INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The buzz is starting to come back at Piper Aircraft. The PiperJet — the company’s big gamble to get into the Very Light Jet market — remains on its new course for a 2013 delivery of its first planes.
But more importantly for the local economy right now, Piper is selling propeller planes again, and hiring back hundreds of workers to get them to market. Piper is expecting to increase sales by more than 50 percent in 2010 from the 90 planes it sold in 2009. To build them, it has hired back 240 people from its recessionary lows and that is good news for a county that is experiencing 14.3 percent unemployment.
“Our growth strategy has enabled our business to grow and come back strong in recent months, and the resulting rise in demand has made it possible for us to bring back hundreds of people, many of whom are friends and neighbors who were laid off when sales dropped dramatically,” said Piper President and CEO Kevin J. Gould.
While no one at the company is willing to say the recession that crushed the general aviation industry is now in the rearview mirror, Piper executives are pointing to a new growth strategy – especially in Asia and the Pacific Rim – as a primary reason why the company is projecting growth at a time when others in the industry can’t.
Once the largest private employer in Indian River County, Piper cut its workforce by almost half — to 570 people at the depth of the recession — as the company hunkered down in survival mode and matched the number of workers on hand with the number of orders it had for planes.
But the company has begun hiring not only engineers for the PiperJet — 60 in all thus far — but factory workers to fill new propeller plane orders, including substantial increases in what had been a significantly reduced trainer market.
The company is not yet done hiring. Its Web site currently lists over 35 jobs and in more areas than just the factory floor. Piper is looking to hire in marketing, human resources and information technology as well.
Still, the workforce of about 800 is far from the 1,185 jobs Piper promised it would have by Dec. 31, 2009, as part of the deal it struck with the county and state to keep its operations in Indian River County to build the PiperJet.
That long-term deal was placed on hold after the recession hit. Piper had accepted about $10.7 million of the $32 million it negotiated from the local and state government to stay in Indian River County before the bottom fell out. According to terms of the contract, that money was spent to shore up the plant, which was ravaged by the 2004 hurricanes.
Piper continues talking with the county and state, giving officials updates on progress since the recession, and clearly is hopeful the agreement can pick up where it was when put into suspension in 2009.
Things started to change in May when cash-strapped former owner American Capital sold Piper for an undisclosed sum to Singapore-based Imprimis, an investment company with ties to the Brunei government.
Imprimis has fully supported and funded the PiperJet, which is expected to hit the market in 2013 with a $2.2 million price tag. No one at the company is saying how much Imprimis has invested so far, but it is estimated in the millions.
What has been just as beneficial for the local economy is Imprimis’ help in making headway in the fledgling Asian private plane market. It is that success that has fueled Piper’s ability to hire back some of the hundreds laid off during the economic downturn. The company lists sales to outfits in Australia and Pacific Rim countries among others.
“Last year trainers were 15 percent of our total mix; this year they are going to be about 50 percent,” said Chief Corporate Spokesperson Mark Miller. “We are seeing a lot of growth in the Asian market, especially with fleet sales for flight training schools.”
Once Imprimis took ownership in May of 2009, change followed quickly. CEO Jim Bass was gone before the end of June, with Gould taking his position as CEO and John Becker being named president. By December, Becker had also departed and Gould – now president and CEO – made more changes, tapping Dennis Olcott to become vice president of engineering to keep pushing development of the PiperJet.
Olcott has spent much of his time building the engineering staff to carry the PiperJet forward, as the company is staking a large piece of its future on the Very Light Jet market.
Perhaps the last piece of the puzzle for Piper came April 1, when the company hired industry heavyweight Randy Groom as Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Customer Support of Piper Aircraft.
Groom, who has 36 years in aviation management, served as president of Global Customer Service and Support for Hawker Beechcraft Corp. (formerly Raytheon Aircraft Company,) as well as president of Beechcraft. He has also held senior management positions on the sales side.
“Randy knows the business from both sides of the aisle,” Gould said. “As a seasoned corporate executive and a professional with extensive dealership experience, he has the breadth of knowledge and experience that are vital to Piper`s growth strategy.”