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Wed, Mar 16, 2005

Piper's Game Plan: Neither Rain, Hail, Sleet Nor Hurricane....

New Piper's "Can-Do" Staff and Attitude Keeps Them Airborne

An In-Depth Series Looking At The State of New Piper Aircraft by ANN Editor-In-Chief, Jim Campbell

ANN readers are no strangers to the tales of woe experienced by a fair segment of the aviation industry, as a result of last year's extraordinary four-hurricane blitz. Indeed, even the ANN offices were clobbered and out of action for the better part of several weeks as a result of Mother Nature's unbridled fury.

Few aero-businesses were as close to the front lines as New Piper Aircraft... a stone's throw from the Atlantic ocean and pretty much ground zero for some of the worst hurricane action we saw in 2004. They got clobbered... not once, but several times. Buildings were hammered, flooded, de-roofed (a problem we know all too well at ANN Central), and a fair percentage of Piper's workforce were temporarily idled as the business reeled from the windy hammering that seemed to come every too-few days over the course of an intensely nasty period of time.

So... after all that, you'd expect Piper to be on the ropes, circling the drain and putting out an SOS, wouldn't ya?

Well... it didn't happen. Not even close.

Mind you, nobody's claiming that they didn't get hurt horribly... but the fact of the matter is that the Piper disaster plan seems to be one of spending as little time as possible licking one's wounds and getting on with "Plan B" at warp speed. With a number of coastal businesses STILL KO'ed, New Piper Aircraft's strategy was to work where they could, move affected tasks and production areas to others still useable, and to get parts and airplanes back in the pipeline as soon as possible. It's a winning strategy.

And yes, it worked. Damned well, so far.

As we visited the Piper plant a few days ago, our progress to a meeting with Piper's CEO, Chuck Suma (shown above in pre-Hurricane days), was delayed by all the people interviewing for new jobs at the factory while the list of people who had reported earlier that day for new jobs ran half the length of the front office's sign-in sheet. It was so impressive that I (jokingly) accused Piper's Mark Miller of setting the whole thing up just to impress ANN (it did!). Piper is growing... rapidly.

And while the initial evidence of damage they suffered is but a few feet away from the displaced main entrance, there is lots of noisy/dusty/busy activity, repairs are underway, people are working in new areas, new (albeit temporary) buildings have been brought in (Suma's office is now set up in a portable building erected to allow he and his senior staff to work while primary repair efforts are lavished upon the production area), and the whole place seems simply devoted to finding solutions to the critical issue of keeping New Piper a major player in the GA universe. 

One of the key elements in the recovery process was the "community" support Piper received from the local town and it's own employees... who made themselves available to support the company and those staffers who were most adversely affected by the blow-out. Both Suma and Piper's Mark Miller were lavish in their praise ("Magnificent" was the most frequent word used to describe the collective effort) of the hundreds of Piper people who helped others get around, repair home and company damage, provided temporary shelter, and just plain moral support. While morale took some hits as staffers worried about the long-term effects of the meteorological mayhem, the malaise didn't last long as people rolled up their sleeves, got back to work as soon as they could safely do so, waded through the mess and moved affected work areas to locations that allowed them to continue production relatively unmolested.

The full "restoration" (as Suma calls it) will take quite a while. Insurance is just starting to pay off and decisions are yet to be made about how to structure the restoration, or even what really needs to be restored/replaced at all. "We've had some money come in, but nowhere near the amount we need to finish the restoration, but we're forging ahead. It's a difficult process since there are multiple layers of insurance, multiple deductibles, to contend with and this is obviously a loss unprecedented in the history of (the state)," noted Suma. 

Most important, the damage has yet to be fully enumerated. Suma explains that, "We're still finding things... the storm drains over in Bldg 20 and 21... there are drains in each building... when the city reviewed our sewerage, they found our water usage skyrocketed when it rains because the roofs are breached, the water runs in, through the drains and runs the usage way up, where it used to run off into the retention ponds... these are some of the things that we have to deal with, daily." 

For the moment, though, Piper is ramping up (rapidly) to get to a 6 airplane a week production cycle and is not all that far from the goal. It is an amazing success story in light of all that they faced, and all that they should have had to contend with. The true measure of the survival spirit in play at Piper is that despite all that they encountered, critical parts deliveries were being made within a week of the storms... and that a big part of the delays in shipping those parts were a function of the ability of the shipping companies to even get to their embattled location. Yes, they got hit... but the effects are neither as long-lived as one would have suspected, nor as critical as they (frankly) should have been.

A tour of the plant shows a lot of temporary changes, but no visible diminishment in quality or integrity. The workforce is obviously resolved to put the hurricanes behind them, and help grow the company in an industry that is finally showing some sustained signs of life. Some of the most critical aspects of the manufacturing process, those that would have been most adversely affected by the environmental problems they incurred, show the least effect, overall.

Mark Miller does explain that such functions, especially the paint shop, got fast attention when the production scheme was altered to avoid damaged structures and the work in that location looks both professional, as well as (very) busy. Miller also admitted that Piper dodged a major bullet in having enough reserve production space (which was already organized exceedingly well as part of their "Factory of the Future" initiative) to reallocate that capacity quickly... and once everything was moved to "drier" spaces, work proceeded with only the smallest possible interruption.

Yes, Piper perseveres... but if you know the history of this company, that shouldn't come as any kind of surprise.

Coming Soon: CEO Chuck Suma talks about the GA market, does some forecasting, talks about a possible Piper jet, and opines on Piper's place in the post-bonus depreciation selling cycle.

FMI: www.newpiper.com

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