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Featured Aviation Management Article from
"Aviation Digest", April 2003, Volume 29, No. 9

Women in Aviation

JRA Executive Air, Inc.
Susan Timmons
Aviation Executive

 “After looking out for the aviation service needs of our customers, the best use of my time is to create opportunities for growth and development for the talented mechanics and technicians at JRA.”

Susan Timmons
President and CEO
JRA Executive Air, Inc.

The year 2001 was a troubling year for many aircraft repair station owners and executives including Susan Timmons, President and CEO of JRA Executive Air. The most significant event, affecting many people, both in and out of aviation, was the tragedy of September 11th. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, many airfields were closed or placed under severe restrictions, flying hours logged by the general aviation sector dropped drastically and companies supporting the industry saw an immediate decrease in business. While these events could be viewed as short-term setbacks, the industry was just beginning to feel the effects of the downturn in the economy. The outlook was dismal, with business dropping off and costs, particularly insurance for aviation related companies, rising far beyond normal expectations.

JRA Executive Air, a FAA certified repair station located at the Hagerstown (MD) Regional Airport, was a typical company that was about to feel the effects described above. However, a potentially greater misfortune took place two months prior to the terrorist attacks. James Alphin, one of the two founding members of the company passed away unexpectedly, leaving his partner, Susan Timmons, to cope with running the business.

She suddenly faced the prospect of taking on her deceased partner’s responsibilities, in addition to fulfilling her normal duties. Unfortunately, the company was not large enough to have had mid-level management employees capable of stepping in to help, evidenced by the fact that it took over 10 months to recruit and hire a Director of Maintenance. Perseverance and hard work were the only flight-paths to recover from a situation that could have easily compounded into a downward spiral.

JRA Executive Air was founded in October 1985, in a garage owned by Jim Alphin. This enterprising individual saw a need, and a growing regional market, for an executive-level aircraft repair facility. At the time, Jim had over twenty years of hands-on experience repairing and painting aircraft. He gained this experience by working his way up to a management position in a similar company and felt that this background, along with a small amount of start-up capital, would enable him to launch his own business.

Fortunately, he was able to persuade another employee of this former company, Susan Timmons, to join him in this venture. Together, the two of them were able to lay the foundation for success by doing everything necessary to get the business started. These tasks included customer solicitations, engine repairs, sheet metal fabrication, surface refinishing and exterior painting.

The partners formed their corporation the following year and moved into rented hangar space at the Hagerstown airport. However, early on, they both realized that their success was exceeding their expectations, and, in order to stay ahead of the business, they would need expanded facilities on the airfield. Accordingly, arrangements were made to construct a maintenance hangar for sheet metal work. Subsequently, additions were made to accommodate an engine shop. In 1995, a separate facility was built to serve as a “state-of-the-art” paint shop to provide both touch-up work, as well as complete exterior paint jobs.

As designed, the new paint shop facility not only provided the initial needs of painting small, General Aviation aircraft, but it was also built on a scale to service corporate jet painting and interior refurbishments. The current configuration allows aircraft to be stripped and prepped in the forward section, at the same time as other aircraft are painted in the aft portion. The aft section is temperature controlled and separated by floor-to-ceiling, double-width fire doors. The interior refurbishment workshop is being installed in available space on the second story of the building. All interior components, including panels, leather/cloth materials, carpeting, cabinetry, seating, hardware, etc. will be dealt with in the workshop.

The majority of the Company’s business has always been related to the repair of accident-related aircraft. Historically, there was never a need to actively market the business. The Company initially prospered through referrals from insurance adjusters, preparation of competitive repair estimates and providing top-notch service. Jim and Susan’s reputation of quality service, at reasonable prices, assured repeat business from the insurance companies and individual owners. At first, they took on the simple jobs, such as hangar rash problems and slight surface repairs. Then, they gladly accepted more extreme challenges, such as removing crashed planes from mountainsides and lakes, loading up the pieces, hauling them back and completely restoring the wreckage to airworthy condition.

With the changing aviation environment and the necessary reorganization of the company, a new game plan had to be implemented. Susan Timmons could see that it was no longer prudent to rely on the routine flow of damaged aircraft repair work for the success of the business. Accidents were occurring less frequently due to the reduction of flight time in the General Aviation sector.

A marketing plan had to be developed that not only targeted routine maintenance and inspections of small to twin-engine, cabin-class planes, but also emphasized other aircraft services. For example, the paint shop was underutilized, and by bringing in managers with experience in the refurbishment of corporate jets, a whole new approach was developed to target that market. As this part of the business (complete exterior and interior refurbishments on small to mid-size corporate jets) continues to grow, the plan is to eventually expand the maintenance work to turbine and jet aircraft. In addition, Susan realized that many aircraft owners are familiar with the world-wide-web. She oversaw the implementation of a web site that describes and illustrates the Company’s services and allows owners to electronically submit quote requests (www.jraexecair.com).

Today, as the result of Susan’s effort, the Company finds itself on solid operational footings. Subsequent to the 9/11 tragedy, sales volume lagged for a period, but is now moving past historic highs. Management personnel, although hard to find for small repair facilities, are now in place. Numerous employee changes were made to find the higher quality type of team players to move the company in the proper direction. As the reputation of the Company expanded as a desirable place to work, higher qualified mechanics and technicians sought employment opportunities. Despite the dim outlook of bankers for the aviation repair industry, Susan presented her development and marketing plans to prospective financial institutions and put the business on solid financial ground with a new banking relationship. Furthermore, she demonstrated to insurance adjusters, individual customers and numerous vendors that its “business as usual” with no lapse in service or quality. Susan indicates that her plan is to improve the current mix of business and actively market the Company’s services to the corporate sector.

Today, customers, adjusters, and vendors find Susan working long and excruciating hours. Her work ethic hasn’t changed, from the early days of shooting rivets and shooting the paint guns. Her job description has changed, although she occasionally comes to work in jeans to spend time with her mechanics on the floor or the technicians in the paint shop.

Susan attributes the success of the business to setting high workshop standards and expectations, dealing with customers honestly and fairly - exceeding their expectations, and managing by example. One of her business rules of thumb is that the business does not grow on estimates and bids – it grows with customers. “You don’t make money on a bid, your business prospers by finding and creating customers.”

One of her goals for the coming year is to finish her certification for her A&P license. Another goal is to keep recruiting, hiring and training the type of workforce necessary to move the company forward. She is truly a “woman in a man’s world”, but she doesn’t see that as an obstacle to her means of achieving success.

JRA Executive Air. Inc.