Leading the formation

Sonex piloting innovation in sport aviation from the industry’s Mecca in Oshkosh

Story by John R. Ingrisano

 A CLEAR BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY, decades of aircraft design experience, and hard work make Sonex Aircraft a well-grounded example of how to run a global airplane company headquartered in Oshkosh.

Combine the romance and passion of designing personal airplanes with the concept of selling kits to people who want to build their own planes in their garages, and you have a flyover snapshot of Sonex Aircraft, right down to company founder John Monnett, an aviation legend, ultralight speed record holder and member of the EAA Hall of Fame.

Most of all, in the industry of home-built aircraft, which, to quote Sonex CEO Jeremy Monnett and the son of John Monnett, is “rife with dreamers and crooks,” they have a reputation for quality, customer service and good business sense.

Sonex, founded in 1997, provides all the components and instructions for aviation buffs to build their own planes literally in their garages, all for a price of around $25,000. Starting out selling just a handful of plane plans and components a month, Sonex now enjoys sales of several hundred complete aircraft kits and several million dollars a year in revenues, topping $4 million in 2007, before the recession.

Their reputation is based on a synergy of expertise. John has been designing and creating airplanes since the 1960s. As his son describes him, he’s a hardworking artist with a gift for bringing together design solutions.

“He has a relentless pursuit of the fundamental philosophy of simplicity, light weight, elegance,” said Jeremy. “He has the ability to look at a problem from a comprehensive point of view, with the ultimate goal of making sure it looks good, performs well and is inexpensive.”    

He is well paired with Pete Buck, sometimes referred to as “the brain behind Sonex,” because of his engineering expertise, and Jeremy, a mechanical engineer who did a stint with Boeing in Seattle before joining the family team.   

In a highly competitive and ever-changing field, this experienced team dedicates a great deal of time to research and development.

“We’re constantly working to stay ahead of the curve by continuing to innovate and improve,” explained Jeremy. For example, one of the advantages of Sonex planes is that they use just four gallons of gas per hour. “We also found that we could modify and adapt a Volkswagen engine to aircraft use, which now accounts for half our business. As a result, we’re not just an airframe company, but also an engine company.”

“We’ve also been working on an electric aircraft since 2007. It has a brushless, direct-current electric motor the size of a coffee can that produces roughly 74 horsepower.” 

How do they accomplish all this R&D, inventory management and top-notch customer fulfillment with just eight fulltime and four part-time employees?

“Sonex does not manufacture,” said Jeremy. “We design the components and own the rights. Then we subcontract to others. That keeps us agile and able to go with the latest technology. It also enables us to focus on what we do best. We’re probably responsible for 50 to 100 additional jobs throughout Wisconsin because of our subcontracting.”

Founder John Monnett has become less involved in day-to-day operations and devotes most of his time and attention these days to research. However, as Jeremy points out, his philosophy is still very much evident in the success of the company: “Keep it simple. Keep it light. All good things come from that.”  

Success factors

SONEX AIRCRAFT IS A FINANCIALLY SOLID, well-established business. How did it get there?

One key factor is its reputation. Jeremy stresses that reputation is key to their ongoing success at Sonex.

“Our industry of home-built aircraft is rife with dreamers and crooks. One of our challenges is showing our legitimacy.”

In addition to John Monnett’s long-standing reputation, the company promotes transparency by conducting tours of its facilities.

This ties directly into customer service, which is crucial in a business that sells kits that may require a thousand hours to construct…and that must perform without surprises when hundreds of feet in the air. Even though the kits come with comprehensive plans and instructions, people will always have questions, and they need accurate answers.

“We have a growing customer base,” said Jeremy. “Our customers love us, mostly because we deliver what we advertise. This makes us one of the few aviation companies that does so. We have the highest level of customer service.”  

Another reason is the growing popularity of the new Sport Pilot license, which was adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2005. The new pilot classification opened up recreational flying to a much wider audience of flight enthusiasts, allowing a pilot to earn his or her license in less time and for less money than the FAA’s more traditional Private Pilot Certificate.

Jeremy also acknowledges that some of their success has nothing to do with aviation, but advances in business technology over the last decade.

“Many of the tools we use today were not around back in the 1980s,” he explained. “Email, for example, has dramatically improved the ability to communicate on all levels, especially with technical information. And then there’s our accounting software. Without it, we would probably need five additional employees.”

Add to that the logistics of shipping. Sending an entire airplane – even if it is in unassembled pieces – is still a task to ship across the state or to the other side of the globe. It’s now possible to ship merchandise almost anywhere in the world much more easily than it was just a few decades ago. It’s a critical factor.

“We are a global company. We ship all over the world, to 27 countries. We’re big in Australia, the European countries, Chile and Brazil. We are also,” he said with a proud chuckle, “exporting to China. We’re a U.S. manufacturer exporting aircraft to China.”

Marketing strategy

SONEX HAS NO SALESPEOPLE. So, how does Sonex get out the word? The company markets its products in four ways, explained Jeremy:

They invest in traditional advertising in aviation print and electronic media. The entire staff is also heavily involved in the AirVenture fly-in at the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh. As Jeremy explained, “the reason we moved to Oshkosh in 1982 was to be by the EAA. We invest a lot in that show.”

Sonex has an exhibit area and does seminars, presentations and workshops during the event.

They also conduct workshops at their facilities, charging a fee to teach prospective buyers about Sonex products and home-built aircraft in general. If the attendees want to go the next step and build their own Sonex, the fee is credited to the purchase of their plane.

Finally, added Jeremy, is the outreach done by its customers’ high praise.

“Our best sales people are our satisfied customers. We get a great deal of referral business.”

Balance with personal life

JEREMY, AGE 36, HITS THE FLOOR RUNNING every day. When asked what motivates him, he replies, “Fun, new stuff. I’m motivated by seeing concepts become realities. I’m also motivated by empowering our employees to succeed and grow.”

Like most key players in a small business, Jeremy said it is a struggle to balance work and personal life, especially with a wife at home expecting their first child.

“I work really hard at it, but the reality is that every small business owner can relate to the continual conflict between time spent with family and time on business. I just try to unplug. I work at it. Don’t do it perfectly.”

His model is his parents. John and Betty Monnett, both age 66, have always been a mutually supportive team, explained Jeremy. His mother, who is also an owner in the business, but does not generally fly, “has been supportive of my father’s dreams and passions. They’re a great team.”

In his spare time, Jeremy is a runner, loves to fly and spend time with his wife.  He is also president of the board of directors for the Christine Ann Center for domestic violence services in Oshkosh.

Advice to business owners

SONEX AIRCRAFT ISN’T JUST A BUSINESS. It’s a passion. That’s a key distinction, said Jeremy, when asked what advice he would offer those who want to go into business.

“Pick something you are passionate about,” he said. You will not succeed unless you truly love what you do.

“Just as important, be organized. The most successful business people I know are highly organized. There aren’t enough hours in a day, so you must be organized,” he emphasized.

“Finally, be versatile. People who run small businesses must be able to do a lot of different jobs. They must be able to either learn to do them or “identify weaknesses and get help.”

In other words, either hire the right people or outsource tasks that can be done better and less expensively by someone else.

The Sonex Aircraft team knows how to make planes and make profits thanks to a combination of soaring dreams and well-grounded business sense.

John Ingrisano is a Wisconsin-based business journalist and marketing strategist who helps clients recognize, maximize and realize their competitive advantages. For more information, contact John at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com, or call 920.559.3722.