Sunday, April 06, 2014

Textron aviation unit spreads its wings from Charleston area HQ

A big Fortune 500 business is adding some lift to the region's aviation industry.

But in a break from recent tradition, it's completely unrelated to the growing 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston, though Boeing Co. still can take a small measure of credit.

The deal involves a Goose Creek manufacturer that's taking a lead role in a growing venture for its owner.

Textron Inc. is a global player in the aircraft, defense, industrial and finance markets. Its holdings include names like Bell Helicopter, Cessna, Beechcraft and Hawker. Other businesses in the portfolio are E-Z-Go, the big golf-cart manufacturer, and Dixie Chopper, which bills itself as "the world's fastest lawnmower."

Locally, Textron makes aircraft flight and maintenance simulators in Crowfield Corporate Center through one of its subsidiaries, formerly part of AAI Corp.

Last week, the Providence, R.I.-based conglomerate announced a new corporate identity for its Berkeley County unit after combining it with two recently acquired companies: Mechtronix Inc. of Montreal and Opinicus Corp of Lutz, Fla.

The new name is TRU Simulation + Training Inc. The business is expected to generate annual revenue of more than $100 million.

But more importantly, this new three-headed subsidiary will be run from South Carolina. CEO James Takats recently moved to the Lowcountry from Florida. He said he reports directly to Textron's chairman and chief executive officer.

"We are a real focused growth area for Textron, and one that Textron is really interested in," Takats said last week.

TRU is targeting the commercial and military aviation markets.

The defense side of the aircraft simulator business is what lured Maryland-based AAI to expand to South Carolina more than 16 years ago. It began local operations in Summerville in 1997 with 25 employees and a single contract for C-17 work at the Air Force base - there's the first Boeing tie-in.

The business grew, and the company bought its existing Alliance Drive factory from Corning Inc. in 2005. Textron acquired AAI's parent two years later.

The newly recast TRU Simulation + Training now has about 225 employees in the Charleston region, and it's aiming to expand, Takats said. The first step was to switch the merged businesses to a single computerized backbone, he said. It took about three months.

"It was all about getting everybody connected together," Takats said. "Now, we're integrating the companies from the standpoint of working together and getting the engineering to work together on projects in order to do a lot more."

Textron added the Canada and Florida businesses to the Goose Creek unit to balance out the defense and private-sector work.

"If you look at military budgets, they've been shrinking, although I have to say that part of that's been good for the simulator business because simulators are a cost-cutting measure," Takats said.

But the sweet spot clearly is in the rapidly expanding commercial aircraft market, another nod to Boeing, as well as to Airbus.

"The aviation travel market is growing," Takats said. "We have record sales of aircraft. About $192 billion were ordered in one day at the Dubai Air Show. It's a crazy number."

Those kind of numbers ought to help companies like TRU land more orders for their realistic cockpit mockups. A projected worldwide pilot shortage, especially in Asia, also is likely to fuel demand for the high-tech training devices.

"It's a very, very healthy business," Takats said. "It's growing. Some areas are growing faster than others. Emerging markets are growing more rapidly than the U.S., though the U.S. is growing as well actually. There's just a lot of opportunity."

It certainly doesn't hurt to have the Boeing South Carolina campus nearby, But Takats insisted that didn't factor at all into Textron's decision to base TRU Simulation + Training at the Crowfield location. The reasoning was more practical.

"It had to do with an existing facility that Textron owned," Takats said.

It didn't hurt that "Charleston is a beautiful city," he added.

"It's very attractive to bring people to and grow the business as well," he said.


James Takats is CEO of TRU Simulation + Training in Berkeley County.