When a company reaches its centenary year, it has earned the right to celebrate. This milestone is not achieved through luck; a sizeable portion of the success is down to more tangible factors such as strategy, product, and dedication. And these are three primary aspects of how Airborne Systems does business.
The company is proud of a history that has seen it navigate through various markets and products. However, the business is now firmly fixed on one key market: providing and maintaining parachutes for the military.
“We are a parachute company,” Chief Technology Officer JC Berland states. “We design, test, and manufacture parachutes for the armed forces. We probably have about seventy customers worldwide – only military – we don’t sell to the general public. Domestically, we serve all branches of the U.S. DOD, including the Special Operations teams.”
While the military is the target market, Airborne Systems also operates in other closely related fields. “On top of this core business, we also have a division for Space and Recovery. If you look at the U.S., everything that comes back from space, whether it is NASA, Boeing, Blue Origin, or another commercial Aerospace company, it is Airborne Systems. If you see a parachute in the air our goal is for you to recognize that it comes from Airborne Systems,” says Berland. “It looks different, performs better, and lands safer.”
The company has been focused on this business model for almost two decades now. However, prior to the decision to specialize, the company was involved in many areas. “One of the companies that is now part of Airborne Systems was called Para-flite. That company was created in 1969, and originally, it was a sports parachute company.”
Berland identifies the turn of the century as being a landmark year for the company. It was then that, having taken a step back to analyze the different markets and business models it was adopting, it realized that by splitting the business into different areas, the company was weaker. “Around the year 2000, we realized that if we wanted to focus on the military market, we would have to give up the sports division because the two business models are very different. When we create a parachute for the military, the parachute has got to be in service for twenty, thirty, forty years, and so the structure and the quality, the traceability, everything you have got to do is so much more stringent than you would have to do for the sports market,” he explains.
“With sport, you would have to change your product line virtually every single year, even if they were just minor changes. When you deal with the military, you are not allowed to do that. Once a parachute is in service, if the U.S. Army wants to buy another one, they want to buy the exact same one as thirty-five years ago. It would be very hard for these two business models to cohabitate.”
This focus on the military market did not lead to wholesale changes, however. Skills and procedures that had been crafted and honed over the years in various markets could be used to the company’s benefit. “It served us well because it allowed us to keep the entrepreneurial spirit of the company, the innovation, and the quick turn-around, these kinds of things that are necessary in the sport or recreational field. We kept that spirit, and on top of it, we added a very high-end structure when it comes to production and quality. The two concepts merged really well.”
The company has built a reputation for its long-running relationships with the military. This, Berland argues, can be attributed to the in-house knowledge that the company has in the field. Since many of its employees are ex-military personnel, Airborne Systems can adapt its products with an insider’s view.
“A lot of us on the team come from the military, so we know what it means to be engaged in military life. It is not a walk in the park. Our focus is truly to serve the people that are actually fighting the war. This is number one for us. We focus on our ability to solve problems. For example, when we think about what new design we could create, we think, ‘Okay. If I was in combat today, what would make my life easier? What would make me perform better?’”
The company works with its customers, ensuring that specifications and the direction of any new products can be developed through communication and a working relationship. “We start very early. We don’t wait until the military sends us a requirement. We are close to the U.S. Army so, when we have an idea, we come up with a feasibility prototype, and we say to them, ‘This is what we were thinking of. If it is of interest to you, we will keep going.’ We do test sessions every month in our Arizona facility, and we always invite them to have a look at what we are doing. They know which direction we are going, and most of the time, they say, ‘This is good, but what about this?’ We then alter the course of our development based on their feedback.”
The company prides itself on providing a parachute that anticipates what the soldier will need. By harnessing its insider knowledge and links to clients, it can move forward. “Our goal is to provide the soldier with the equipment that will allow them to fly further, to land safer, to carry more equipment, and so what we do in R&D is that we constantly, year over year, revisit our concept and ask the question, ‘Is this concept still valid? If so, what could we do, based on different technologies in the academic world, to improve the product?’ Our product is a vehicle to get them from high in the air to wherever it is they are going to conduct the mission. That mission starts when their feet are on the ground, so our goal is to provide the most discrete vehicle to get between those points.”
The company has a sanguine attitude towards product development, which has allowed it to take risks without too much fear of pressure and failure. “You know, we have had discussions, and we thought something might work, but sometimes we make mistakes and a product may not work as well as we had planned.”
When this occurs, Airborne Systems looks at the situation from a level-headed viewpoint before making any rash decisions. “We ask ourselves, ‘Do we still believe it is a good idea?’ If we do, we put more energy into it, more work, more money, because we are going to get there eventually. Look, we make mistakes, but we say to ourselves either we need to fix it or abandon it.”
The company has reached an enormous milestone, one that it is eager to celebrate. However, Berland is adamant that a large portion of the longevity and success is down to the staff the company employs. “Historically, when people join this company, they either leave within two months, or they stay here forever. We have employees that have been with us for forty years.”
This high level of employee retention ensures that Airborne Systems has an in-house network that is in tune with its goals as it reaches its centenary year with no signs of stopping. Berland states that this positive environment ensures an ability to produce parachutes that make a can real difference in the lives of the company’s clients.
“I think this goes a long way. The employees can see what we are doing together. When some of our equipment is used in Afghanistan or Iraq, and we get feedback from the users, we share this with our staff. We can say to them that what they have done here, ‘Remember the stitches that you put on the parachute? Look where they are. This is important. You have saved someone’s life.’ That is the soul of our company.”