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Mooney's Future With Chinese Investment

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Not to be irretrievably cynical, but more than any other industry, general aviation has shown itself capable of reducing even well thought out business plans to smoking rubble. And never mind the half-baked ideas. I’ve always attributed this to the fact that flying and airplanes as a concept are so intoxicating, that only the most disciplined among us can avoid having our brains turn to mush when within, say, 50 feet of an airplane.

In that context, here comes Mooney to make another run at the market after a business history best described as checkered. Mooney is the aviation equivalent of the irradiated cockroach. It has survived more bankruptcies and sales—not to mention bad management—than any other brand I can think of. The last round of Armageddon Mooney weathered was the 2008 downturn.

Now, it has been picked up by Chinese interests who pledge to enter the world market with two of Mooney’s models, the Acclaim and the Ovation.  In this interview with the company’s new CEO, Jerry Chen, at the Xi’an show in China, you can gain a glimpse of where Mooney might be going. The venue is changing, if perhaps the products aren’t.

If Chen and his colleagues have fleshed out the details of the business plan, they haven’t shared them with us. But the top line idea is that Mooneys will have a sales appeal in China and thus the venerable M20 line becomes a world airplane. But are these aircraft really suitable for a world market or are we at the point where it’s time for the next generation of designs that are more efficient and easier to manufacture to emerge? Frankly, I’m voting for the latter. If the demand is strong enough, you can sell some airplanes just about everywhere, but “some” is not always enough to add up to a sustainable airplane business and if any company has proved that, it’s Mooney.

Make no mistake, the Acclaim and Ovation are as good as any aircraft out there in terms of performance and utility. But they are complex airframes with high build hours and unless the volume soars to unimaginable numbers, there’s not much  economy of scale to be eked out in manufacturing riveted airframes with retractable gear. In other words, heading into the second decade of the 21st century, they’re still old school airplanes in an industry desperate for innovation.

There seems to be an all but unquestioned assumption that the Chinese airplane market is about to explode which begets a secondary assumption that buyers there won’t be choosy about price, features, complexity and operability in the way that car buyers are. This may be true. Or not. My crystal ball, such as it is, is utterly opaque on this question. But my gut tells me we’re going to be writing stories about demand in China being weaker than many first assumed and that it's taking longer to mature than anyone believed.

Stipulating that China has interested buyers and the wealth to buy $600,000 airplanes and that the airspace opens up, as we are assured it will, what does Mooney need to be a true world airplane? And world means not just China, but India, Russia, Brazil and, eventually, Africa. To me, the obvious answer is Jet A options. Both the Acclaim and Ovation are wedded to legacy Continental engines that require 100-octane avgas. In the west, no replacement for endangered leaded 100-octane appears ready for fielding and although China has its own homegrown 100-octane fuel, for how long will these exist? China is not disinterested in the lead issue, we’re told by businesses working the China trade.

Sooner rather than later, Mooney will need a Jet A option. At the moment, there’s no piston engine suitable for this. Continental’s Centurion 4.0 is likely to be too heavy and because Continental knows this, it’s clean-sheeting other options in the 300-hp range that these two airframes need. In 2008, Rolls Royce and Mooney signed an engineering agreement to fit the RR500 turbine into the long-body airframes. A few months later, the downturn iced that idea.

And now we get to the bright side of this deal. If the Chinese buyers have lots of capital—and we always assume they do—they can get that Rolls project re-heated while also putting some developmental energy into Jet A pistons so the line will have some engine options other than reliance on 100-octane gasoline. If you pencil in a new model onto the to-do list, you can come up with a hundred million in capital requirements, if not more. It’ll take some volume to return that kind of investment, which explains why it’s often more practical to squeeze what you can out the existing technology and take profits—or survival—where you find both. Of course, we’re also told that at some level, Chinese aviation companies care more about building industry and infrastructure than short-term profits. Who would argue that light aircraft manufacturing has proven fertile ground for foundation businesses in which profit hovers over the horizon?

Bright spot two is turning the lights back on at Kerrville. This alone is positive news. It may make new models available again domestically and Mooney can always find some buyers for what it builds. That’s made easier by having a financial benefactor with deep pockets. With the factory perking, people answer the phones, the parts chain improves, used prices stabilize and the outlook is just altogether better. Oh, and we’ve gotten to the point in the global economy where we can stop ringing our hands about the Chinese snapping up another American company. That’s the way the world works now and we should just get used to it.

So personally, I’m okay with the sale of Mooney to a China-based company, but only if it pulls in some investment to get the company to the next stage. Let’s just see if that happens.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (21)

You are correct Paul; "To me, the obvious answer is Jet A options." include Cirrus and Cessna in the China/Continental diesel engine mix. Learning from Cirrus a plastic Mooney could be a probability. However, I am somewhat puzzled by the rapid China business acquisitions - it appears to be a buyers market, but developing a demand in China for aircraft involves growing a large private aviation infrastructure and robust international sales. My guess is that it will take 20 years to mature at the rate they are expanding. This is assuming that their economy does not collapse on the roll. And following on you last remark, I am not OK with the sale to China - I am sure it has to do with national pride. American investors are not interested therefore there goes the industry. Too bad!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 19, 2013 11:18 PM    Report this comment

The quick buck today kills tomorrow.

Posted by: Jason Baker | October 20, 2013 7:50 AM    Report this comment

I'm not concerned so much with the SALE of American aviation companies to foreign buyers as I am for the lack of willing investors in THIS country. We have ceded production of airplanes and airplane accessories to foreign countries--a field we once dominated and one of the few bright spots in our balance-of-payments.

We should be asking "WHY are foreign nations able to succeed here, when American companies are failing? Is it because we have the highest corporate taxes in the world (hard to compete internationally with that weight dragging you down!)? Is it because we have government certification issues that stifle innovation and make incorporation of new technologies cost-prohibitive?

Is it because American manufacturers are tasked with such a regulatory burden (EPA, Unemployment Insurance, Workers Compensation, Social Security and Medicare taxes, etc. etc. etc.?

Is it because of the American legal system--where every manufacturer has a target on its back--pursued by lawyers in search of a big contingency award check? (Try suing the Chinese!)

The very fact that they are willing to invest in the admittedly old technology of GA says that it is not the PRODUCT that is the difference--it is the ECONOMIC CLIMATE that prevents American companies from being competitive worldwide.

Posted by: jim hanson | October 21, 2013 8:44 AM    Report this comment

Actually, riveted aluminum aircraft make a great deal of sense for emerging economies. Airframe damage repair is much easier. Construction requires just what they have lots of...skilled low-cost workers.

Why do the Chinese want these companies? For the knowledge. American investors are staring at a flat US market which likely won't turn around until other fundamentals are addressed (another topic and no, it's not corporate income tax) whereas the BRIC markets are so huge that a small uptick means a lot of airplanes. Of course, those planes won't be built here. We should not be surprised to hear that some hand-picked workers from Kerrville are earning great money training workers in China.

Yes, diesel is overdue. A drop in replacement for the 4cyl Lyc and the 6 cyl Conti at comparable weights and lower costs could be part of an American flying renaissance. Obviously not an easy challenge but one worth a lot of thought.

Posted by: Jonathan Micocci | October 21, 2013 9:43 AM    Report this comment

China's domestic market won't go anywhere. Why? They are a totalitarian country at heart, and the concept of free airspace is soooo culturally alien to them. Their hearts and minds are wrapped around control, control, control. (My wife went on a medical service trip to China last year, and her ability to deliver medical services was crippled by government control freaks, doing what petty bureaucrats do best. That same mentality isn't going to embrace Class G airspace anytime soon.) That said, I remember my old boss's Mooney 231 with great fondness, and hope that the company thrives with this new money.

Posted by: John Schubert | October 21, 2013 11:18 AM    Report this comment

The Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of National Security and Technology Transfer Controls has intervened in technology exports before. I wonder if they are involved on this now.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 21, 2013 12:24 PM    Report this comment

I guess we should all be accustomed to "made in China" these days--it seems as if much of what we buy is made there. That in itself isn't so bothersome, except for the political ramifications, and I'm not smart enough to comment on that. So far, though, the Chinese purchasers are indicating that Mooney production will be resumed in Kerrville, not in China.

As for whether it's good for GA for Mooney to resume, who knows? Personally, I love Mooneys. I've flown several, from early Johnson bar and wood-wing models through the Ovation, and they're superb. I've toured the factory in Kerrville when they were still in production, and the construction process, while somewhat tedious, resulted in an amazingly strong airframe. In significant turbulence, I would much rather trust any well-built Mooney than any plastic airframe, with or without a parachute.

As for the question, what does Mooney offer that Cirrus doesn't, a comparably equipped Mooney is faster, can fly more than twice as far with standard tanks, flies higher, etc. Simple. I suggest that with Mooney back in production, a number of well-heeled purchasers who might have been on a Cirrus track will instead opt for Mooney's clear advantages.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | October 21, 2013 12:32 PM    Report this comment

While not bound as rigidly as the old Soviet Union's, China economy is still a highly directed one. The edict from on-high that a Chinese general aviation industry is to be created is probably triggering the same sort of investment decisions that in America seem to result from Paul's "brains to mush" syndrome.

The state of our nation being what it is, our best choice is to take the money & force a smile.

Posted by: John Wilson | October 21, 2013 1:19 PM    Report this comment

Lots of misconceptions about China... haha! Will Mooney have its headquarters next to the Wichita KS town offices selling American know how for a quarter a bag? I frequently find myself double- checking the calendar to make sure its not April Fools day, somewhere. Institutionalized insanity has taken the controls over this country. Allah (or whoever you feel like praying too, if not the mighty Kennedy Half Dollar) have mercy on these poor souls.

Posted by: Jason Baker | October 21, 2013 1:24 PM    Report this comment

My neighbor's sister used to take the money and force a smile.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 21, 2013 1:25 PM    Report this comment

Don't look this gift horse in the mouth.

