Running a successful MRO operation is hugely demanding, requiring a very significant investment in skilled technicians, hangarage and parts as well as the highest standards of service and quality control. However, these are exactly the reasons why Tom Foley, the CEO of Stevens Aviation, one of the top MRO companies in the eastern United States, likes being involved with maintenance and repair services. “The competition is tough, but once you are established, there’s a very steep entry cost for new players, so that makes it a good business to be in,” he notes.

Foley has headed up Stevens Aviation since he acquired it in 1989 as part of his share of a three-way buyout of the North Carolina textile manufacturer JP Stevens. Today’s MRO operation began as part of the flight department of JP Stevens, under the direction of the company’s chief pilot, Ralph Cuthbertson, back in the early 1950s. At the time, JP Stevens ran several Beechcraft aircraft and some of the family were pilots.

The buyout, for $1.2 billion, involved the rival, Georgia-based textile producer West Point-Pepperell, the Bibb Company, owned by Foley, and Odyssey Partners, a Wall Street investment firm.

Foley’s involvement came out of his background in private equity. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and had a stint with the consultancy firm McKinsey & Company before joining Citicorp Venture Capital. He left CVC to set up his own private equity firm, NTC Group, in 1986. Shortly after he launched NTC, Foley bought a textile firm, the Bibb Manufacturing Company, in Georgia. Initially, therefore, the buyout looked like simply a consolidation move in the textile business, with two textile companies acquiring a third, but when it came to deciding who got what with respect to the target company, Foley found himself excited by the idea of acquiring JP Stevens’ former flight department, which had branched out and was offering services to owners of aircraft outside the Stevens Group.

“The original flight department had grown significantly,” Foley says. “They’d bought several FBOs and extended their MRO services well outside the JP Stevens fleet, building a broad customer base among Beechcraft owners in the Eastern US. I was a pilot myself, and loved aviation, so I jumped at the chance of getting hold of the operation,” Foley recalls.

A few years after purchasing Stevens Aviation, Foley took up the hugely demanding task of serving as the Director of Private Sector Development for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, tasked with much of the rebuilding of the Iraqi economy. His responsibilities from 2003 to 2004 included overseeing a large number of the 192 state-owned enterprises in Iraq and trying to stimulate private sector growth at a time of rising sectarian violence between the country’s Sunni and Shia populations. He received the Department of Defence Distinguished Public Service Award for his service in Iraq.

He had a brief few years back in the US at the helm of NTC Group, but from October 2006 to January 2009 he was asked by President George Bush’s Administration to serve as the US Ambassador to Ireland. This was a period when US policy was not going down well in Ireland. Foley had his work cut out explaining and winning sympathy for US policy at the same time as he worked, along with the US Ambassador to the UK, Robert Tuttle, and special envoy Paula Dobriansky, to re-establish devolved Government in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement. He was able to witness the success of these efforts in person, in Belfast on May 8 2007, at the swearing-in of the new Northern Ireland government.

In June 2009 he declared his intention to run for the US senate against the incumbent, Christopher Dodd. However, when the Governor of Connecticut Jodi Rell announced that she would not be running for a second term, he withdrew from the Senate race and sought the Republican nomination to run as a candidate for governor. He won the Republican primary in August 2010 and became the official Republican candidate, narrowly losing to the Democrat Dannel Malloy in a whisker-close contest (48.95% of the vote versus 49.50% of the vote). He took on Malloy once again for the governorship in 2014, again winning the Republican primary and beating his rivals convincingly, but he lost to Malloy in another extremely close contest, (48.1% versus 50.9%).

With politics on the back burner again, Foley was once more free to turn his attention full time to Stevens Aviation, which had long disposed of its FBO interests, apart from Dayton, where the company provides fuel for client use when they visit the MRO.

The business now consists of three major operational bases, in Dayton, Nashville and Greenville, with Dayton and Greenville providing a full service operation. This includes having both paint shop and interior refurbishment capabilities as well as being a Part 145 repair station. Stevens Aviation has retained its Beechcraft pedigree and now provides services for the entire Textron fleet, as well as for Embraer Phenoms and Legacy aircraft, Dassault Falcons, Gulfstreams, Global Expresses, Challengers and Lears.

