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High-flying enterprise: Aviation executive focuses on partnerships as he promotes sales

Rick Brainard oversees sales for West Star Aviation, including the variety of aircraft services offered at the company’s operations in Grand Junction. Brainard also has been recognized as Entrepreneur of the Year. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Rick Brainard leads an impromptu tour of the expansive maintenance facilities at West Star Aviation.

As he walks briskly through cavernous company hangars at Grand Junction Regional Airport that resemble parking garages for jets, Brainard points out the various makes of airplanes and checks off the assortment of maintenance and renovation work under way. New instruments. New interior. New paint scheme.

Brainard sees beyond the sleek fuselages and swept wings, though, to the partnerships that make it all possible. He’s a big believer in partnerships, including partnerships with customers, suppliers, employees and the community.

“I view everything as a partnership.”

It’s an approach that’s brought success to Brainard as vice president of sales at West Star Aviation.

That’s not to mention what was for Brainard a surprising and satisfying measure of recognition as Entrepreneur of the Year. He received the award as part of the recent Entrepreneurship Day activities at Mesa State College in Grand Junction.

“You’re flattered when people notice the things you do,” Brainard says. But he quickly adds, “We do the things we do because it’s good for business, it’s good for the community, it’s good for partnerships.”

Chris Reddin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction, was involved in selecting Brainard for the award and counts herself among those who’s noticed the operation at West Star Aviation. “I’m very impressed with West Star in general, and I think Rick has a lot to do with it.”

Reddin also appreciates the concept of growing business through partnerships. “That comes across. They want to be part of the community. They want to have local vendors. They want to have partners, and that’s fantastic.”

Brainard joined West Star Aviation in 2005 to serve as general manager of the company’s facilities in Grand Junction. As his attention shifted increasingly from management to sales over the next three years, he became vice president of sales not only for Grand Junction, but for a corporation that also operates facilities in Illinois, North Carolina and Texas. The position is the latest for Brainard in a career in the aviation industry that’s spanned nearly 30 years and included work with companies large and small.

Brainard earned a degree in flight technology from Western Michigan University and initially wanted to fly business jets. While he flew a single-engine airplane as part of his first job out of college, he soon discovered another passion. “I fell in love with the business side of aviation.”

Brainard subsequently worked with a succession of companies selling aircraft instruments, interior renovations and other services.

Brainard’s initial position with West Star Aviation was general manager of company operations in Grand Junction. West Star is what is known in the aviation industry as a fixed base operator, offering fuel, maintenance and other services.

The West Star facility is the largest of four facilities owned by an investment group based in Kansas. The West Star operation includes about 220,000 square feet. With more than 300 employees, the company ranks among the largest private employers in the Grand Valley.

Brainard estimates that West Star derives about 99 percent of its business from outside the Grand Valley and 92 percent of its business from outside Colorado.

The company attracts customers from the around the world, including corporations as well as individuals, with a global reputation for its aircraft maintenance and renovation services, Brainard says. At any one time, West Star crews work on more than 30 airplanes.

Aircraft maintenance accounts for the bulk of business at West Star, about $35 million to $45 million a year, Brainard estimates. Fuel sales bring in about $8 million a year, followed closely behind by instrument upgrades, interior renovations and painting. Maintenance is an ongoing part of operating aircraft, Brainard says, while instrumentation, interior and paint upgrades fall under what he terms “elective dollars.”

Recent trends in the industry have helped boost business for West Star, he says. In the aftermath of a recession, the inventory of used aircraft increased and prices dropped. Rather than buy new aircraft, many buyers purchased used airplanes and refurbished them, ending up with what are in essence new planes at a lower cost. The result has been more business for West Star.

The company offers what Brainard calls “pre-buys” — pre-purchase inspections to determine the condition of aircraft. Brainard considers pre-buys a leading indicator of sorts since many of the customers who order them come back for subsequent maintenance and renovation work. While West Star conducted just three pre-buys in 2009, the number increased to more than 20 in 2010 and already has topped 40 so far in 2011, he says.

A number of changes Brainard has implemented also has helped bolster business at West Star, including an expansion in the makes and sizes of aircraft the company services. There’s a proportional relationship between the size of an airplane and the revenue generated from maintenance and renovation services, he says. “There’s an awful lot of desire to be in the big airplane business.”

Brainard reorganized the operation and trained employees so they could work on different maintenance and renovation programs. The change afforded more flexibility in deploying the work force to meet different demands. Moreover, program managers were empowered to run their operations like independent businesses. “That drove efficiency like you wouldn’t believe,” he says.

And then there’s that partnership thing. As manager and later vice president of sales, Brainard has maintained his focus on building partnerships, whether it’s with customers, suppliers, employees or the community.

 

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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