Monday, March 05, 2012

Gene Autry's love of planes leads widow to Boca Raton firm

All that was missing was the singing cowboy himself.

Aerospace Technologies Group opened its new headquarters in Boca Raton on Monday with fanfare that included a fighter jet fly-over and a color guard. But the star of the show was Jackie Autry, widow of Gene Autry, billed as "American's Favorite Singing Cowboy."

Employees dubbed their new building "Autry House," saluting the woman who has funded the company's decade-long climb to 130 employees and $22 million in sales. The company makes window shades for commercial airliners and business jets.

Autry, who was married to the Hollywood star of film, TV and radio for 17 years, owns 96 percent of the company, an investment that executives say is in the "tens of millions." She cited both her late husband's love of aviation and the company's product potential as reasons for her interest.
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"My husband would be very proud," said Autry, 70. During an interview, she sang a bit of her late husband's cowpoke tunes and pointed to office wall photos of her husband's days as a fighter pilot.

She beams as the building's "Autry House" sign is unveiled on the new $2 million headquarters.

The 65,000-square-foot building, located at the Research Park at Florida Atlantic University, also houses manufacturing. Employees finish assembly of shade systems for airlines including Emirates, Lufthansa and Qantas. New orders are being readied for delivery to British Airways, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways.

Aerospace Technologies Group has grown from $11 million in sales in 2010 to nearly $22 million in 2011, said Simon Kay, chief executive.

Autry was brought into the business by Chairman Raymond Caldiero, a former Northwest Airlines executive who also attracted Emirates Airline, now the company's top customer.

While her husband was a World War II fighter pilot and also got his commercial license, Autry said she invested in the company primarily for its market potential. Eventually, she hopes the investment will help her generate more personal donations to charity.

Autry is not involved in the day-to-day operation of the company but she is active on the board.

In her early 30s, before she married Autry, she was a bank vice president. Today, she is president of the Gene Autry Music Group, The Autry Foundation, serves on museum and hospital boards, and is the honorary president of the American League of Major League Baseball -- her husband owned the California Angels baseball team from 1961 to 1997.

Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum and president Tim Clark also attended Monday's event. Clark said the Dubai airline bought Aerospace Technologies Group's shade system because it fits the upscale amenities Emirates offers passengers, giving them 100 percent blackout for sleep or laptop use.

More business is on the way for the Boca Raton manufacturer: Clark said 234 widebody aircraft now on order by Emirates will be equipped with shade systems from Aerospace Technologies Group.

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