April 24, 2014

Business Profile

Piper Aircraft is Looking Up

The aircraft manufacturing company is Indian River County's largest employer.

Mike Vogel | 9/21/2011

Piper Altaire
Piper's $2.5-million Altaire (over Vero Beach) is scheduled to hit the market in 2014.
Since a new owner took over at Piper Aircraft in 2009, the company's long-dreamed-of jet — still in development — has been given a new name, more headroom and, in a departure from the rectangular windows for which Piper planes are known, round windows. The newly named Altaire isn't the only thing changing at Indian River County's largest, and for years struggling, private employer.

Under CEO Geoffrey Berger, Piper has a new executive team and has gone outside to rebuild — working with manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft and Belcan, an engineering services company. (Berger is a managing director with Imprimis, the investment management firm that bought Piper with backing from Brunei's ministry of finance.) Piper also has made a big push for export sales.

And though it's small consolation to laid-off workers who haven't been recalled, local hiring has resumed, going from a low of 550 employees to 905 now, including contract labor. Piper plans to hire 30 to 40 more production workers by year-end and another 30 engineers, says spokeswoman Jackie Carlon. Piper was approved for a $32-million government incentive package to staff up to build the jet in Vero but earned only $10.7 million before the recession hit, and further payments were put on hold.

"We're ecstatic that Piper is in hiring mode," says Helene Caseltine, economic development director with the Indian River Chamber. "It's an awesome sight to see when the jet takes off on those test flights at Vero Beach airport."

The $2.5-million Altaire is scheduled to debut in 2014. Its outlook is cloudy. President Obama wants to cut the tax break for corporate jets. Analysis firm Forecast International projects the market won't reach 2008 levels until 2016. But Piper's competition in the single-engine segment of the very light jet market has dwindled. Cirrus and Diamond, two remaining developers, have had troubles.

"Of the three," says Forecast senior aerospace analyst Ray Jaworowski, "Piper and the Altaire are probably in the best shape."

Tags: Southeast

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