by Mike Vogel
Earlier this year, a Fort Lauderdale aircraft parts manufacturer sold $1 million in electronic gear to the Korean military. The deal — the equipment enables the user to tell friend from foe — was a drop in Florida’s aviation industry bucket but illustrates the importance of international trade to the small companies that make up so much of the sector.
International sales comprise 85% of Associated Aircraft Manufacturing’s $30 million in annual revenue. A manufacturer of parts for American-made military aircraft, Associated Aircraft employs 85, including contract workers, in Fort Lauderdale. “F-18, F-15, C-130, C-47, helicopters — we’re probably on it somewhere,” says CEO Frank Lannon.
South Florida is a hub for small companies, such as Associated Aircraft, doing a global business in aircraft maintenance, repair and parts. In total, the businesses have made Miami, and by extension Florida, one of the leading maintenance and repair spots in the nation. International sales support many of them.
Aviation and aerospace are one of the largest export sectors of the Florida economy. Miami International Airport is first in the nation in international air cargo. Florida also is a leading flight training state for foreign pilots. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, international students amount to 18% of College of Aviation students. Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne draws nearly 200 of its 340 aviation students studying to be pilots from abroad.
Florida is second nationally in aerospace, aviation and space with 2,000 companies and 84,000 jobs, according to Enterprise Florida, the state economic development organization. Embraer, the only foreign company to assemble an airframe in the United States, does so in Florida.
“Every major aviation/aerospace company in the world has some kind of a presence in Florida,” says Manny Mencia, senior vice president of international trade for Enterprise Florida. “Go down the list. Boeing, Embraer, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, United Technologies, BAE Systems and on and on and on. It boggles the mind how many of these companies are represented here.”
Many players in the global market, however, aren’t as well known. International sales led growth over the last three years at Heico, a Hollywood-based aviation parts design, engineering, manufacturing and repair company, which employs 900 in Florida. International sales were up 51% to $257.7 million over that time while U.S. business was up 38%. Aerospace, and commercial aviation in particular, is the ultimate global industry, says Heico co-President Victor Mendelson.
In 2003, a Panama City startup that builds radar systems to track birds to improve safety at airports and air bases made its first sale — in the Netherlands for a wind-energy plant. (Collisions between birds and wind turbine blades are an environmental issue for wind plants.) Since then, DeTect has sold another 189 radar systems, for airports and military bases, measuring wind, border security, the oil and gas industries and other uses. International sales account for 65% of system sales, says CEO Gary Andrews. “It’s really exports that have been keeping us going through the recession,” he says.