Monday, January 16, 2012

San Marcos aviation company has grown into globe-trotting business


With the more than $19 million in private capital Berry Aviation raised last year, Berry says he plans to add a fourth hangar in San Marcos as well as another plane or two in Afghanistan.

SAN MARCOS — The San Marcos Municipal Airport is about as low-key as you can get. A mile or so east of Interstate 35, visitors are greeted by plowed fields before they spot the control tower.

Yet inside a group of large hangars, Sonny Berry has grown his business, Berry Aviation, into something more out of a Tom Clancy novel.

Berry talks about the perils of landing planes in Afghanistan — such as mortars, one of which exploded near his planes at Bagram Airfield in the Parwan province last year.

"We're a specialty aviation provider, is what we call ourselves," said Stan Finch, director of operations. "Just because there's not any one term that really fits."

In roughly three decades, the aviation company has become a globe-trotting business, providing services and flight support for a diverse list of clients. That roster ranges from college sports teams to U.S. counternarcotics agents in Afghanistan to corporate executives — and even flying government personnel to a U.S. ballistic missile defense site in the Marshall Islands. The company owns 23 planes, had

$50 million in revenue last year and recently raised $19 million to expand further.

All that grew from a man who started the company predominantly to support his love of flying. "I still can't believe it," Berry said.

In 1983, Berry started his business in Austin with a twin-engine Piper Seneca. He'd taken up flying and needed a way to pay for his expensive new hobby.

His revenue for 1983 was about $10,000. By the mid-1980s, business had picked up. But then the real estate market and savings and loan industry tanked.

"All of a sudden, we didn't have anything to do to pay for our flying," Finch said.

Then they noticed a civilian plane flying into Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio.

It turned out the plane was flying classified documents, as a courier service for the Department of Defense — essentially a private mail system for the government.

"I thought, 'Well, we can do that,'" Finch said.

The contract came up for bid, and Berry Aviation won it, starting a 22-year partnership that lasted until 2009. That opened the door for a partnership with the federal government, which has expanded in a variety of ways.

Berry's company now provides flight support — transporting personnel and other materials — for the U.S. government in Afghanistan (where the company operates four planes) and in carrying personnel to the a ballistic missile defense site in the Marshall Islands.

In doing such operations, the company's pilots have had to become experts at flying — and landing — in tough conditions.

"We land in some pretty weird places in Afghanistan," Berry said. "And you don't want to stay there very long. They don't just throw rocks at you over there."

Last August, an insurgent lobbed a mortar into the Bagram airbase that exploded near two of Berry's planes. No one was hurt.

In fact, Berry's company has never had a pilot or passenger killed or injured. And they've kept a reputation for quality that's given them an edge over larger competitors, they said.

"We're not the cheapest," Berry said. "And we do things, we like to think, the ... safest way you can possibly do it in these remote areas. And that's one of the reasons why we're so well-liked and sought after by different governmental agencies."

Government work is the biggest part of Berry's business, but he's also diversified into light cargo shipping for the auto and oil field industries.

For example, one of his planes might go to Mexico, pick up a load of light bulbs and fly them to an assembly plant. It's fast-paced work; contracts are awarded quickly, and planes are expected to be in the air in less than an hour.

"The dollar value that we carry is nothing, compared to the dollar value lost if they have to stop the assembly line," Berry said.

And of course, the company still runs charter flights for people across the United States, ranging from executives to sports teams to people on casino junkets.

Inside its San Marcos headquarters, Berry and Finch showed off their control center, where they monitor all their planes. Several were shipping auto cargo. Another plane was flying college athletes to Norman, Okla.

Finch pointed to a plane flying from California — it was carrying Japanese tourists to the Grand Canyon. "That's all that plane does," he said.

Last year, Berry Aviation dipped into the private capital markets for the first time, raising more than $19 million.

Berry has big plans, such as adding another hangar to his three in San Marcos. He said he also wants to add another plane or two to his Afghanistan operation.

And he's looking at starting an air carrier in the Central African country of Chad. With counterterrorism operations moving from the Middle East to Africa, many governments might have business there in the future, he reasoned.

Berry Aviation employs more than 200 people worldwide, 125 of whom work in San Marcos. Berry says he'll hire another 10 to 20 next year in San Marcos.

Still, that makes Berry Aviation a small company compared with some of its competitors.

And Berry and Finch, both Austin natives, clearly take pride in being able to beat the bigger boys; they repeatedly mention that they're one of the smallest companies in their field.

"What we have discovered over the years is that we have to be really, really good at air transportation and the support services that go along with that," Finch said. "In some respects, that's a pretty generic thing. And then we get the right people that really know a particular line of business, and we're able to leverage that expertise here at the mothership, into being really good and being able to compete head-on with these companies that are only able to do one thing well.

"They're one-trick dogs," he said. "And we're not a one-trick dog."


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