By Will Fortune
Director of Business Development
Over the last decade, Kentucky experienced a significant rise in aerospace companies. However, until recently, many companies did not realize the size of the market and how fast it is expanding in the Midwest and South. They did not know how many companies, and potential strategic partners, support the aerospace industry here in Kentucky.
In 2016, the state recognized that, because of the economic importance of the aerospace industry to the commonwealth, there needed to be a non-governmental organization to unite, promote and further grow Kentucky’s aerospace industry. State leaders directed the establishment of the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium (KAIC). KAIC fulfills its charge from the state by helping its members in four major areas – advocacy, marketing, business development and partner building. Any business that works with the aviation, aerospace or defense market will benefit from membership in KAIC.
Though KAIC does not lobby, its employees work hard to build relationships with government officials across the state and country. KAIC executives work with their government counterparts to build awareness of the aerospace industry and to be a voice for KAIC members. The KAIC team regularly discusses concerns with the government to make sure decision makers are aware of the issues the industry faces.
In January, with the Federal Aviation Administration shuttered from the government shutdown, one KAIC member called the organization in distress. A government-issued repair certificate, required for their business, was about to lapse, effectively stopping their international work. KAIC immediately reached out to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office. Within 48 hours, the FAA renewed the company’s certificate, avoiding any impact to its business.
Not as dramatic, but equally as important, is KAIC’s advocacy for its members. In a sea of small businesses, sometimes the hardest part of growing is getting noticed. Through KAIC executives’ prior contacts with large defense companies and different government entities, the organization is able to meet with old colleagues and counterparts to raise awareness. This exposure helps alert the government and larger defense companies of the products and talent available in our region, and gives KAIC members a competitive advantage over the field when they bid on the next contract.
This advocacy also expands internationally when KAIC executives accompany state officials to international trade shows. KAIC focuses on advancing Kentucky’s aerospace industry and building relationships with foreign partners. A select few KAIC members travel with the organization. They are going not only as a small business, but as part of a delegation. They attend all meetings and events to build strategic relationships and promote Kentucky’s aerospace industry.
John Zurborg, president and CEO of Skilcraft, an aerospace manufacturer in Burlington, Ky., attended an aerospace trade mission to Canada with KAIC.
“I have been to Montreal four years in a row. The trips have historically been good; however, I did not experience the receptiveness by OEMs in this region as I did on the trade mission [with KAIC],” he said. “Since the mission, we continue to experience a more positive reception through follow-up with the OEMs, which was not the case in the past.”
In the last year, KAIC has attended international events in Canada, the UK and Japan. This year, the consortium will return to Quebec and will attend the Paris Airshow, the largest international aerospace event in world. Aerospace companies who would like to accompany KAIC on any of these trips can learn more by visiting kyaerospace.org. The state has a step-grant which can allow companies up to $10,000 in reimbursements to attend these events.
Marketing budgets for small- and medium-sized companies are often limited. This is where a KAIC membership is an important yet inexpensive investment. KAIC helps members gain exposure both in and out of Kentucky. The organization participates in various air shows and trade events, and always advocates for all of its members. KAIC looks for business opportunities and strategic partners for everyone.
Members are also promoted in KAIC’s monthly newsletter, which is sent to more than 400 readers, including large companies and government officials. In addition to informing readers of Kentucky’s latest aerospace news, KAIC includes a special interest piece on one or two member companies to highlight their capabilities and accomplishments. In an industry where partnerships are critical, it allows readers to learn more about specific members.
All members are featured on the KAIC website, which has more than 1,000 views a month. It is often one of the first places people go to learn more about Kentucky’s aerospace industry. This spring, KAIC will add a searchable database to the website. Any aerospace or defense company in Kentucky is welcome to register in it, and it will be accessible to government officials and large aerospace and defense companies. It will also be accessible to KAIC members, allowing them to easily find partners and subcontractors when bidding on projects.
Advocacy and marketing only work if members are competing in the right market. Like many other markets, a company must have a well-developed plan when growing its business in the aerospace arena. All companies need a strategy to compete and grow, and no two strategies will look the same. No matter how big or small, KAIC works with its members to develop strategic plans to compete in the aerospace market.
Benefits of membership go beyond promotion and networking
Obtaining the right certifications is critical for a company to either subcontract or compete for aerospace and defense contracts. One such certification, the AS9100D, is a quality assurance certificate issued by the International Aerospace Quality Group (IAQG). Federal contracts usually require this certificate, but getting it is not cheap. It requires a company to work with a certifying body, can take up to six months to earn, and costs on average $30,000 to $40,000. KAIC helps its members navigate the process as efficiently as possible and pursues grants to help companies with the expense of earning the AS9100D certificate. Through a current grant, KAIC is able to help offset 80 percent of the cost for its members.
Enhancing cybersecurity is another way KAIC is able to help its members. Through another grant, the consortium helps members comply with the National Institute of Technology and Standards’ (NIST) cybersecurity framework. The NIST framework is simply a set of guidelines and best practices to reduce a company’s risk of a cybersecurity breach or attack. Cybersecurity is important to the federal government and companies who support or manage sensitive programs. So far, KAIC has hosted over 300 attendees at its cybersecurity briefings.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, KAIC helps its members build strategic partnerships. Regardless of the amount of advertising and market exposure, most business growth happens through strategic partnerships. From small businesses to large, Fortune 500 companies, finding good strategic partners is easier said than done. One of the essential, day-to-day roles of KAIC is to meet with everyone in or related to the aerospace and defense industry. KAIC executives find strategic partners or subcontractors to bid on federal contracts and help others with larger companies to mentor them in the industry.
Kentucky’s aerospace industry will continue to grow over the next several decades. It is the industry of the future, an industry whose jobs are not exportable outside the United States, and an industry that rewards those in it. KAIC is at the nucleus, focused on all aspects of the aerospace industry. That is why all aerospace companies will greatly benefit from a KAIC membership, no matter its size or specialty, whether its manufacturing, maintenance, engineering, consulting, insurance, construction or logistics. Learn more by visiting kyaerospace.org/membership-1/.
Will Fortune is a former Navy pilot and program manager with the Department of Defense. He leads KAIC’s business development.