Family Values Transcend Ownership

Since its founding in 1960, Summit Aviation has tackled some of the most precise elements of aircraft modification and maintenance in the government and private sectors. An enthusiastic commitment to its clients coupled with a remarkable emphasis on staff development has made the performance and character of “the Summit family” something to behold.

An exploration of the company highlights not only what has made this 2007 Top Small Workplace a success over nearly 50 years, but also the qualities which no doubt helped seal the deal in the company’s recent sale to investors intent on preserving the business’ notable legacy.

Richard C. “Kip” DuPont, Jr. started the business in the small Delaware town of Middletown in 1960, and Summit has played an integral role in the community ever since, attracting clients from across the nation with its reputation for unparalleled service. Upon DuPont’s passing in 1986, his wife, Caroline Pickett, took over as Chairman, making Summit something of a rarity in the industry as a woman-owned and run firm, according to Finn Neilsen, the current President and CEO.

Neilsen offers the metaphor of a police department in need of new squad car to explain the caliber of work Summit performs. Beyond the purchase, service or storage of these vehicles, highly sophisticated modifications and installation of technical gear may be needed for a specialty job. Liken this to aircraft, and Summit’s unique role becomes clearer. Neilsen says only about 10 percent of their activity might be associated with a common airport – the hanger/repair element – with most being specialized projects for government clientele, such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as some from private and corporate groups.

This all demands exceptional technical confidence, achieved only through ensuring employees are the best-trained around. “With any holes you cut in an aircraft, your work has to be FAA legit,” Neilsen explains. And while some staff apprentice at other companies before Summit, most achieve this level of expertise in the Air Force, Navy, Army or Marines.

Wes Schroeder, Technical Program Manager in his seventh year at Summit, knows what it takes to get your workforce operating like a fine-tuned machine. When Boeing turned to Summit to demonstrate a load-out procedure for their trademark product, the Chinook helicopter, they were hoping to highlight the ease in deploying the vehicle, with time constraints that even many at Summit thought were impossible at first. But according to Schroeder, it’s Summit’s way to give the customer their very best, and they approached the challenge with a service team “like a finely tuned pit crew.” The result was something that had never been done before. U.S. Special Operations personnel were taking apart this chopper in 4.5 hours, and Summit did it in 96 minutes. “We’re pretty proud of that,” Schroeder says.

It’s not easy to find or replace employees with the kind of training and experience that are needed at Summit, a constraint Neilsen says has been heightened by the nation’s current military demands. “So it’s the company policy to try to keep the employees happy and motivated to keep them here as long as possible,” he says.

For a relatively small business, Summit has had great medical insurance for dependents and a scholarship fund for the children of employees. “The Summit family” is a term used often by employees and clients alike, descriptive of an atmosphere Schroeder describes as quite atypical for the industry. John Bonnell, Director of Aircraft Maintenance, agrees that the sense of support at Summit is incredible. “It’s something that makes you worker harder – for the company’s success and for the customer’s success,” he says.

In June 2008, Summit became the first Top Small Workplace to be purchased. Neilsen describes the sale as a natural progression; only in the last two years did the company begin considering any of the many offers that came to them daily. Everyone we spoke with knows Pickett wanted Summit to stay a family business. And, as Bonnell explains, she thought she could best do this by stepping down, as she felt the company was going in the right direction. “If she found the right buyer, it would continue,” Bonnell explains.

Summit’s Top Small Workplaces application indicated that “preserving this beneficial environment remains Summit’s highest priority,” and the company seems to have found a bright future with Greenwich AeroGroup and its parent organization, W.R. Berkley Corporation, which has a reputation for investing in family-run companies for the long term.

Keith Garner, CEO and President of Greenwich, explains that they had been in communication with Summit before they were named a Top Small Workplace in The Wall Street Journal in October 2007. Early due diligence by their team quickly indicated that beyond flexibility, a “built-in respect for the individual” was undeniably part of the Summit culture, which translated into great pride in what the team could accomplish. “The way the employees feel about the company was a big part of the decision to go forward,” Garner says. “We had found a very good, proven management team running a financially successful business – and that was the start of a romance, so to speak.”

Employees have already begun to enjoy the benefits of their new ownership, including increased potential for collaboration and expanded program planning for the coming years. Neilsen admits that being recognized as a Top Small Workplace went a long way toward securing the sale, but as their buyers and anyone familiar with Summit over the years will tell you, “It’s all about the people,” and they plan to keep it that way.

Company: Summit Aviation
Web site:
Industry: Airport operations, aircraft modification
Location: Middletown, DE
Number of Employees: 94
Sales: $13.5 million