The hoopla over the 75th birthday of the Cub has almost buried the fact that this year is also the 75th for the company. The J3 Cub, and every one of its descendants, is long gone from production, but the company, Piper, soldiers on. In the high stress environment of airplane manufacturing lasting that long is more than noteworthy.
To celebrate Piper held a party at its Vero Beach, Florida, headquarters last weekend. Dozens and dozens of Piper owners flew in for the shindig. The ramp had lots of yellow Cubs, but there was a representation of just about anything and everything that Piper built over the years which is a pretty amazing variety.
The hardest part, I think, of building airplanes, any airplane of any size, cost or capability, is really one thing—building the right number. Build too many, or too few, and every other aspect of the company’s business spirals down.
Under the leadership of president and CEO Simon Caldecott, and the ownership of the Ministry of Finance of the Government of Brunei, Piper has nailed that difficult task this year. In the first three quarters Piper delivered 76 airplanes with a total value of $69 million, up more than 20 percent compared to last year. Simon told me only a single airplane in the rest of this year’s production remains unsold.
Piper has been on a roll with total sales growing each year since 2009. The total number of airplanes built has not grown along with the dollars because Piper is building and selling more of its top-of-the-line single-engine “M-Class” Mirage, Matrix and Meridian airplanes. The M Class airplanes, as with any premium product, deliver a larger margin than the lower cost basic singles Piper sells mostly for flight training.
Piper recently delivered its 500th turboprop single Meridian. The Meridian has been in production since 2000 and is the entry level pressurized personal turboprop single.
How has Piper succeeded under such trying economic conditions since the fiscal collapse in 2008?
Piper’s airplanes have, of course, been improved. The quality of the workmanship has never been better. The cabin interiors are now second to none in piston aircraft manufacturing. The quality of the paint and exterior finishing is simply excellent. That wasn’t always true over the years at Piper.
The company has also worked aggressively to offer the latest in flat glass avionics. Just this past week it announced that it was installing the Garmin G1000 integrated flat glass avionics system in its Seminole piston-twin trainer, and the Archer single-engine trainer. The first airplanes go to Florida Institute of Technology that made a fleet purchase.
But building better airplanes is only part of the Piper success story. The other, maybe more important aspect, is that Simon and his leadership group recognize the reality of the market. They understand that flight training is the future for most basic piston singles. And they also have figured out how to make the M Class airplanes appealing to pilots who want fast and capable personal transportation.
It must have been a painful decision to shelve the PiperJet, nee Altair, but it has certainly proven to be a wise business move. The cost of getting a single-engine jet into production is enormous and the payback would have been long.
But Simon told me at the big party in Vero that the company is not standing still. He has plans for new models to suit market niches Piper is not serving. He wouldn’t tell me what was in the works, or when to expect it, but he knows Piper needs to build for the future, as well as the present.
The financial history of Piper has been a tortured one with multiple owners and radical changes in direction over the years. There were good times with the Cheyenne 400 flying at 41,000 feet setting speed records across the country. But there were also crushing reversals when plants were closed and the company suffered through bankruptcy.
The great news is that now Piper has got it right. It is building airplanes that are in demand, and building them at the rate they can be sold. That is the formula for success whether you build Boeings or Warriors. A Cub started it all 75 years ago, but shrewd airplane refinements and production management are key to the success we all want Piper to enjoy for another 75 years.