DULUTH – Stuck in a dead-end job, former Navy mechanic Jessie Gilley and his wife recently packed up their Florida home, put guinea pigs Bumper and Rikki in the back seat and drove 31 hours to Duluth, where a dream engineering job awaited him at Cirrus Aircraft.
“When you have an opportunity to work for a company like Cirrus, you just don’t say no,” Gilley said.
After years of tough times, Cirrus is seeing better days. Gilley is just one of 65 new hires, and the company needs 115 more. “We’d take them all tomorrow if we could find them,” said Judi Eltgroth, Cirrus’ vice president of human resources.
The influx of fresh faces hints at Cirrus’ comeback from the Great Recession, which hammered Minnesota’s lone aircraft manufacturer. Sales of its four-seat propeller airplanes dropped 65 percent to 253 planes last year, as the private aircraft industry was in free fall. Employment at the company plummeted from 1,380 in 2008 to 500 last year.
“We were very nervous. It was far beyond nervous,” said CEO and co-founder Dale Klapmeier.
New ownership, however, is fueling the company’s aspirations to be the first to put a single-engine jet on the market. China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co. bought Cirrus in June 2011 and will be investing an estimated $100 million into Cirrus’ six-year plan to make and sell light, single-engine jets.
“It’s exciting,” Klapmeier said. “It’s fun to be thinking about the future and what we can do, rather than thinking about life as survival.”
Called Vision SF50, Cirrus’ seven-passenger jet will cost just under $2 million, the company estimates. The aircraft features a funky V-shaped tail and a 500-pound engine that sits on the roof of the fuselage. Yes, on the roof.
Klapmeier says the aircraft is easy for novices to learn to fly. It weighs less than a typical twin-engine jet and will cost about half as much. The target market? Corporations, international flight schools, charter companies, entrepreneurs, doctors and other high-net-worth individuals.
Mark Duell, operations vice president at flight tracking firm Flight Aware, said that Cirrus just might do what others couldn’t. Competitors such as Piper, Diamond Aircraft, and Eclipse Aviation all suspended plans for similar jets, making Cirrus “pretty much the only serious single-engine jet maker left,” Duell said.
“They have a much better chance now than when there were four different companies going forward with a similar product,” he said. “I don’t mean to be too skeptical, but getting a new plane program up and certified is incredibly tough.”
So far, the $100,000 deposits placed for the new jet — plus improving sales of Cirrus’ traditional four-seater SR-20 and SR-22 planes — have Klapmeier believing that the company could reach profitability by the end of this year and deliver its first single-engine jet by 2015.
“With new investors, there is plenty of money to get the project done and to get the staffing and equipment needed,” Duell said. “There are other aviation projects we see languish on paper for years and years. But it looks like Cirrus is not doing that.”
Once in production, jet sales could reach $100 million in its first year and $300 million in year two, Klapmeier said recently during an interview at Cirrus’ spacious conference room on the edge of the Duluth airport. The headquarters is four miles from Lake Superior and just across the runway from the Northwest Airlines maintenance hangar that recently got its own second lease on life thanks to a new contract in which AAR Corp. will service Air Canada planes. (The hangar was once used by Cirrus, but it abandoned that lease with the recession’s mean times.)
During a recent visit to Cirrus, workers scrambled, installing new robotics and rearranging the plant. “It’s a lot more fun to be around here now, when we are growing,” said lead airframe engineer Patrick Bergen as he strolled past rows of milky-white SR-22 fuselage-hulls awaiting the next step on the production line.
In a corner of the 300,000- square-foot factory, new hires Mike Appleton and Lee Williams bonded wingless fuselages. Nearby, workers rolled massive wings into a curing room. In the back, Joe Kurgs and Gordy Larson used skinny yellow towbars and hearty grips to yank aqua-colored SR-22s toward the hangar door. Equipped with propellers, doors and fresh paint, the sparkling beauties were each ready for a test flight before final delivery.
With SR-22 production hopping, Bergen’s crew is also making room for the jet on the factory floor. The jet, which will be made of black carbon fiber that is stronger than fiberglass, has inspired cash and faith, and lots of cross-country moves.
Twin Cities natives Craig and Rachel Clough were living in Michigan when they decided to move to be closer to family in Minnesota. They heard that Cirrus was hiring, but its tough times were no secret. Still the couple grilled friends who worked there, friends who had been laid off, and decided that Cirrus was regaining its footing.
In August, they packed up a newborn and toddler and quit good-paying factory jobs in Michigan for a chance to make history in Duluth. “I saw this as an opportunity to get into a company with a really cool product,” said Craig, who was hired to handle IT support services for the jet program.
He joined at the right time. Today, Cirrus is dangling some interesting perks to boost hiring. Employees can learn how to fly an airplane, and they get supplier discounts on Microsoft, Garmin, Fastenal and AT&T products. They can also earn $250 to $2,500 just for referring a friend who ultimately gets hired.
Meanwhile, Cirrus’ Eltgroth is scouring for more engineers, mechanics, designers and technicians. The task isn’t easy, she says, but it’s a lot better than issuing pink slips: “I’ll take this any day over those very dark times.”
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725