Overcast   77.0F  |  Forecast »
Bookmark and Share Feed Feed

High-Altitude Investment

Antoine Ajarrista, senior vice president and general manager, Dassault Falcon Jet

Antoine Ajarrista, senior vice president and general manager, Dassault Falcon Jet

Photography by Jason Masters

On the north side of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, Ark., Falcons have come and gone for more than 45 years.

Now the Falcon Jet facility that puts the finishing touches on those airplanes — owned by French aerospace giant Dassault, which had about $6.3 billion in worldwide sales last year — is preparing to build a $60 million expansion that should add decades to their presence in Arkansas.

“We have 30 to 35 planes at a time; today, that is probably the maximum,” said Antoine Ajarrista, Dassault Falcon Jet’s senior vice president and general manager in Little Rock. “We have a million square feet of shops, and we are expanding by 300,000 square feet or a little bit more … it will be complete by the end of 2015.”

That expansion will push the maximum capacity of the facility to up to 90 planes in a year, from about 65 to 67 currently.
Considering a new Falcon Jet can cost from $25 million to $45 million delivered — including the interior being completely finished at the Little Rock facility — that represents a significant shot in the arm to the state’s aerospace economy.

Interior of a Falcon 8X, photo courtesy of Dassault Falcon Jet

Photo courtesy of Dassault Falcon Jet

Interior of a Falcon 8X

Perhaps surprisingly in a state known for its farming output, aerospace is Arkansas’ biggest export to the world, generating some $1.9 billion last year, according to the Arkansas Aerospace Alliance industry group — larger than any single agricultural or manufactured product. That figure includes not just high-end corporate jets but the products of individual suppliers who build parts and systems.

Chad Causey, executive director of the Arkansas Aerospace Alliance, said between 9,000 and 10,000 people work in the sector, with wages starting at or above average for the state and increasing from there. Not surprisingly, he’s bullish on the industry, and he’s pushing to grow it. The alliance established an Aerospace, Defense and General Aviation Caucus during the last General Assembly, recruiting 35 state representatives and senators to join.

“I think the aerospace and defense industry is another one of those wonderful and good secrets we’re trying to make not so much of a secret, to let folks know,” said Causey. “That’s the goal and responsibility of the association.”

Dassault Falcon Jet is probably the most visible aerospace company in the state, and one of its longest tenured. Falcon started servicing jets in Little Rock in 1967 with two hangars; among the work done there was customization of Falcons for Fred Smith’s still-new business, Federal Express. Today it customizes the interiors of jets for customers around the globe.

“The major benefit of having a facility in Little Rock is the central location geographically, providing relatively easy access to both our East and West Coast customers, too. Proximity is important because it enables you to complete the jet closer to the customer as oftentimes they expect maximum customization of their aircraft,” Ajarrista said. “It was pretty much logical to come here with this base of people already knowing the Falcons and ready to support the intentions of the company for the completions.”

Another major factor: an available, skilled workforce.

“We have had, in the Little Rock area, a large and good resource of aviation-related talent, primarily because of the Hawker facility [which closed in 2012] and the Little Rock Air Force Base [in Jacksonville], allowing us to grow pretty easily through the years,” he said.

Ajarrista, who has worked in Little Rock for six years, said the company also benefitted from cooperation with city and airport authorities and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC). Dassault has worked with two- and four-year colleges to help ensure the skill sets they need are being developed for future workers.

“I think for most of the skills, we find them in Arkansas,” he said. “Obviously because we developed some specific processes, we want employees to be trained with processes that are not so widely known, but it’s something we train our employees in, particularly in the shops.”

The company has an apprenticeship program and works with Pulaski Technical College to ensure its aviation program graduates have the right skills coming in.

“In the engineering area we’ve also been looking out of state in previous years,” Ajarrista said. “Now we are building a very good relationship with the University of Arkansas and Harding University. Regarding the University of Arkansas, we have very good relationships with the industrial and mechanical engineering departments. That’s very positive.”

Dassault employs about 1,700 people in Little Rock. The company holds its wage information confidential, but according to Eric Tate, the vice president for human resources, “These are very competitive wages and we have not had difficulty in recruiting people.”

The company cut back its workforce significantly during the economic downturn. They had about 2,100 employees in Little Rock before laying off more than 500 in 2009. With the current expansion, Ajarrista said there will definitely be more job positions opening, though he could not say how many. When it’s finished, the new hangar will increase their total capacity at any one time by an additional 14 jets, but he pointed out those will be the new, larger Falcon 5X jets.

Dassault does business with some in-state suppliers, such as Custom Aircraft Cabinets (see story pg. 26), but there are simply some things they can’t get in Arkansas. For example, specialized composites.

