Last year when Bend, Oregon, company Columbia Aircraft exhausted its last gasp efforts at getting enough cash to stay in business and declared bankruptcy, there was immediate speculation that Cessna would buy the company's assets at auction. As it turned out, Cessna had been looking at that possibility for some time already. And by the time of the inevitable fire sale in November of 2007, Cessna was ready to make its move. The Wichita manufacturer's $26.4 million offer won the day and earned Cessna the business, including the type certificates to the naturally aspirated Columbia 350 and the turbocharged Columbia 400, as well as a new niche in a market that it had aspired to for some time.
And the acquisition gave new life to a pair of marvelous single-engine designs and signaled an important change in strategy for Cessna, an 80-year-old company that had previously developed every one of its hundreds of certified airplane designs in house.
A Surprisingly Good Fit
One of the most compelling reasons for Cessna to make the acquisition of the assets of Columbia was that the 350 and the 400 were surprisingly good fits for Cessna.
Of course, at first glance the opposite appears to be true. The Bend airplanes are low-wing, composite designs. They are, in fact, as dissimilar to Cessna's current single-engine piston lineup as you could imagine. Even its business jets are all-metal designs, and the under-development model 162 SkyCatcher LSA is a sheet-metal airplane, as well.
This apparent flaw was in reality a big selling point. Cessna has been interested in developing composite piston designs for years now. It was, in fact, well into the design phase of the Next Generation Piston (NGP) program when it announced it at AirVenture Oshkosh a few years back. At the time, Cessna President Jack Pelton acknowledged that versions of these composite construction airplanes being developed would likely take the place of the all-metal 172, 182 and 206 in Cessna's lineup at some unspecified point in the future.
So with the NGP strategy being public knowledge, there was no need to be coy. Cessna was moving toward composites anyway, and with their best-in-class performance, the Columbia airplanes were that much more attractive. Capable of great speed -- better than 190 knots true for the 350 and better than 235 knots true for the 400 in the flight levels -- the airplanes would add a level of performance that Cessna couldn't offer its customers, maybe not even with its under-development high-performance NGP.
In addition to the airplanes, Cessna was buying expertise, a fact that Cessna President Jack Pelton admits up front: "One of the other things they have that we didn't have was that [composite] experience. We valued the fact that they had 400 employees ... and some management also ... who had been working in composites for many, many years. So that's what we bought ... that know-how."
But the deal never would have happened, Pelton says, if it hadn't been the right fit: "For a good acquisition there has to be some level of synergy," Pelton said. And he added that while Columbia had what Cessna regarded as "probably the best in the industry in that class of airplane," it was lacking a lot of other elements to success that Cessna could immediately provide.
From the point of view of an owner of an existing Columbia airplane, the biggest coup was landing with a company that could and would support the airplane. John Stack, Cessna VP in charge of strategic planning, told me that Columbia owners immediately "took a keen liking to Cessna and what we could bring to bear in terms of protecting the value of their existing airplanes ... which was critically important to not having a bunch of orphan airplanes out there."
"But more importantly," Stack added "we could take the business forward and really make the Columbia product a sustainable platform, adding the improvements to the product that the former Columbia wasn't able to."