Though Plitek’s business is highly technical, this manufacturer’s decision to use business aviation in support of customer relationships was simple.
Dec 1, 2013
“Plitek is a solution-oriented manufacturer,” declared Karl Hoffman, CEO of the Des Plaines, IL-based company that specializes in fabricating precision components from adhesives, plastics, foams and other materials for use in a broad range of applications across many different industries. A dwindling number of American companies can make that claim.
While Plitek’s precision die cutting, multilayer laminating, custom film extrusion and other high-tech “converting capabilities” are impressive, it is the company’s value-added customer services – material selection assistance, design support, process development, rapid prototyping, clean room manufacturing, and contract assembly and packaging – that sets it apart from its competition and has been the key to its success.
“We work with customers on engineering products and problem solving, from concept to the end product, explained Alma Likic, Plitek’s marketing and opportunity development specialist.
No Substitute for Being There
For Plitek, customer collaboration means traveling to many destinations off the beaten path, such as Wahpeton, ND; Henderson, KY; Redwing, MN; Suffolk, VA; and Hartsville, SC. Because Plitek people need to visit remote locations, combined with the fact that the company obtains 70 percent of its new business by actually visiting business partners, using business aviation makes sense. So the company flies its TBM 850 single-engine turboprop, which is based at Chicago Executive Airport (PWK), approximately 200 hours per year to visit customers and vendors.
“Plitek has flourished during the past five years,” explained Hoffman. “We aren’t just lucky; we picked the right path. We are constantly reinventing ourselves, innovating to make new products. The only way to do that is to be out in the market, traveling to see customers and the changes that are going on in the industry.
“I tell all my employees, ‘Good things happen when you are in front of customers,’” Hoffman said. “These good things don’t always happen by email, text or teleconference, so being there is critical.”
Rob Larsen, Plitek’s engineering and new product development manager, agrees, because for him to collaborate with customers most efficiently, he has to be in the same room with them.
“You can’t replace a face-to-face meeting with a phone call,” said Larsen. “The relationship starts to grow when face-to-face conversation happens. In our highly technical business, we need to not only see what we will be making, but how it will be used. You have to be in front of the customer to do that.”
Be Nimble, Be Quick
Plitek has used business aviation ever since Hoffman and his wife Cheryl bought the firm in 1995. His father, Ken Hoffman, owned a series of light aircraft, so Karl grew up around airplanes. The younger Hoffman began flying at age 15 and today serves as pilot-in-command for all of Plitek’s missions. While he is flying the airplane, his engineers, who are sitting in the back, often work on technical drawings en route.
Plitek uses its TBM 850 not only to acquire new business, but also to maintain existing customer relationships. In both cases, Hoffman believes it is Plitek’s ability to respond to clients at “light speed” that has been important to his firm’s success.
“For our company, an airplane is a necessity; it is strategic,” he said. One example of a quick-reaction mission occurred when a customer called on a Friday to request that Plitek people attend a product-launch meeting in Princeton, NJ early the next week. Hoffman responded, “‘We can be there Tuesday.’ That’s why we are still in business.”
On another occasion, Hoffman and several associates flew to Charlotte, NC, when a customer needed technical support. A few days later, the Plitek people returned to North Carolina with a re-engineered part.
But Hoffman does not just fly pop-up missions. Often Plitek uses its airplane to maximize productivity during a week’s worth of travel. During one trip, company personnel flew to New York, saw two customers and had dinner with another in the same day. The next day they flew to Birmingham, AL and worked together with a customer at his plant. That evening, Hoffman and his associates continued on to Houston and had dinner with another customer. The next morning they flew to Dallas, conducted some business, and then returned to Illinois in the afternoon.
“You can’t do that commercially,” noted Hoffman. “If we flew on the airlines, there always would be a three-hour drive to get to our final destination.
“Being fast and nimble has allowed us to survive in a very difficult business environment,” he said. “We have competition, but because we use business aviation, we are quicker on the draw.
“It’s really important to be in front of and listen to customers and focus on and solve their problems instead of worrying about missing my [commercial] flight,” he concluded. “Our business airplane lets us go in quickly and do our job right.”
Aircraft: TBM 850 single-engine turboprop
Challenge: Staying safe and current when the pilot-in-command is also the CEO.
Solution: Aside from taking time for mandatory recurrent training, Plitek’s Karl Hoffman also:
- Waits out bad weather when severe thunderstorms, fog or icing threaten, or else takes the time to fly around or over it. “If there are pockets of cells, the TBM is so versatile that a little bit of deviation is possible,” he said.
- Attends several TBM Owners and Pilots Association events each year to learn from peers.
- Shares notes and ideas during biannual meetings with a private group of other TBM 850 pilots who fly the Garmin G1000.
- Enlists the services of an experienced TBM 850 copilot for challenging missions (otherwise he usually operates single pilot).