technologically advanced. Being non-powered they don’t need to be and Silver admits that, barring a few tweaks and modifications here and there, many of the products have seen little change over the last 20 years.