By Henry M. Holden
When Signature Combs Aircraft Sales closed its Piper dealership in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in January 2003, Fred Ahles and Art Spengler, both employees of the dealership, decided not to abandon their customers. Along with other key employees, the two men formed Premier Aircraft Sales at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE), to sell high quality, late model Piper aircraft.
Today, the privately owned company has offices and showrooms at FXE and at Addison Airport (ADS) in Dallas. The workforce of 37 includes 11 sales professionals, covering a nine-state region. Offices are also located in Vero Beach, Fla.; Houston, Texas; Atlanta, Ga.; and Auburn, Ala. The foundation of their business is based on one goal: satisfied repeat customers, for life.
“Selling an airplane to a customer the first time is difficult, because it’s hard to earn their trust,” said Alhes. “Once customers trust you, they’ll come back when they’re ready to buy their next airplane.”
Ahles and Spengler have built solid and successful reputations by providing customers with an unprecedented level of trust, experience and technical expertise about each aircraft they sell. The two have a combined 60 years of experience.
Fred Ahles, president of Premier Aircraft Sales, has more than 33 years in aircraft sales and FBO management. He’s sold more than 1,000 aircraft. He has an airline transport pilot rating, with more than 10,000 hours of flight time, and is an industry-recognized expert on the Piper Meridian aircraft.
Art Spengler, a senior vice president, has more than 30 years in aircraft sales, leasing, training and repair. He has also sold more than 1,000 aircraft. He has an ATP rating, with more than 10,000 hours of flight time, and is type rated in the Beech Starship.
When Ahles and Spengler formed Premier, they realized they had to set high standards, and become associated with companies who did the same. The “high integrity company,” according to their mission statement, is “dedicated to our customers, our partners and our employees.”
“Whenever a question comes up in our organization, I challenge our employees to make decisions that are going to be clear to the other employees, and to our partners, Mooney and Diamond,” Ahles said. “It also has to be clear to the service organizations we’re representing, to people we’re representing when we’re selling their airplanes, and, of course, to our customers.”
He said that no decision is completely fair if it’s one-sided.
“We’re up to 37 people now, and as we grow, we have to make sure they understand this,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun when you go home at the end of the day, and you feel proud about what you did.”
Ahles and Spengler knew the airplane business and agreed that two manufacturers stood out in the market, offering high value, experience and integrity. They felt that Diamond Aircraft Industries and the Mooney Airplane Company produced high-quality airplanes with established safety records.
“In Mooney airplanes, we saw a product that has been the leader in maximum performance and efficiency for many years,” Ahles says. “Mooneys are the safest, strongest and most fuel-efficient airplanes built today. Selling against one of the best is always difficult. It’s much easier to join them.”
In April 2003, Premier Aircraft Sales joined the Mooney Airplane Company as a Mooney team representative. Today, Premier covers Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, North and South Carolina and Tennessee for Mooney.
A month later, Diamond Aircraft selected Premier to join their dealer ranks, to cover Alabama and the northern Florida Panhandle. By the end of the year, Premier Aircraft Sales was handling the sales of Diamond’s entire line in the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Texas. Within a year, Premier expanded to cover all of Florida.
“We’re extremely proud that Diamond selected us in such a prime market for their products,” said Ahles. “Our staff has worked hard to provide first-class support for our customers, and they all helped make this appointment possible.”
When Fred Ahles and Art Spengler started Premier, they had no idea that the company would grow as rapidly as it did. By July 2005, Premier Aircraft Sales had sold their 200th airplane. That’s an average of two airplanes a week over the two-year period.
“It seemed like we had just started yesterday,” said Alhes, “We were very fortunate to find so many great people to join our ranks.”
The DA40 Diamond Star XL is just one product example.
“We believe it’s the finest airplane for the first-time buyer, the student pilot, or brand new private pilot,” said Ahles. “This airplane is easy to handle and is well built, with so many safety systems.”
In August 2006, Diamond Aircraft recognized Premier’s success and cast a vote of confidence for Premier by expanding the company’s territory to include Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.
“This rounds out our presence in the southern states and allows us to serve existing Diamond customers here, and to further promote Diamond aircraft,” Ahles said.
Diamond CEO Christian Dries said that Premier has been a vital contributor to the success of Diamond Aircraft and the acceptance of the company’s aircraft in the states where they represent Diamond.
