This family owned-and-operated company has been giving a custom touch to business aircrafts for decades.
Kate Ahrens comes by her love of flying and all things aviation honestly. Ahrens is the vice-president of corporate development at Flying Colours Corp. in Peterborough, Ont., and she’s part of the Gillespie family, led by her father, John, who’s the president and CEO of the organization. Flying Colours is an international aviation services company that does maintenance, repair, overhaul services, completions, refurbishments, special modifications, upgrades, installations and exterior paintwork for private aircraft owners. “My father acquired a company at the airport in the mid-1970s, which included maintenance, repair and overhaul of small aircraft. Then some of his clients needed small fixes in their galleys or a plane’s cabinetry would need a small fix, so he took that on and realized all the intricacies it took to get those jobs done. It grew into our main source of revenue and is now our main enterprise,” she says. “The easiest way to explain what we do when you’re not in the aviation world is whatever you’d do to maintain a house, we do for an aircraft. We take a fuselage — the aircraft’s main body section — and refurbish all the upholstery, cabinetry, sheet metal, avionics, interior modifications and exterior paint,” Ahrens explains. “We consider our work a labour of love because a lot of manpower goes into every aircraft — each one is custom and you can’t automate these things; it’s all hand-done, all of our upholstery, seat designs, cabinetry. We’ve developed our skills as customer requirements have come in and it’s been a really organic process at Peterborough Airport, which is a real hidden gem in the province.”
While most of the action is based out of Peterborough, Flying Colours acquired a similar business based in St. Louis, Missouri, which employs about 100 people, and opened up a facility in Singapore, working out of Bombardier’s site there. (They have a close working relationship with Bombardier and work on all of the company’s new aircraft.) “Singapore is a good hub in the Asia-Pacific region, and it was the best fit for us,” says Jane Stanbury, marketing and communications director. “The local skillset in Southeast Asia is restricted for the type of work we do, so we recruited from the local community and got professionals from the auto industry, for example. We brought them to Peterborough and trained them for three months, before returning to Singapore. A number of local technicians also transferred to Singapore for a time to support the new recruits. We literally helped develop the skills for the work we do in the Southeast Asia region.”
“Loyalty is a hard thing in business, so I find we definitely have each other’s backs and want the best for our team,” says Ahrens. “We’ve all grown here and have families here, so the area means a lot to us.”
In Peterborough, Flying Colours is a major player, employing nearly 300 people. “For the community, I think we’re a great economic driver. Plus, there’s a domino effect — we try and use local suppliers as much as possible. We have quite a few in Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton,” Ahrens says. “It’s a great thing for the area. We have a lot of talent and skill, and Fleming College has been wonderful to work with on a continuing education basis. We’ve worked with them since 2009 and we’ve run a bunch of different programs for them in terms of aviation training, which are now going into a diploma phase. We’re a real driver for enthusiasm for aviation in the community. We want aviation to succeed. There’s lots of great opportunities for young people and for people who want a change in careers to join the aerospace sector.”
Business travel is definitely seeing more growth. Flying Colours brings international businesspeople to the area. “The owners regularly want to come visit their aircraft and these people are going out for dinner and staying in hotels in the area. It’s that force multiplier effect,” says Stanbury.
Ahrens is joined in the company by her two brothers, both executives, and her sister, who’s in marketing. The company is very tight knit, especially because many of their employees have been around since the early days. “Loyalty is a hard thing in business, so I find we definitely have each other’s backs and want the best for our team. We’ve all grown here and have families here, so the area means a lot to us,” she says. “We would consider a lot of our staff an extended version of our family because we’ve had some people work for us for more than 30 years. They knew me when I was really young, so I have a lot of respect for what they contribute to Flying Colours. I don’t think my father ever imagined it was going to get this large, but he loves aviation and has a lot of enthusiasm for the industry.”
As for the future of the company, both Stanbury and Ahrens say it’s looking bright for Flying Colours in terms of what’s new in aviation design and engineering. “We’ve done a stone veneer floor in an aircraft and that was a big innovative product, and there are all sorts of new things coming out. It’s going to be fun to watch over the next 10 years,” Ahrens says. “Sustainability has also become very important in aviation. We’re now getting questions about using vegan leather, for example. There was a time when business jet owners didn’t really think about the planet but today, they want to know where they can buy sustainable aviation fuel and how their interiors can be planet-friendly,” Stanbury adds.