By S. Clayton Moore,
Two of the country’s most robust fixed base operations have joined forces to better serve their customers. Premier Air Center, which primarily provides maintenance and avionics services in East Alton, Ill., and West Star Aviation, a full service FBO in Grand Junction, Colo., have recently come under one owner.
Each location has its own specialties, in terms of the aircraft it services, but partner together on sales, logistics and other essential aspects. The merger allows the two companies to operate more efficiently and provide service across a wider territory.
“We really have the bases covered between the two offices,” said Jim Swehla, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Premier Air Center and West Star Aviation. “This way, we’re not stepping on each other’s toes or competing for the same customers.”
In early 2005, the principals of Premier Air Center acquired West Star Aviation. Bob Barry formerly led West Star. As president, he helped redirect the company’s core business towards jet aircraft. He retired soon after the deal closed.
“We had our eyes open for another facility for some time,” Swehla explained. “This happened to pop up, because we knew the top management and owners of West Star. They knew us fairly well and how we operate our business, so they made it available to us.”
Robert Raspberry, president and CEO of Premier Air Center/West Star Aviation, praised the deal and says it allows both companies to prosper.
“This is an extremely beneficial acquisition, in that the two companies complement each other well and have few significant overlaps in product and service offerings,” Raspberry said. “We are confident that the blend of the very best attributes from two well respected companies will attract operators from all areas of the U.S.”
Premier Air Center is located at St. Louis Regional Airport (KALN), where it has about 200,000 square feet of facilities and employs 180 people. Founded in 1947 as Walston Aviation, the company became a Cessna Citation Service Center in 1974 and was renamed Premier Air Center in 1986 following a change in ownership.
The facility has grown to become a full service FBO, providing fuel; aircraft and parts sales; airframe and engine maintenance and repair; and fully qualified completion of paint, interiors and avionics.
Because of its proximity to St. Louis’ Lambert Field and nearby competition, Premier Air Center’s fuel sales form a less significant percentage of its business. Where the East Alton facility really shines is in its maintenance and modification of corporate aircraft. It’s a factory authorized Cessna Citation Service Center for all 500 and 650 series aircraft, including the Sovereign, Mustang and CJII, as well as being FAA-certified on all Dassault Falcon aircraft.
Like many FBOs, Premier has turned to the jet market in the past decade, but unlike some, has maintained its capacity for high-quality service of turboprop aircraft as well.
“Our focus is on the jet market, but we have such a good reputation in the turboprop market, specifically on the Cessna Conquest, that we want to keep it up,” Swehla said. “It’s a pretty good business for us.”
Another area of expertise is in developing supplemental type certificates, which adds to Premier’s reputation as a provider of specialty services.
“It’s something we’ve focused on more heavily in the past few years,” Swehla said. “Since we’ve come under different management, there’s a different corporate philosophy. We have an engineering staff at both locations and also have FAA certification staff located here at Premier. That makes it easier for us to get an STC, because we have the qualified people to do it.”
Where fuel sales have done the company the most good is in Grand Junction, where West Star Aviation is quickly becoming the company’s crown jewel. Located at Walker Field Airport (GJT) in Grand Junction, West Star’s roots reach back to 1952, when its predecessor, Monarch Aviation, was founded.
Today, the company’s facilities are spread over 140,000 square feet and are staffed by more than 320 employees. Twenty acres of ramp, a 10,500-foot runway and comfortably spacious airspace make the site an attractive destination or a diversion for visitors to Aspen and Vail.
In fact, fuel sales have been so healthy over the past two years that the company was able to complete an extensive interior and exterior renovation of its FBO lobby last December. The company’s fuel farm has capacity for over 100,000 gallons of jet-A.
“Fuel sales in Grand Junction are very good because of its location and because it’s easy for people on their way to Aspen or Vail to get in there,” Swehla observed. “That led us to invest some money in significantly improving the facility.”
It’s just the latest of many recent improvements. In 2000, West Star completed a state-of-the-art 25,000-square-foot paint facility and two downdraft paint bays. A 28,000-square-foot maintenance hangar, with a certified foam fire suppression system, was completed in August 2001, nearly doubling its maintenance capacity.
