A business model that’s all about staying above water

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 30, 2009, at 10:26 p.m.

Jordan Decker drills almost 100 rivets into each side of the square 2½-foot-wide bulkhead of a typical wheel well to a PK Floats seaplane float. A quarter-inch apart, the rivets look like droplets of water on the dull gray aluminum sheeting.

It takes about two days of meticulous work for Decker to finish one well — and 3½ months for company workers to drill home the 5,000 or 6,000 rivets needed to manufacture a single set of floats — but the 18-year-old LaGrange man likes the work.

“It’s clean and warm here,” Decker said. “There are not too many metalworking jobs that are like that, you know, where you can wear a T-shirt to work every day.”

Alton Bouchard finds himself building his Lincoln float-manufacturing company the same way Decker builds pontoons — slowly, painstakingly.

But the work is paying off.

One of the three largest companies worldwide that specialize in amphibious floats, PK continues to grow despite a deadening world economy, Bouchard said. Counting Decker, the manufacturer is hiring five new workers over the next three months. That should increase its work force to 15 full-timers producing the company’s 11 types of airplane floats.

Bouchard also hopes to sign an agreement within six months to manufacture other sorts of aircraft products that would require him to double or triple his work force, he said.

“We would have to put on a night shift,” he said, “and we would also expand our space, but I don’t know by how much, and it wouldn’t happen immediately.”

If that agreement isn’t reached, the company will continue to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to certify its floats for use on a widening array of aircraft, effectively broadening PK’s customer base, Bouchard said.

“I would not say that we are setting the world on fire,” Bouchard said, “but we are surviving in an industry that has already been hard-hit, because we have innovative products and designs. We don’t have a backlog of two or three years of orders, but we have enough to keep our people and to expand.”

Counting the PK 7000A, a float expected to go into production next year, PK makes 11 models for Bellanca, Cessna, Husky, Maule, Piper and Soloy airplanes. The floats cost $25,000 to $125,000 per pair, said Keith Strange, PK’s general manager and production manager.

The PK 7000A floats will likely cost about $270,000 a pair.

FAA certification takes three to six months per design. The FAA certified the 2250A for all Husky aircraft in November and is working with the company to certify the float for the Piper Aircraft Super and Top Cub models, the Cessna 172 and Bellanca Scout airplanes.

PK has manufactured at least 4,000 sets of floats since its founding in 1954. It has customers around the world, Bouchard said. Many are affluent, corporate or both — such as energy-drink manufacturer Red Bull of Austria — or, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, largely recession-proof emergency service providers.

“We are fortunate that we are small because we can expand in small steps that don’t require a lot of investment or huge capital outlays,” Strange said.

The company settled in Lincoln in 2000 partially because it found a home at the Lincoln Municipal Airport. The airport’s runway, which is adjacent to the company’s property, ends at the Penobscot River — a perfect place to combine aviation with flotation testing.

Town and state officials have also helped PK grow. Last year the Maine Technology Institute of Gardiner awarded it $500,000, which will go toward the development of the PK 7000A. MTI is a state-funded, private, nonprofit agency the Legislature created in 1999 to stimulate research and development leading to the commercialization of new Maine-based technologies.

PK matched the award with $500,000 of its own funds. The money paid for an expansion that almost doubled the company’s 10,000-square-foot building last spring.

Town officials, such as former Town Manager Glenn Aho, Town Manager Lisa Goodwin and economic development director Ruth Birtz, have helped the company get tax breaks and continue to push airport development through the bureaucratic maze of the FAA, Strange said.

Many area pilots land or live in Lincoln to take advantage of the water-airport combination, said Strange, president of the Lincoln Airport Owners and Pilots Association.

“Having the airport together with the water is really a key asset,” he said.

nsambides@bangordailynews.net

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http://bangordailynews.com/2009/01/30/business/a-business-model-thats-all-about-staying-above-water/ printed on August 20, 2014