Local company takes to the skies to grow its business

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007
— The idea was simple enough, or so thought Ernie Grainger.

The Swiss Colony had a couple of planes flying a total of about 250 hours each year. That left considerable downtime, and Grainger thought the Monroe-based manufacturer and marketer of seasonal and special-occasion gift products could make its planes available to other companies, thereby reducing its own costs.

It was a tough sell to The Swiss Colony’s owner, who thought the planes wouldn’t be available when the company needed them.

But Grainger’s argument won out, and The Swiss Colony today runs a division based at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport that includes 11 aircraft that on any given day are crisscrossing the country with business folk and celebrities.

“When we started, the plan was to charter our aircraft so we could use them more internally,” Grainger said. “But it sort of backfired, because when the owner saw initial returns, he said ‘let ’em fly.’”

SC Aviation, which owns three jets and manages the other eight for other companies, has a hangar and offices at the north end of the airport. It’s the largest on-demand charter operation in Wisconsin and has been profitable every year since it started flying in 2000.

Industry analysts have pegged The Swiss Colony’s annual sales as somewhere north of $500 million. John Baumann, The Swiss Colony’s president and CEO, said SC Aviation accounts for “a couple percent” of the company’s sales.

SC’s fleet, which includes Hawkers and Learjets, flies about 6,000 hours a year. Grainger, has a growing staff of 34 pilots, five schedulers and five mechanics, all who live within 45 miles of Janesville. An office/hangar expansion project is on the table to nearly triple SC Aviation’s footprint.

On any given day, Grainger’s staff is busy coordinating charter trips often scheduled at the last minute. Weekday flights are typically business charters, while weekend trips tend to be booked by those with deep pockets and designs on leisure travel. Entertainers, athletes, former presidents and prime ministers have boarded SC’s fleet.

Grainger, SC’s president and CEO, attributes the company’s growth to the hassles associated with commercial travel.

The hourly rate to charter one of the Learjets is $2,200; for the larger Hawkers, it’s $3,450. Crew, layover and overnight charges add to the cost.

“The airlines are our best advertising,” Grainger said. “For the people who have the money, they can’t afford not to travel this way.

“If you’re doing a $50 million deal, a $30,000 trip is a pittance.”

Baumann said SC does solid business with clients in southern Wisconsin. But its biggest market is to the southeast, as evidenced by the number of trips SC makes between Janesville and airports in the Chicago area.

“There are a number of people who prefer this way of travel, particularly since 9/11,” Baumann said. “It’s fast, convenient and people are starting to value their time a little more.”

Scheduled commercial airlines use fewer than 500 airports across the country, and 80 percent of their flights are between just 22 major hubs. Charter operators use those airports and nearly 5,000 more.

In reaching those, SC pins its wings on safety and customer service.

“Anyone can haul someone somewhere,” Grainger said. “But if you want a particular type of coffee or hot tea on board, we’ll make unbelievable efforts to get it.”

And if weather diverts an SC jet away from its intended destination, staff will work the phones at all hours to make sure the client has appropriate ground transportation.

In it’s 60 years of flying, The Swiss Colony has never had an incident or accident.

“We’re very conservative in the way we fly,” said Grainger, a former Air Force pilot with more than 37 years and 8,900 hours of flying experience. “If our pilots have any concerns, they make the decisions, and I stand behind them. I might ask them why, but I stand behind their decision.

“An accident wouldn’t close our doors, but it would put us in a position of basically being out of business.”

Last updated: 10:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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