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Aerosonic adjusts on the fly

Its shipping options limited as demands grow, the Clearwater company improvises.

By KRIS HUNDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001


CLEARWATER -- It looked like business as usual on the production floor of Aerosonic Corp. on Wednesday morning, as workers build sensitive instruments that measure the altitude, air speed and maneuverability of commercial and military airplanes.

But there were subtle signs that things had changed in the previous 24 hours.

A foam case of a dozen new encoded altimeters, ordered for use in military jets, had been quickly moved up the line to final assembly. Another instrument that measures rate of a plane's climb -- in for repair from a military customer -- was in final testing, ready to be shipped. And as J. Mervyn Nabors, Aerosonic's president and chief executive, strolled the factory floor, his cell phone rang with news of a slight problem at the company's office in Wichita, Kan.

The site had received five altimeters from Boeing the previous night, pulled from Air Force T-38 trainer jets and in need of immediate recertification. They needed new aluminum casings and the Wichita plant was running short of supplies.

On any normal day, it would have been a matter of putting casings on an overnight FedEx delivery to Wichita. But Wednesday wasn't a normal day. FedEx planes, like all aircraft, were still grounded as of noon. And there wasn't time to get the supplies there by truck.

But Nabors, a lanky 58-year-old who started in Aerosonic's mail room at 17 and returned to run the plant in 1996, wasn't worried.

"We may have cases on other instruments that can be used," he said calmly. "We'll find a way."

The day after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Aerosonic was finding a way to respond to heightened demand for its flight instruments. Just hours after the attacks, Nabors received a fax from the Department of Defense, putting all military contracts on "full red alert," expediting all orders.

Nabors responded by asking staff in Clearwater, Wichita and at an avionics division in Charlottesville, Va., to identify all new production and repair jobs that were military-related.

In the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, Aerosonic had $24.7-million in sales. In its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said about 71 percent of its sales were to the private sector, with 29 percent to the military. Among Aerosonic's customers are Boeing, Lockheed, Bell Helicopters and Sikorsky, as well as the U.S. military.

"I expect to have a list of all military-related contracts by 9:30 a.m.," Nabors said early Wednesday morning. "And if those orders aren't at the front of the line, they'll be moved forward."

Aerosonic also planned to step up its on-site service to military accounts. By noon, the company faxed customers details about newly formed "alert response teams," available around the clock to test and repair instruments on aircraft at any location nationwide.

Inside the plant, Nabors was busy preparing his staff for an onslaught of expedited orders. His materials department was identifying and ordering items in short supply. And a "fast-track" team of representatives from each department, which normally meets twice a week to respond to customers' requests for faster turnaround time, was told to be ready to gather on 10 minutes' notice.

Aerosonic's precision instruments, made from thousands of components, 80 percent of which are made in Clearwater, generally take 20 working days to complete. But that process could be speeded up, Nabors said, by adding shifts or other resources.

"Right now we're just awaiting instructions," he said, as a TV in the corner of his office carried Secretary of State Colin Powell calling the current situation a "state of war." "At this point, nobody knows how far this is going to go. We've never seen this before, not even during the Vietnam or Gulf War."

As Nabors put Aerosonic's nearly 270 employees on a state of alert, he faced a handful of logistical problems caused by the terrorist attacks.

Phone service to the Northeastern United States and Europe was sporadic and it wasn't until Wednesday morning that Aerosonic's sales rep in Germany was able to get through.

With FedEx planes grounded, Aerosonic had to contact customers with orders ready to be shipped, asking them if they wanted to put the goods on a truck or wait for air travel to resume.

"They could always use military freighters out of MacDill for military contracts," Nabors said. "The scenario is in place, but it's a radical solution."

Aerosonic had to rely on more innovative approaches to bring back executives who were stranded far from home. One staffer, whose plane from Germany was diverted to Newfoundland, was told to buy a car and drive it home.

"I told him we'd sell it when he got home," said Nabors, who came up with the idea during a 3 a.m. phone conversation with the frustrated traveler.

A vice president of marketing who was visiting Lockheed in Fort Worth on Tuesday found himself locked out of the military contractor's plant with no way home. Fortunately, Nabors has a friend with a BMW dealership in Birmingham who offered to send a car and driver to pick him up and return him to Clearwater.

And to a sales rep who was visiting Boeing in Seattle, Nabors had a less expensive option. "I just told him to continue his visit till things change."

- Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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