“We’re delighted that their territory is expanding and anticipate continued growth of Diamond into the south,” he said.
Diamond aircraft seem to be flying out of the showrooms as soon as they land.
“We have an incredible amount of orders: 38 on the DA42, and 21 for the D-Jet,” said a company spokesperson. “Every time a DA42 lands at an airfield, we have people asking questions about it. That’s one that Diamond can’t produce fast enough.”
Buying an airplane is often what gets most of the attention, but Ahles believes that what happens after the sale matters also.
“Problems happen, and when they do, will the seller be there to help you?” he asked. “We’ll be there, doing whatever it takes to create long-term relationships. We believe that’s what sets us apart from our competitors. We’ve built our reputation on exceeding the customer expectations, because we don’t want to sell our client just one airplane. We want the client to be our customer for life. We’ll attend to all the details: cost analysis, financing, insurance, trade-in, pre-purchase inspection and training.”
The customer-for-life philosophy fits perfectly with Premier’s product line.
“As a pilot’s skills mature in a Mooney, some pilots will want to grow into the D-Jet,” said Ahles. “We believe that the Diamond Jet, because of its design around safety and ease of flying, will be the perfect next choice for some of our Mooney customers.”
Ahles and his staff understand something in the marketplace that many in sales do not.
“We’re successful when we meet the needs of our customers, and exceed their expectations,” he said.
A company that is dedicated to customer satisfaction and exceeds expectations is a rarity today.
“We foster a deep commitment to relationships with our customers, suppliers and manufacturers,” said Alhes. “Every employee knows that what we do isn’t just about airplanes; it’s about the people. We put the people first, and then handle the airplane business.”
Premier sharing its treasures
The people aspect goes beyond selling an airplane. When Ahles and Spengler started Premier Aircraft Sales, they decided to make philanthropy a part of the company’s philosophy and culture. They decided to assist Food for the Poor, a Christian relief and development agency that aids the poor in the Caribbean and Latin America.
“My wife and I had been contributing to Food for the Poor for many years,” said Ahles. “While there are many good charities in the world, I wanted to pick one for my focus that was truly near and dear to my wife’s heart. What we found intriguing is that Food for the Poor uses more than 90 percent of their donations to feed and house the people; only a very small percent goes to administrative costs.”
Food for the Poor builds homes in the Caribbean and Latin America, mainly for single mothers.
“These poor women are trying to raise children in an impoverished country, with no hope, literally living in cardboard boxes,” Ahles said.
He said Food for the Poor has home improvement stores that provide raw materials.
“The stores ship the raw materials to the Caribbean and Latin American countries, where retired construction supervisors—people who built homes during their careers and now are in retirement—donate their time,” he said. “The money we donate goes to hire local labor to build the homes. The homes they put up are modest, but they’re like Shangri-La to the people who get them. They have locking doors and windows with screens, so children can sleep without mosquitoes biting them at night—all the things we take for granted.”
For every 20 aircraft Premier sells, they have a home built. To date, Premier has built 10 homes.
“It’s about the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from helping others in need,” says Ahles.
Premier Aircraft Sales is built on a three-part revenue stream, according to Ahles.
“I’ve been selling Piper airplanes for more than 20 years, and we will continue to focus on high-quality, late model Piper airplanes,” he said. “What has changed since 2003 is the resurgence of Mooney aircraft. That means we have access to more aircraft, so that, along with the Diamond aircraft, continues to be a growing part of our business.”
At the service level, he said they opened a Mooney service center at Fort Lauderdale in late 2004.
‘It has rapidly grown into one of the largest and finest Mooney service centers in the country, largely because of the people we have,” Ahles said. “We plan to expand service centers into both Atlanta and Dallas, in 2008.”
That puts the company in a strategic position.
“We’re located in the number one GA airport in Florida, and the number one GA airport in Texas,” he said. “We’re opening an office in the number one GA airport in Georgia, at Dekalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK). That puts Premier at strategic locations, only 500 miles apart. Our ring of influence around the southern United States is going to be based from those three hubs.”
Ahles said the company will add service capability at PDK, to coincide with the introduction of the new Diamond D-Jet, which the company will start delivering in the summer of 2008.
“We’re going to be able to provide Mooney and Diamond owners the finest possible service available in the industry.”
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