“We are strictly a General Aviation shop. We do no work on commercial airline derivatives such as BBJs and ACJs. Embraer Legacies are probably the largest aircraft we work on, along with Dassault Falcons, Gulfstreams and Global Expresses,” Foley explains.

Growing an MRO operation has its challenges, but a very successful growth route for Stevens Aviation, under Foley’s direction, has been to expand the military contracts side, as well as providing MRO services, avionics upgrades and interior refurbishments to other government department aircraft.

“Today about 35% of our business is military contracts, and we are very proud of that fact. The standards in general aviation are very high and we are a very highly regulated industry, but customers know that the standards demanded by the US military are even higher. So they like the fact that we do work for the military. It acts as a quality kite mark,” Foley comments.

Along with the MRO work, Stevens Aviation specialises in refurbishments and avionics upgrades. When owners bring aircraft in for a significant mandatory inspection they often take the opportunity to upgrade the aircraft, add on modifications and refresh either the cabin interior, or the exterior paintwork, or both. As a full service, one-stop MRO destination, Stevens is well equipped to deal with all the client’s requirements, Foley says.

One of the major challenges for any MRO operation is to ensure that everyone works to the highest standards every day, with no falling away. “We keep a very tight grip on quality. We have a zero errors initiative in all three of our locations and we have programmes in place to track anything that even looks like an error. Every time we catch anything we engineer a solution to make sure that that particular near-slip up or actual error never occurs again. So our error rate in the last ten years has dropped to virtually zero,” he comments.

Once you manage to really get a zero-error culture bedded down in an organisation it has a tremendous guiding effect on employee behaviour. Everyone is that much more careful, and that much more professional about everything they do. No one wants to be the guy who slipped up, even fractionally.

“MRO is all about aircraft safety. We are in a business where safety is paramount. It is the number one concern and there are real consequences if people make errors. So our team stays alert and focused at all times,” he notes.

Another challenge is that the high standards in the sector really demand deep experience from staff, which really only comes with maturity. But at the same time, with 300 employees, Stevens Aviation also needs to keep a steady stream of younger, skilled technicians coming along. “You have to bring in new people and younger people for two reasons. First, obviously, you want to ensure you have a continuity of skills as people age and retire. Second, there are new aircraft and systems coming out all the time. Younger technicians tend to be better adapting to change, so they fit in well with newer aircraft and avionics. We partner them with older, experienced technicians who have, as it were, seen the movie multiple times, and that works well,” he notes.

Foley has been particularly impressed with the Embraer product line up. “There is no doubt that they have a great line up. We do a lot of maintenance work on Phenom 100s and 300s and the fractional fleets that use them seem to like them. All the aircraft OEMs are having a hard time selling aircraft in the current market, but Embraer is holding its own. The nice thing about these aircraft is that they are all basically brand new. So they tend to incorporate all the latest materials and technology. We still see a number of aircraft coming in for maintenance work that are forty and fifty years old, and some of them are just not able to take advantage of some of the technology that is available today.”

“MRO is a hard business for two reasons. One is that on the types of airframes that we work on, MRO is a very complex affair with high skill requirements and a very demanding regulatory environment that you have to comply with. The second is that this is a service business and like all service businesses, it requires a higher level of effort and attention to the customer than is demanded from operations that just sell product. If you make a mistake in a service business, it is very easy to lose customers and it is very hard to win them away from a place where they are happy. So we pay a huge amount of attention to the relationship with the customer,” Foley says.

MRO has become an even more difficult business over the last five years or so because the aircraft OEMs have responded to falling sales by trying to increase their revenue take from after-market services, including MRO and upgrades. However, Foley points out that Stevens Aviation has been winning customers despite this renewed effort from OEMs. “We are able to provide a much more flexible and personalised service. We work with the customer to find the best and most economical solution to their problem. We fit their visit into their schedule, whereas OEMs often will just slot them into a queue and the customer had better have the aircraft available when their number comes up. If you want to come and see how we are getting on with your aircraft, we’re happy to have you stay with us and watch. This is a personal service business as well as a technical business and we strive constantly to excel at both,” he concludes.