No one in aviation has escaped the recession, but it seems that some companies are better set up to deal with it because they pursue an old fashioned business model: listen to your customers, do everything in your power to meet their needs, and grow the business only when it makes sense, not to meet the annual demands set by shareholders interested only in a short-sighted return on their investments.
Sonex Aircraft is one such company with an old fashioned focus. “Business is down, like it is for everyone in this economy,” said Mark Schaible, at the company’s four-hangar complex at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, “but the demand is still there, and our business model is serving us well.” The company is busy delivering products and developing new ones, like an electric airplane, for the future.
Flexibility is a business model key that works in good times and bad. As just one example, Sonex’s eight employees don’t have titles: they are responsible for things. For Schaible its PR, marketing, and inventory, “and everyone picks up a broom when needed.”
Outside vendors make most of the parts for the Sonex line of amateur-built aircraft, and the same is true for the sibling business, Aero Conversions, which makes the AeroVee engine used by an ever growing number of homebuilts. Using the VW conversion as an example, Schaible said there’s always more than one quality provider, so the company is rarely in the lurch, and Sonex does all the engineering, so a single source cannot cause problems like those Boeing has faced with its 787 Dreamliner.
Flexibility’s equal partner is deliberate, managed growth, Schaible said. With flexibility, to sustain the business, “you don’t need to grow.” “We work on a real slim margin,” because serving customers more efficiently and economically is often better than nonsensical growth, especially for a business that staked its niche by providing more airplane for less money.
To make his point, Schaible pointed to a kit awaiting its ride. Rather than a big wooden crate that must be moved by a forklift, plastic winds around the stack of boxes on the wooden pallet that carries–and protects–all of the flat sheet metal parts. (Ready-made spars are in the long, skinny crate.) Not only does this system weigh less, which reduces already discounted shipping costs, when the semi arrives, the builder can free the plastic constrained boxes and unload them one by one, and then, with a friend, unload the pallet, which weighs approximately 200 pounds. The packed pallet also fits in the back of a standard pickup truck with the tailgate down.
On the other side of the warehouse are five crated Sonexes bound for a flying club in China. With the world’s currency in its current state, Schaible said Sonex has been doing a fair amount of international business, especially in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South America, and Asia.
Because the Sonex line of 51-percent kit aircraft meet the requirements of light-sport aircraft, creating a special or experimental LSA seems like a no brainer, until Schaible explains that what seems obvious on the surface doesn’t always make sense. Certification would entail something the company avoids–debt. More important, the company–and its customers–would lose the flexibility that comes with the 51-percent rule. “We never rule anything out,” Schaible said, but right now a Special (production) or Experimental (kit) LSA doesn’t make sense.
The opposite is true when it comes to the electric-powered Sonex, the E-Flight Initiative. Unlike some other projects like it, which use off the shelf motors, batteries, and related components designed for low power applications such as a wheelchair. Sonex has to design all the components of its 55 kilowatt system (roughly 73 hp) from scratch, and then have them built. The engineering challenges are considerable, but the Sonex crew has dedicated all of its R&D work (and a lot of its free time, as well) to finding the answers that will lead to a safe, affordable electric 6-g airplane capable of aerobatics.
Sonex started by selling plans, and more than 1,500 sets are now on builders’ workbenches. Then it started selling kits. And then sub kits, and now tail kits, so builders can “get a taste,” to see if they like it before committing to the whole kit. Its growth has been incremental, evolutionary, Schaible said, based on efficiency and intelligent discounts.
Right now what’s important is taking care of the Sonex family. There are more than 250 Sonexes flying, a number that increases by 40 or 50 a year, Schaible said. Many of them are on their second and third owners, so they –and their A&Ps–have maintenance and related questions. And Sonex is ready to answer them, either through online instructions that answer more common questions, or on the phone, because, at the end of the day, satisfying customers is what makes the company work. —Scott Spangler