Robert Terry was an independent entrepreneur who dared to represent Brazil's aircraft company, Embraer, in marketing its sole product at the time: the turboprop Bandeirante, or Portuguese for "pioneer."
Newton Berwig was a Brazilian pilot who had served in the U.S. Air Force and long worked with Piper Aircraft. He came to open Embraer's first U.S. subsidiary to provide support for burgeoning sales here.
Today, 35 years later, Embraer has grown into the world's largest producer of small planes (37-120 seats) and the third-largest manufacturer of aircraft overall, after Boeing and Airbus. Its regional jets form the backbone of commuter airlines worldwide.
With U.S. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, the company employs more than 1,300 people nationwide, including more than 700 in Florida. The company makes executive jets on Florida's Space Coast, assembles military planes in Jacksonville and plans a high-tech research center in Melbourne employing former NASA engineers.
Next week, Embraer will open that $24 million research center, with plans to hire 200 more people there. Plus, the company plans to add 600 employees in Melbourne at a $48 million facility that will turn out a new line of executive jets starting in 2016, said Gary Spulak, long-time president of the U.S. operations.
"They're arguably the most transformational foreign direct investment in Florida," said Manny Mencia, who runs the international division of Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development group.
"They're the first foreign company ever to assemble airframes in the United States. And that they chose Florida has attracted enormous interest in Florida in the aviation and aerospace world. There now are projections that we will surpass California in the industry," Mencia said.
It's all a giant leap from the 1970s, when Terry began to work with Embraer, just in time for deregulation of U.S. airlines and a boom in demand for small planes by new airlines entering the market with short routes.
In 1979, Embraer followed with its own office, led by Berwig, who was familiar with Fort Lauderdale because he had ferried planes between Brazil and the United States.
Embraer later moved the U.S. headquarters to the Fort Lauderdale airport, where it has grown to employ 270 people and runs a maintenance facility for its executive jets.
Embraer invested heavily in Brazil in the 1990s to develop its regional jets, but the cost proved too much for the state-owned company nurtured under a military regime. In 1994, Brazil's democratic government sold Embraer to a private group, which has revamped operations, boosted growth and now lists shares on Wall Street.
Sales of the regional jets soared worldwide, but the new private owners saw opportunity in executive jets and recognized the U.S. as the world's No. 1 market for private planes.
So, in the 2000s, after an extensive search, Embraer chose Florida's Space Coast as the global headquarters for their executive jet business and the site to produce those jets.
Melbourne won because of its engineering and technical talent, including former NASA employees who had worked on the space shuttle program. It had an airport with room for expansion. Costs were reasonable, partly because Florida has no state income tax, and the area has a port nearby to handle imported supplies. Plus, the Melbourne site is only a couple hours' drive from Embraer's U.S. base, Spulak said.
Embraer has made its Phenom jets in Melbourne since 2011. Customers come from around the country and the world to order to their specifications. The smaller Phenom, which seats up to six people, sells for $4.7 million, and the larger one, seating up to nine, costs $10.3 million.
In all, Embraer's employment in Melbourne should grow from about 350 today to top 1,150 when the tech center and new executive jet lines are fully staffed, Spulak said. One-third of the workforce in Melbourne comes from NASA or NASA contractors, he said.
To service the executive jets, the company also has built multimillion-dollar maintenance facilities in Arizona, Connecticut and Fort Lauderdale, employing hundreds more.
Embraer's military expertise also helped it win a contract recently to supply Super-Tucano planes to the U.S. Air Force. Those two-seaters are being assembled in Jacksonville, and the first of 20 should be delivered in coming weeks.
For Spulak, who has dedicated 31 years to Embraer, what's most exciting is not the company's growth but its culture and its people.
Like its Brazilian parent, the U.S. unit fosters a family-like atmosphere, living its motto: "Our people are what make us fly." Employees in Florida this year voted Embraer one of Florida's best companies to work for, in a ranking published in Florida Trend magazine.
Then, of course, Spulak loves the thrill of aviation.
"You're whisked up in the air 40,000 feet and come down," Spulak said. "It's a magical experience."
Business: Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, with U.S. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.
Founded: In Brazil in 1969, in Fort Lauderdale in 1979.
Financials: $6.2 billion in revenues and $342 million in net income in 2013
Employees: 19,300, including Brazil, United States, Europe, United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore
U.S. employees: More than 1,300, including more than 700 in Florida.
- Story: http://www.sun-sentinel.com