It's no secret that despite its long-term plans, Columbia was a long ways away from the kind of world-class aftermarket support on which Cessna prides itself. Indeed, Cessna will add selected existing Columbia service centers to its already extensive network. Cessna 350 and 400 owners will be able to get their airplanes serviced (with the exception of some composite repair work, which will be done at specialized centers) at any authorized Cessna Service Center. This is a huge and immediate benefit to Columbia owners, some of whom in the past have had airplanes on the ground for lengthy stretches awaiting service.
Low Wing Not a Barrier
For the piston single-engine segment of the market, Cessna has long been known as the high-wing airplane maker. But the truth is, Cessna has never had an aversion to low-wing airplanes and has built hordes of them. From the multiengine T-50 "Bamboo Bomber," introduced way back in the late 1930s, to the thousands of low-wing light twins, cabin-class twins and Citation business jets it has churned out over the past half century, Cessna has committed simply to building airplanes that make sense and provide great value regardless of their configuration. That's exactly how it is with the 350 and 400.
Moreover, Cessna's main competitor for the past many years in the piston market has been Cirrus Design, the manufacturer of the hugely popular SR22 high-performance, fixed-gear single -- the high-performance, low-wing, fixed-gear single, that is. The 350 and the 400 have always been natural competitors with the SR22 and SR22 Turbo. And with the stability and support that Cessna brings to the equation, the competitive picture changes.
Stack told me that the acquisition in essence jump-started the NGP program. While Cessna clearly could have developed the airplanes in house, the questions were, how much would it have cost and how long would it have taken? An educated guess: a few years and a couple hundred million dollars. The Columbia acquisition slashed the cost figure dramatically and got Cessna high-performance singles out the door in a matter of months after it took over in Bend.
Being in Bend
When Cessna's new general manager of the Bend plant, Mark Withrow, got into town, he said that he began by making no changes at all. "I just wandered around the plant and asked a lot of questions." He continued, "It was immediately apparent that while the former Columbia employees were the composites experts, Cessna could bring a wealth of manufacturing acumen and process sophistication to the Bend plant."
In addition to its expertise in making airplanes efficiently, Cessna brings to Bend the kind of clout that Columbia never dreamed of having.
"They didn't have the supply chain buying power that we have," Pelton said. "So when you look at a company that's distressed like that, and you look at their bill of material, you find that we buy a lot of the same components from the same suppliers. Well, we have long-term relationships, long-term purchase agreements with much more favorable terms than what they were able to garner, so immediately we've brought some cost savings to our supply chain."
For former Columbia employees and residents of this Central Oregon town, what Cessna's arrival brought to town was something far more tangible. The acquisition brought, in Withrow's words, "instant stability, credibility, and that fact that you knew when Friday rolled around, you were getting paid."
There were approximately 430 Columbia employees on the books when Cessna moved into the facilities at Bend Airport (KBDN) in January, and by May it had added 20 new workers as it began the rampup process, turning out at that point three airplanes a week.
When the big sign out front changed to read "Cessna," employees immediately got, in addition to steady jobs with a successful company, brand-new healthcare and other job benefits, including paid holidays and a pension plan. To say that the acquisition was popular with the workforce is a huge understatement.
Touring a Busy Plant
I visited the newest Cessna plant just a couple of months after Cessna had taken possession, to see how things were shaping up. Frankly, my expectations were modest. After all, ramping up production from zero to 150 airplanes a year is a Herculean task, and two months hardly seemed time enough to get up to speed.
How wrong I was.