Orange County Business Journal Profile of the Week – Leading Edge Aviation

Costa Mesa Aircraft Service Firm Gains on Mergers

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Airline mergers have fueled recent growth at Costa Mesa-based Leading Edge Aviation Services Inc.

The company paints airplanes that range in size from small private jets to those bearing logos of the largest airline companies in the world.

Leading Edge started in 1989 in Santa Ana as a small aircraft-detailing business with five employees, servicing airplanes at John Wayne Airport. It’s now among the largest in the aircraft industry, with more than $50 million in annual revenue and about 1,350 workers companywide, with 25 at its headquarters here.

Its operations include five hangars—a total of 235,000 square feet—and 325 workers at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville in San Bernardino County. Its other facilities are in Mississippi, Texas, Florida and South Carolina.

Leading Edge was one of five companies honored at the Business Journal’s annual Excellence in Entrepreneurship Awards luncheon, held March 21 at the Hyatt Regency Irvine.

Founder and Chief Executive Mike Manclark said it wasn’t an easy road to the podium.

“Pain spells the first four letters of paint,” Manclark quipped in accepting the entrepreneurship award.

Manclark drove fuel trucks and carried “janitor’s buckets” during the day and cleaned private jets at night for several years before eyeing bigger possibilities. Then he decided to bid on a maintenance job for McDonnell Douglas Corp., now part of Boeing Co.

His motto of “we always say yes” landed the work, and he exceeded expectations.

“That was the leap,” Manclark said. “That’s how we stepped into commercial airlines.”

The company recently received an AS9100 certification, a global quality-management standard for the aerospace industry. It’s painted more than 7,500 planes in the last 25 years, including an unprecedented 400 in just the first half of 2011.

“The last few years, which were the most difficult for the economy, we’ve been growing by 18% each year,” Manclark said in a later interview.

The recent surge in business stems in part from the merger of Chicago-based United Air Lines Inc. and Houston-based Continental Airlines to form the world’s largest carrier.

Leading Edge is painting 650 airplanes for the new company’s combined fleet of more than 1,270 planes, using a design that combines the airlines’ names and colors. The project is split among several Leading Edge facilities and set for completion by year’s end, refurbishing 16 United planes and 25 Continental planes per month.

160 Gallons

Painting an aircraft can take up to 160 gallons of paint, Manclark said. A makeover typically involves stripping old paint, sanding surfaces and applying paint schemes over the body, tails and wings, which requires attention to intricate details of designs.

It can cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to paint a wide-body jet of the sort featuring twin passenger aisles, such as the Boeing 767. A narrow-body plane with a single passenger aisle, such as the Airbus A319, costs about $50,000.

Leading Edge repainted 400 planes of Egan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines after it was sold to Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. in 2008 and also did some work for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. last year. The company is awaiting word on whether it will get a piece of the business that’s expected to follow Southwest’s ongoing merger with Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Airways.

Other major customers include Louisville, Ky.-based UPS Airlines, a cargo fleet owned by United Parcel Service Inc.; Air Canada in Quebec, Canada; and Mumbai, India-based Air India.

The company also has a contract to apply final coating on 787 Dreamliners built in South Carolina by Chicago-based Boeing. The first Dreamliner is expected to hit Leading Edge’s new Fort Worth facility hangar in coming months.

The company secured a 20-year lease on a 69,490-square-foot facility in Fort Worth last August. The site is expected to have 150 employees at full production, with Leading Edge aiming to paint seven planes a month.

Touch Ups

Airplanes generally need to be retouched every five years, and that provides a regular flow of additional work for the company, Manclark said.

“Airlines have to be on an aggressive schedule to keep track,” he said.

Leading Edge also does aircraft-interior modifications such as work on carpets, fabrics, seatback covers, countertops and lavatories. It also has offers mobile painting services for individual airplanes.

The company continues to grow.

“We’re expanding into the military market,” Manclark said. “And we’re short-handed even with 1,350 people.”

About Vance Street Capital LLC

Vance Street Capital is a middle-market private equity firm focused on investing in highly engineered solutions businesses across the industrial technology, medical, life science, aerospace and defense sectors. For over two decades, Vance Street’s partners have worked with management teams and family owners to accelerate revenue growth, improve operations and acquire strategic assets for the companies in their investment portfolio. For more information please visit: www.vancestreetcapital.com.

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