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Thu, Apr 27, 2023

Enstrom Helicopter Corporation President Retires

Matt Francour to Call it a Career

Enstrom Helicopter Corporation, the American helicopter aerospace manufacturer based on Michigan’s Menominee–Marinette Twin County Airport (MNM), is making ready to say goodbye to its long-time and storied president, Mr. Matt Francour.

For nearly forty-years, Francour has served Enstrom, helping guide the company through a tumultuous and uncertain era from which it has recently and triumphantly emerged.

Francour set forth he will miss interacting with Enstrom’s personnel and expressed his gratitude for the customers by which the company was so steadfastly supported throughout his tenure, stating of the latter: “I have so much appreciation for them. They’ve shown extraordinary loyalty. Once an Enstrom owner, always an Enstrom owner.”

Matt Francour’s association with Enstrom began in 1978, when he took a draftsman position in the helicopter-maker’s engineering department. Francour continued to work in that capacity for several years, contributing to numerous Enstrom designs, including the company’s perennially popular 280 series.

Following a five-year hiatus, Francour returned to Enstrom, helping to design the 480 series turbine helicopters that have become the company’s mainstay.

Leveraging his roles in Enstrom’s engineering division and a comprehensive understandings of the company’s products and the means by which they’re produced, Francour moved on to run Enstrom’s planning department. In time, he ascended the station of Director of Manufacturing, in which he oversaw the entirety of Enstrom’s production, purchasing, and planning operations.

In 2018, then-Enstrom owners, China-based Chongqing General Aviation Group (CGAG), requested Francour take over as the company’s president. Initially reluctant, Francour was ultimately compelled to accept the proffered promotion by an unwavering determination to steer the storied helicopter-maker to a brighter future and the staunch support of the employees with whom he shared a deep and lasting bond.

The Enstrom presidency proved a difficult gig, however, as CGAG grew increasingly unwilling to make investments critical to Enstrom’s growth. The stagnation resultant of CGAG’s reticence was exacerbated by COVID, which shut down Enstrom’s production lines and drastically diminished the company’s output.

“We spent those first three years just trying to survive as a company for as long as we could,” Francour remarked, adding: “Navigating through that difficult time proved to be both my biggest challenge and biggest success as president.”

Notwithstanding CGAG’s paucity of investment, Mr. Francour helped Enstrom land multi-aircraft agreements with the Royal Thai Army and the Botswana Police-Air Support Branch. Also, Francour ensured Enstrom fulfilled its commitments to deliver helicopters to both the Pakistan Army and the Peruvian Air Force.

Despite the aforementioned successes and a thriving customer base, Enstrom, prior to Francour’s leadership, had accumulated a crushing debt load by which the company was forced to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy—a miserable business predicated in part upon the liquidation of many of Enstrom’s assets.

To preclude the permanent shuttering of the legendary helicopter concern’s MNM facility, Mr. Francour set out to find a buyer willing to not only purchase the company in its then abjectly shabby state, but to invest in its rebuilding.

Collaborating with a team comprising Enstrom’s senior managers, the company’s legal counsel, and numerous longtime dealers, Francour identified a buyer—Fort Wayne, Indiana businessman and entrepreneur Chuck Surack, a helicopter enthusiast, Enstrom owner, and founder of musical instrument retail giant Sweetwater Sound.

Describing Surack, Mr. Francour stated: “Chuck’s given us more support financially than probably anybody in my nearly forty-years of working here.”

Emerging from bankruptcy, Enstrom was insufficiently solvent to jump directly back into the costly and competitive arena of helicopter design and manufacturing. Prior to resuming aircraft production, the company would need to win back its workforce—many members of which had taken positions with competing aerospace concerns. Francour hoped to entice sixty-percent of Enstrom’s former employees to return. In the end, however, 92-percent of Enstrom’s former workforce rejoined the company—along with an eight-percent infusion of new talent.

Francour enthused: “The loyalty of these people and their desire to build this particular product, it’s unique … We're rewarding that loyalty. We have investment again. Our workers are excited about seeing the new, big equipment coming in. It’s a whole different world right now.”

Fortified with Chuck Surack’s financial backing and a motivated workforce, Francour could finally realize his vision of reinvigorating Enstrom’s production lines.

Less than a year after Surack’s acquisition of the company, Francour helped secure Enstrom’s FAA Production Certificate, thereby enabling the contingent of loyal workers to ply their collective expertise and experience to producing new parts to support Enstrom’s extant helicopter fleet.

Enstrom production crews were able, also, to construct an entirely new, turbine-powered, 2023 model 480B helicopter equipped with a glass cockpit.  

Enstrom debuted the new and improved 480B model at the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) Heli-Expo 2023. The aircraft was flown to the event by HAI president Jim Viola, who said of the machine: “The excitement of everyone who visited the booth was very heartfelt. … This one surpassed them all.”

Over the course of the multi-day expo, Enstrom sold an impressive 12 helicopters, evincing at once the enduring appeal of the company’s designs and the loyalty of its customers.

Having guided Enstrom out of bankruptcy and positioned the company to retake its place among the rotorcraft industry’s most recognized and trusted marques, Francour believes the time has come for him to step down. Voicing his certainty, Francour set forth: “When Chuck [Surack] took over, it was a breath of fresh air. But, in all reality, I’m 65, and it’s time for the younger people to take over.”

In February, Enstrom named company veteran Todd Tetzlaff its incoming president. Similar to his predecessor, Tetzlaff began his career at Enstrom, only to move on temporarily to another aerospace manufacturer.

Looking to the future, Mr. Francour expressed confidence the company he helped build and save is in capable hands.

To the subject of Tetzlaff’s character and competence, Francour stated: “He’s an extremely smart guy. He knows the aircraft industry. He’s got the demeanor and level-headedness needed to move this company forward. Plus, he’s got great support from Chuck, the senior management team, and the employees.”

Tetzlaff returned the compliment, stating of Francour: “He has mentored me ever since I first arrived at Enstrom. His guidance has been invaluable as I prepare to take the lead, and I am forever grateful.”

Mr. Tetzlaff added: “There are a whole lot of drawings with Matt’s initials on them.  He’s shaped so much of our helicopters and this factory. We will feel his legacy here for generations.”

Mr. Francour has agreed to stay on part time at Enstrom for purpose of helping smooth Tetzlaff’s transition to the big chair.

Francour and his wife have two grown, married daughters, each with two children of their own. Mr. Francour asserted he is looking forward to spending more time with his loved ones, and hopes, also, to finally have time enough to pursue fishing and hunting.

FMI: www.enstromhelicopter.com

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