By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
More than 70 attendees at this week’s “Sky City Initiative” meet-up in Maryville were treated to an insightful discussion of an entrepreneurial journey that has taken Cirrus Aircraft from building airplane kits to billing itself as a lifestyle company.
Dale Klapmeier, who co-founded the company with his brother in their family barn in Minnesota in 1984, shared the evolution of the company that now makes the final delivery of its several aircraft models to customers from a growing campus at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport.
“We will deliver 440 airplanes out of Knoxville this year,” Klapmeier told the attendees. The company opened its Customer Experience Center at the airport several years ago and opened its latest addition to the campus – a training center – July 9. More construction is underway as the company continues to grow.
Invoking humor along with what is obviously his unbridled passion for flying, the company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) described the 34-year journey that had a bunch of speedbumps along the way, starting with its launch.
“When we told our dad we were going to build airplanes, he said, ‘Well, you don’t have anything now. Go for it’,” Klapmeier said. At the time, he was just out of college, unmarried, and passionate about flying.
“My brother and I started in our barn,” he said. “We kicked the cows out.” The launch date was January 1, 1984.
Building kit planes basically covered their bills, but they were not advancing. “We sold just enough to survive,” Klapmeier says. So, what do you as an entrepreneur when your first venture into airplanes is not such a success? You usually pivot and start a new business. The brothers’ decision was slightly different.
“We decided to get an airplane certified and take on Cessna,” the CEO said with a sheepish grin. Cirrus Aircraft did just that, delivering its first plane on July 29, 1999. It was the SR20. By 2008, the company was producing 16 airplanes a week when the economy and demand for airplanes collapsed.
“We were not able to give one away in a month,” Klapmeier explained after the recession hit. At that time, the company had 103 unsold airplanes. As Cirrus Aircraft began to rethink its business model, the management team decided its purpose was not to design, produce or sell airplanes.
“We realized that we were a lifestyle company,” Klapmeier explained. That decision has made a dramatic difference in the company and is clearly reflected in the operations in Knoxville, starting with the name of the inaugural facility – the Customer Experience Center.
“Last year, more piston planes were delivered from Knoxville than anywhere else by any company,” the CEO said. Through its first 19 years of production, Cirrus Aircraft has delivered 7,000 models of its aircraft including the recently launched SF50 Vision Jet.
An important person in the evolution of the company’s various models has been Klapmeier’s wife. Even though he owned and flew many different airplanes, the CEO struggled to convince his wife to fly with him. Some of the features in the cockpits reflect suggestions she has made over the years. They include the instrument panel that has a look and feel more closely akin to a car, a screen with a map similar to what you might find in an automobile’s navigation system, a window in the back to allow more light in the cabin than is typically the case in other airplanes, and elevated back seats to address nausea that some passengers feel.
“Our airplanes are very sedan like,” Klapmeier explains.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of both the piston and jet models is the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPSTM). In an emergency, the system is designed to allow the airplane to glide to the ground much like a person parachuting.
“We’ve brought 157 people back to their families” as a result of the CAPSTM technology, Klapmeier said. That’s a remarkable record.
The Cirrus Aircraft team toured 34 communities before identifying four finalists for the Customer Experience Center and ultimately selecting the local airport. “Knoxville very quickly rose to the top,” Klapmeier said. “It is Minnesota nice with an accent.”
How good is the new jet? It received the 2017 Robert J. Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association. The award is one of the most prestigious aviation awards.