“We’ve looked extensively for suppliers; we can build some in-house but don’t have the capacity to build enough of the components for what we need,” said Ajarrista. “We find many suppliers in Oklahoma or California and some in Europe. It’s preferable to get it close to us. Obviously, we’re looking for the best product, and some of the vendors have eventually relocated to Mexico.”

As far as accommodating future expansions, Ajarrista said Little Rock’s Scott Field is more than adequate for Dassault Falcon Jet’s needs.

“Oh, yes. We fly several airplanes a day but it’s nothing compared to the capacity of the airport,” he said. “On our busiest day, we fly four to five airplanes. We have an excellent relationship with the airport and they’ve been very helpful with the expansion process.

“The only drawback for us is the Little Rock airport not offering direct flights to Europe,” Ajarrista added. “That would be nice.”

On July 12, Gov. Mike Beebe will catch the connections necessary to get from Arkansas to Europe as he leads a trade delegation to the Farnborough International Airshow, one of the world’s largest aviation trade shows. Beebe hopes to establish the relationships necessary to draw more aerospace manufacturers, suppliers and allied industries to the state.

Beebe, who went to France in 2009 before Dassault announced its Little Rock expansion, hopes this trip will look after both the short- and long-term goals of developing the state’s aerospace sector.

“Part of [my purpose] is to let potential manufacturers or distributors know we have a strong aerospace contingent in Arkansas, a workforce and the ability to train a workforce, in an area that already has a proven track record,” said Beebe, who is term limited and will leave office in January. “But it’s also to reinforce the existing businesses here.”

Beebe said he has a few companies he will specifically try and recruit on this trip, though he’s not giving any clues as to their identities in light of how such negotiations are “fraught with sensitivity.”

“Often times, companies haven’t made their final decisions and sometimes don’t want existing partnerships to know what they’re thinking,” he said. “We’re very sensitive to the needs of anybody we’re trying to court.”

After two or three days in London, Beebe said, the delegation will head to France to meet with Dassault officials as well as other French aerospace companies. Then it’s on to Prague in the Czech Republic, where “I’m going to be a little circumspect” as to whom he’d be speaking with — though it’s known that Prague is home to firearms manufacturers, another sector that Arkansas has seen growth in, particularly with the expansion of the Remington Arms plant in Lonoke County and Walther Arms moving its U.S. headquarters to Fort Smith.

Grant Tennille, executive director, AEDC, called Farnborough “the king of airshows” and noted that Arkansas is one of the last Southern states making the trip — an absence he calls “conspicuous.”

“In terms of the size of the industry here, the fact that Arkansas was not at Paris for Farnborough [in 2013] was beginning to be noticed by people from within the industry,” Tennille said.

Also represented will be the Arkansas World Trade Center (based at the University of Arkansas); the companies CAVU Aerospace of Stuttgart and Galley Support Innovations of Sherwood; and airports in Little Rock, northwest Arkansas and Blytheville.

The trip won’t come cheap, Tennille acknowledged — besides the cost of getting everyone there, renting a booth at the trade show costs “tens of thousands of dollars,” he said — but it has become clear to AEDC that the potential return in the form of new investments and jobs in Arkansas would more than pay for it.

“The goal is to talk about the sector here, the opportunity here,” he said. “To convince companies Arkansas is a good place to invest in the United States.”

The Aerospace Alliance’s Causey said there’s plenty for the delegation to emphasize:  Arkansas’ “strategic” location in the middle of the country, near the major aerospace hubs of Wichita, Kan., Tulsa, Okla., and Dallas-Fort Worth, not to mention the $600 million Airbus assembly facility going up in Mobile, Alabama.

“We have a logistical advantage to reach those areas with our suppliers’ products,” said Causey. “Part of our challenge with the alliance is to highlight that.”

It’s also to encourage companies “not just to locate here, but do business here” with existing aerospace outfits, he said. That means proving Arkansas-based companies can provide the quality of work larger manufacturers and aircraft finishers demand — and that ties directly into the ability to produce a homegrown workforce with the skills and certifications necessary.

There’s also the question of facilities, and the state currently boasts what Causey thinks is a no-brainer for a company looking to quickly establish a major presence: the former Hawker Beechcraft finishing operation at the Clinton Airport in Little Rock. It employed 280 people before closing two years ago during the company’s bankruptcy filing.

“I’m not an expert on site selection, but I would have to believe that is one of the most state-of-the-art facilities for a finishing operation here in the central United States, if not farther,” he said.

Ultimately for Causey, an ideal outcome for the Farnborough trip is simply for Arkansas to put “a toe in the water.”
“We’re not going overboard with our presence, but we do feel it’s important to attend and introduce the Arkansas aerospace industry and the strength we have to the world and to the buyer companies,” he said, “If I had a wish it would be simply that some of the companies leave Farnborough knowing Arkansas is a place they will want to look for supplier companies or, possibly, as a potential location to expand their business.”

Add your comment: