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Cirrus reports improved sales, more jobs in Grand Forks

A crew at Cirrus Aircraft in Grand Forks fabricates the fuselage of the new Icon aircraft that the company is developing. Cirrus announced last week that its sales grew by 10 percent in 2013 over 2012 and the Grand Forks workforce has nearly doubled over the past year and a half.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD1 / 2
Cirrus' new autoclave installed last summer bakes aircraft parts under pressure.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD2 / 2

An aircraft maker with a factory in Grand Forks announced last week that it shipped 9 percent more planes last year than it had in 2012.

Along with that increase, Duluth-based Cirrus Aircraft’s workforce in Grand Forks has grown by almost 75 percent in the past 18 months. And with new projects in development and the national economy slowly improving, Cirrus executives are optimistic about the future.

“We’re a little bullish,” said Bill King, the company’s vice president of business administration. “We actually think (2014) is going to be better than last.”

Still, the 276 planes Cirrus delivered in 2013 are just a portion of what it sold in the years before the recession. King said the entire aircraft industry is still feeling the effects of the economic downturn.

King said he doesn’t expect to Cirrus sales to return to pre-recession levels any time soon. The company shipped 710 planes in 2007 before dropping to 268 in 2009, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

 “We don’t see it happening in the very near future, but we do think it will happen,” King said. “It’s certainly not something we’re structuring for over the next year or two, we think it’s further out than that.”

“But if it happens … we’ll find a way to build ‘em,” he added.

Improved sales

Cirrus’ sales numbers last year represented its largest shipment since 2008, and its share in the single-engine piston market grew to a record 37 percent, the company reported.

The company has been able to dominate the sector, King said, simply because they’ve been able to offer quality planes at a decent price.

“In this day and age, people want value,” King said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re buying cars, planes or pencil sharpeners.”

Its workforce here has grown from 83 to 144 in the past 18 months, King said. In Duluth, it employs about 500 people.

Recent projects

The Cirrus plant in Grand Forks’ industrial park added a new piece of technology last year. The autoclave, a kind of pressure cooker that helps strengthen lightweight pieces of the aircraft, became operational in October.

The process was previously done by a separate company. But by bringing the autoclave to Grand Forks, Cirrus was able to add about 10 jobs and significantly cut costs, said Tony Snyder, a processing and quality engineering manager for Cirrus in Grand Forks.

The autoclave project got off the ground thanks in part to a loan from the City of Grand Forks’ Growth Fund. That $950,000 loan came after the former chairman of the committee that reviews applications for those funds, Doug Christensen, questioned the company’s ability to repay the loan. He apologized at a subsequent meeting.

“The city was great to work with,” King said. “Notwithstanding a couple bumps.”

New endeavors

Cirrus’s bread and butter is the SR series, a single-engine piston aircraft that can seat up to five people.

But the company is also developing a jet, dubbed the Vision SF50, which King said will be ready for purchase in about 18 months. King said they will add more people as jet production ramps up, but he said Cirrus employees are going through “cross-training” as well.

“We’ve got to have enormous flexibility as we come through the build for the additional units for the volume in the SR series and being able to switch people back and forth onto the jet program as we need them,” King said.

Cirrus is also working with a California-based company that’s developing a small sport aircraft that can take off and land on water. Icon Aircraft has started assembling its first production prototype of its A5 craft, which features folding wings and a propeller behind the cockpit, at its southern California facility.

Cirrus is manufacturing the A5’s composite airframe components in Grand Forks, and final assembly will take place in California. More than 1,000 orders have been placed for the A5, according to Icon. The first plane built for customers is expected to be completed in late 2014.

Snyder said Cirrus has about 15 to 20 people working on the Icon project in Grand Forks currently.

“It’s not one thing, it’s a number of things coming together in just ramping up the activity level in Grand Forks,” King said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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