The lobby project began in July and included major renovation modeled after an Aspen ski lodge. It also brought in new amenities, such as new conference rooms, an exercise facility, private Internet access areas and an all-new pilot’s lounge.
Today, West Star occupies nine buildings and will soon add more. It’s set to break ground soon on a new 40,000-square-foot hangar that will add aircraft storage, administrative offices and shop space, as well as 30,000 square feet of additional ramp space. It will be used specifically for Challenger and Hawker maintenance, as well as the company’s interior completions and avionics installations.
Another new addition to West Star Aviation is a new general manager, Rick Brainerd, who joined the company in September 2005. He previously held management positions with McKinney Aerospace, Garrett Aviation and Allied Signal and was well known to the upper management of Premier Air Center.
“We have very similar philosophies about how this industry works, the same code of ethics and the same work background,” Swehla said. “He’s proven to be a great guy for Grand Junction and he’s working out very well.”
West Star’s focus differs slightly from Premier Air’s in the type of aircraft it manages and maintains. While its staff works on Citations and Falcons as well, it also branches out to provide engine and airframe services for Learjets, Hawkers, Challengers and Conquests. It recently became an authorized service center for the Citation 650 series, including the new 680 Sovereign aircraft.
The full service FBO also provides all the services that Premier provides in Illinois, including airframe maintenance, engine repair, and interior paint and avionics upgrades.
West Star also holds an STC for a Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum solution for the Learjet 31, 35, 35A, 36 and 36A, as well as an STC to upgrade the Cessna Conquest with the Honeywell TPE331-10 engine. West Star is currently pursuing an RVSM solution for Conquest II aircraft, in partnership with Kohlman System Resources.
A small supplementary office, staffed by eight people in Hiawatha, Ill., also operates under the banner of West Star Avionics. It buys and sells avionics systems and components that can then be installed at the East Alton or Grand Junction facilities.
By combining certain aspects of each operation, such as integrating a national sales team, the two FBOs have been able to build a versatile and streamlined operation. The company’s total annual revenues now exceed $100 million.
“We’re able to share resources and personnel back and forth in our engineering and certification departments,” Swehla explained. “Another way it works out well is that if we have a situation where we’re overloaded with work at one location, we can utilize the other location by borrowing manpower or by physically sending an airplane to the second location to have work done.”
He praised the employees of Premier Air Center and West Star Aviation for their readiness to adapt to the new company structure.
“We met almost no resistance to the concept,” he said of the merger. “People were really willing to accept the change and we’re fortunate to have a great group of people at both locations. We’re utilizing resources in a much more efficient way, sharing knowledge back and forth and capitalizing on our resources.”
The company’s next step is to increase its capabilities by adding the Bombardier Challenger to its ranks in Grand Junction and Gulfstream products in East Alton.
“As the years go by, markets can change dramatically as new aircraft come into the industry,” Swehla observed. “Our goal is to keep up with the aircraft that are out there. We really want to continue improving our service and our capabilities for our customers, so we can maintain the base that we have and add new customers as time goes by.”
At the same time, the company plans for measured growth at both locations.
“We definitely want to grow both facilities but we don’t want to grow them too fast,” Swehla said. “We only want to get to a certain size, because once you get too large, you lose that personal level of customer service and expertise.”
The broad base of customers at Premier and West Star are loyal for precisely that reason. The staff at each location is well aware of the importance of the relationship with their customers, who range from private business owners to famous entertainers and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
To serve its high-level clientele and battle the fierce competition from larger competitors, Premier Air and West Star work overtime to live up to their reputation for excellent service.
“We feel that we’re a boutique shop in a way,” Swehla said. “We’re a smaller facility with great people, and we provide services in a niche market. When an operator brings their aircraft to our facilities, we provide total capabilities for everything from airframe maintenance to avionics, and we can do it all at one location. We have the ability to do the engineering and certification work, along with any upgrades a customer might want done.”
In short, says Swehla, bigger is not necessary better.
“Our customers don’t need to go to a large shop in order to tap into these services,” he said. “They can some to a smaller organization and get a better level of service.”
For more information about Premier Air Center, visit [http://www.premierair.com] and for West Star Aviation, visit [http://www.weststaraviation.com].