The Sky’s the Limit

Flying Colours

The company is firmly focused on keeping every aircraft flying safely and efficiently, and it is also prepared to cater to a client’s every whim. From posh business jets draped in elegant décor, to outlandish private planes dripping with bling, anything goes.

The family owned and operated business has grown steadily under the leadership of founder John Gillespie and his three children. “We started out on small Cessnas,” Executive Vice President Sean Gillespie recalls. “And have slowly grown to become one of the industry leaders in aircraft completions and maintenance.”

Today – after several decades of carefully planned strategic growth – the company provides an enviable roster of A-list clients with exterior and interior completions and maintenance on their mid to large sized airplanes. The team also boasts a coveted, and rare, partnership with industry giant Bombardier, the manufacturer of Learjet and other prestigious aircraft. In addition to being a Bombardier authorized service center, the company is one of just three preferred completion centres for Bombardier, Mr. Gillespie reports.

Several key strategies have helped the company reach its current level of success; one is the ability to provide a full range of services. “We have definitely focused on offering every service that you could,” Mr. Gillespie says. The team has added to its breadth of expertise over the years so that, today, it is able to cover virtually every client request. “It is all under one roof. So the client doesn’t have to fly the airplane to two different places which costs him money and costs him down time,” Mr. Gillespie explains.

A design team including graphic designers, material designers, and engineering designers plan and oversee interior and exterior completions; interior installation technicians, cabinet makers, upholsterers, painters, and electrical technicians tend to the cabin and cockpit; a crew of experienced mechanics keep planes running smoothly. “You have to be able to do it all,” Mr. Gillespie summarizes.

Flying Colours’ comprehensive service also allows the company to create a completely personalized product – a huge selling point for many clients. “The biggest draw is the ability to customize,” Mr. Gillespie explains. “Someone comes in here and wants something out of the ordinary, we certainly do everything to accommodate it within the regulations that we are mandated by.” Most other providers, he adds, are unable to offer the same level of customization. In fact, the team works closely with several manufacturers that refer clients with difficult requests. “If they have a client that wants something really out of the ordinary, something really customized, they might source it to us.”

Many clients demand sleek, classically elegant designs. Some requests, however, are downright outrageous. “Some of the things are very impractical,” Mr. Gillespie admits. “But that’s ok, because if it was practical then everyone would be doing it.” Some cients want showers and conference rooms on their planes. They want to control the entire cabin from an iPad. One man requested a completely red interior, a bright red and bright pink exterior, and a giant lily painted across the tail. Another client wanted a checkerboard pattern covering the exterior and an interior covered in carbon fibre.

Similar luxuries on the ground may not pose a problem, but at 37,000 feet, considerations like weight and flammability become major issues. “You have to be careful because you have to meet all the regulatory requirements,” Mr. Gillespie explains. But the team is well versed in accomplishing this balancing act. “We don’t like to say no,” Mr. Gillespie insists. “We are not in the business of saying no.”

The pressure to meet challenging client requests has actually helped keep Flying Colours at the leading edge of the industry. Technological advancements have been a particular focus for the company. For example, the team quickly became expert in maintaining wireless connections during a flight. “[Clients] want to be able to go up 40,000 feet and be able to have Wi-Fi the same as if they were sitting in their office,” Mr. Gillespie explains. “We have gotten in on that on the ground floor so that now we are very knowledgeable in it.”

Exceeding a client’s expectations is imperative in the aviation world, Mr. Gillespie explains. “It is a small industry,” he points out. “And you aim to please everyone because he will go and tell someone. Your biggest marketing tool is word of mouth.” Some of the best marketing is done on glitzy private runways, when a potential client is impressed by someone else’s plane and asks where it was serviced. Of course, drawing this kind of attention requires a display of extremely high quality work. “So you have to be sure you do it right to make it happen.”

Mr. Gillespie believes that the company’s location has also contributed to its success. The Peterborough headquarters is conveniently located close to Toronto and reasonably near to Montreal and New York City. Furthermore, Mr. Gillespie adds, just being in Canada has been a boon to the business. “We have a lot of international clients that say they like coming to Canada,” he explains. “Canada is neutral. There are no hassles when you fly in here.”

A Canadian location is probably not the deciding factor for a client, Mr. Gillespie adds, “but it certainly helps.” Flying Colours also purchased a facility in the United States about four years ago. The team strategically chose St. Louis for its expansion because it helps the company cover a broader geographic area. Clients from the West Coast and South America now have a shorter, more convenient flight to reach a Flying Colours service center.

The expansion into the U.S. is also notable because it came at a time when many businesses were forced to slow down or even scale back. “The market was at a peak in 2007, and then from 2008 it is still in recovery mode,” Mr. Gillespie explains. But with careful strategizing, Flying Colours managed to stay on top – and even open a new facility. Before the Global Financial Crises, around 80 percent of the company’s business came from the United States, simply because that country boasted the lion’s share of North American private planes. During the economic downturn, U.S. sales slumped and the team looked overseas for new business. The strategy paid off, and 50 percent of the company’s client base now hails from other continents. “We’ve emphasized the global growth,” Mr. Gillespie reports. “We have a lot of targeted marketing and sales activities toward the international market.”

The team believes that it is the perfect time to jump in. “The business aviation market is just starting to grow in certain areas of the world,” Mr. Gillespie explains. Asia is a particularly promising place for the industry right now, and the company is working hard to gain a foothold. In fact, a major move into Asia is currently in the works. “We haven’t named any partner or location but we are finalizing our expansion there,” Mr. Gillespie reports. The team has already invested almost a year and half on the deal and is eager to continue moving forward.

The team is also committed to maintaining accounts closer to home. “We are still a North American based company,” Mr. Gillespie points out. In fact, Flying Colours is still actively growing the business on this continent. Current plans include a major facility expansion later this year. Clearly, even though the market is still iffy in the U.S., Mr. Gillespie is optimistic. “It is certainly not where it was in 2007, but it is getting there,” he reports. “There are some spots that are in growth mode and there are some that are still in decline.”

Throughout the upcoming expansions, the team is committed to keeping Flying Colours a close knit, family run affair. “You can count on everyone,” Mr. Gillespie says of the business model. “It works.” Characteristics like honesty and loyalty have always been cornerstones of the company’s culture, and the team is determined to keep it that way.

It is also determined to maintain the rapid growth. “We are growing and growing,” Mr. Gillespie reports. “We are adding people on almost a weekly basis. It is definitely a good time for the company.”

July 17, 2018, 7:31 AM EDT

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