HIBBING – Like many other successful businesses, Midwest Aircraft Refinishing started small.
“We started the company with a $5,000 loan and lots of ideas on napkins,” said George Virnig, Midwest Aircraft Refinishing chief financial officer and treasurer.
Since its inception in 2010, the company's business of painting and refurbishing small airplanes has taken off.
In its first year, the inconspicuous facility at Range Regional Airport, painted a handful of airplanes. Today, it's painting exteriors and refurbishing the interiors of about 25 airplanes annually.
Virnig, Chief Executive Officer Ross Robillard and Vice President-Secretary Kristopher Carlson all worked at Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth before starting Midwest Aircraft Refinishing. Robillard worked in the Cirrus detail shop and in research and development. Virnig worked in the paint shop. Carlson was in charge of the detail shop.
A nationwide economic downturn in 2008-2009, which also slowed business at Cirrus, ignited their interest in launching their own business.
About 80 percent of the airplanes refurbished at the 16,000 square-foot facility are privately-owned Cirrus aircraft.
“We knew there was a market to refurbish Cirrus planes, but found that others didn't want to get into that side of the business because the Cirrus airplane is unique in that it is made out of composite materials rather than aluminum and it's difficult to paint,” said Robillard. “Some people weren't happy getting their planes painted at regular shops.”
From it's humble beginnings, Midwest Aircraft Refinishing has grown to become recognized as a premier painter of Cirrus airplanes. It also paints and refurbishes other name-brand planes, whether single-engine, twins, light jets or turbo props.
“There are two other paint shops in the state,” said Robillard, “but neither specialize in Cirrus.”
Initially, the men painted airplanes on weekends while still working at Cirrus.
“A couple of customers that brought in a couple old, ratty Cirrus liked our work and our name started getting out there,” said Robillard. “It took about three years before we started getting a reputation and where people knew we existed.”
Positive comments from customers on the Cirrus Owners & Pilots Association forum, coupled with their work as a Cirrus Authorized Service Center, spread the word about Midwest Aircraft's passion for perfection.
“Word of mouth is big in the aviation community,” said Virnig. “Everybody knows each other.”
Within a few years, airplanes from U.S. coasts, Germany, France, Australia and Africa, were being refinished at the facility.
“Some of the planes are flown in here and some are shipped,” said Robillard. “We're bringing in a lot of money from out of the area and there's a lot of money we spend locally. We get our paint in Virginia and our upholstery in Duluth.”
Shaun Germolus, executive director of the Chisholm/Hibbing Airport Authority, which operates the airport, said Midwest Aircraft is a major asset to the airport and Iron Range.
“They're a very exciting group,” said Germolus. “These aircraft come in from all over the world, which I think is the most exciting part of the business. We have people bring their planes here from Europe. They get a chance to see the region, spend some money here, and we get to visit with them about economic development with our partners like the airport authority and the IRRRB. You never know who might want to locate a business in the region.”
Refinishing airplanes is a tedious and time consuming. It takes an average of six weeks for the company's 10 employees to paint an airplane and refurbish an interior, said Robillard. Many customers opt to have both the exterior and interior refurbished, he said.
Painting costs about $20,000 to $30,000. Refurbishing an interior also costs $20,000 to $30,000, said Robillard.
Some airplane owners choose to have their airplanes personalized with specialized paint work shortly after buying their airplane, said Robillard. Others wait years before refurbishing and repainting.
Beyond painting and interior refurbishing, the company from spinner to tail can apply custom paint, decals and stripes, airbrush art, and an array of other personalized touches.
“Half of the customers want their plane painted to make it look cool,” said Virnig. “The other half just need paint.”
Depending how an airplane is cared for, refinishing can be needed anywhere from five years up to nearly 20 years after it is new, said Robillard. On average, most planes need repainting and refurbishing about 10 to 12 years after new.
With more than 7,000 Cirrus airplanes in use, the demand for refinishing is expected to remain high.
Despite the company's success, potential closure in Hibbing was on the horizon not long ago, said Robillard. About four years ago, the company planned to expand, but a complex permitting issue with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over emissions for a planned new paint booth cost the company $100,000 in permit costs, a $25,000 fine and delayed expansion.
As the issue with the MPCA lingered, the three men considered moving the business to Wisconsin, said Robillard. But issue was eventually resolved with help from an Iron Range legislator.
“We had a nasty struggle with the MPCA,” said Robillard. “It almost put us out of business. If it wasn't for Senator (David) Tomassoni's help, we wouldn't be in business anymore.”
With the permitting issue behind them, the company is today backed up with work and expanding.
“We have a 10-month backlog right now,” said Robillard.
To meet demand, a new 10,000 square-foot addition is under construction. The addition, adjacent to its current facility, will be leased from the Chisholm/Hibbing Airport Authority. The new building will include a paint booth and a “clean hangar,” in which three newly-painted airplanes can be stored.
“Paint only dries so fast, so that's why we needed another booth,” said Virnig.
A $1.3 million loan to the airport authority from the Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics and Aviation will help pay for the building.
Grants from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRRB), Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and Minnesota Department of Transportation Office in Aeronautics & Aviation helped fund infrastructure improvements.
A $200,000 bank loan, a $200,000 Department of IRRRB loan and $200,000 in cash and equity from the company will pay for equipment.
The building is expected to be complete in February, said Germolus.
“It's a great place,” Virnig said of the airport. “We've received a lot of support locally from individuals and from the IRRRB. We're really proud of what we've done here.”
With the expansion, six new employees will be hired.
“We should be able to double the amount of planes we paint,” said Robillard.