In a case like this the key to the sale is terms, not price. It's's safe to assume Mooney's assets were not over-valued and that the Chinese have made an operational commitment and will give this some time. It's a good deal. The SR-22 and the TTx are not lost on the Chinese, who now have a brand from which to launch a high-performance composite single, should they so decide. Whether they do or not, a venerable American airplane is back in production and some Americans are back to work. Yes, they're showing the Chinese how it's done.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | October 21, 2013 2:33 PM    Report this comment

The Chinese GA predictions remind me of the post-WWII predictions of every wartime-trained pilot wanting to buy a new GA airplane when he got back home and settled into civilian life. We know how that worked out; nearly every GA manufacturer almost went bust. I'll believe it when it happens.

I had some co-workers visiting from China and told them about the expected GA boom over there. They laughed and said flatly the government will never allow such a thing! People can't just up and fly around over there unless they are connected very high up in the military or political circles. Who would control all that moving around? And even then it takes lots of permits and often bribes to do anything.

Posted by: A Richie | October 21, 2013 4:14 PM    Report this comment

APOO will be there to protect the flying privileges of the few rich and proud connected GA people. I still haven't figured out what the Wichita Town Office will do there. Sell redemption center stickers? No seriously, I am dumb, help me figure it out.

Posted by: Jason Baker | October 22, 2013 6:37 AM    Report this comment

BAND WAGON EFFECT. It implies that people associate themselves without considering what they associated themselves with. Next Gen, LSA and now China's "all to the wall" move into GA, military and commercial aviation. Less free thinkers in the world?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 22, 2013 7:49 AM    Report this comment

At the risk of making the Mooney guys mad, I hope the new management will consider moving away from the traditional Mooney look and feel. The straight tail, the odd back windows, the small cabin, the squatty landing gear. I know it's what has traditionally been the look of speed. Today, there is a new definition of that look (Cirrus, Pipestrel Pantera, Cessna TTx). The GA industry is still manufacturing essentially the same airframes from the 40's, 50's, 60's, and 70's (I own an A36 Bonanza). What if the car industry did this (I guess Russia still does)? And it's not just the look of the aircraft, but the technology is just as ancient. I believe this is all a moot point. There is never going to be a robust GA market, even on a global scale unless we solve all of the other problems first (100LL, pilot production, FAA certification rules). Good luck Mooney. I'm happy for Kerrville. Here we go again.

Posted by: John Bond | October 22, 2013 9:23 AM    Report this comment

Band wagon effect. After all the LSA fanfare and promotion the Skycatcher now Cessba says "it has no future". Those who believed in this were led by the promotion and got hooked. Some of us thought the concept was inappropriate. It looks like the end of the line for the Cessna C162. Not necessarily the end of a futile effort by the LSA concept.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 22, 2013 11:29 AM    Report this comment

I'm not at all sure that Cessna has any plans to stay in the piston market in any form. While they signed a deal with the Russians for 6 months worth of backlog of 172s, they sold a handful of 172s and other piston airplanes this year. At $ 400,000 a pop for a 50 year old design and with flight schools facing a dwindling pool of people taking up flying, with old fleets with steam gauge planes nobody under 50 wants to learn in, Cessna did almost everything wrong. Everything about the plane is cheap, tacky, flimsy, flies so twitchy as to inspire zero confidence--and who wants to trust their life to something made in China? The hype that is LSA has come home to roost. Whatever happened to the 800 planes "on order?" Piper was they smart one, realizing they were destroying the brand with this class of plane which flight schools wouldn't buy. If the AOPA/EAA "Driver's license" proposals is approved, however unlikely this is under the cowardly. Ga-hating, do-nothing Huerta, the disaster and denouement of LSA will be complete: the only markets surviving are avionics-loaded $200,000+ Planes overwhelmingly bought by pilots who can't pass the 3rd class physical or who are unwilling to lie to the Feds. No, this part of the market which is what's sustaining LSA-land will keep or go back to their 180 hp, 2 person, day flying planes permitted under the AOPA/EAA,,which actually fly like real airplanes instead of enclosed Ultralites.

Posted by: Michael Sheridan | October 23, 2013 3:38 PM    Report this comment

J

Posted by: Michael Sheridan | October 23, 2013 3:40 PM    Report this comment

Prior to buying a Mooney 10 years ago I flew the plastic planes of Cirrus, Diamond and Columbia and although some were nice they just didn't inspire me to take the then risk of a plastic plane in a metal world. That said, I found the fit and finish of one not up to the asking price, another more like a glider and the other a bit expensive...

Two of the Companies have had financial woes with one now belonging to a metal plane builder and the other remerging with China investment. So the type of material seems irrelevant to the success. Cirrus flooded the market with their approach of the safety of a parachute and reached a lot of new pilots. But the airframe ain't all that and appears to require the same if not more maintenance then the metal counterparts. Diamond seems to be holding its own, but the former Columbia has had material issues with wings, fuselage, etc. It is my understanding they are not retracts due to the engineering and certification processes.

Mooney may be old school aluminum, but it has a rep and the M-20 has been around longer than the others put together. Kinda like my old Corvette, and they are still building them, oh but that is a plastic car in a still metal auto- world. At the current asking price of 500K and up, old fashion quality over a faster build time may work. As for engines of the future, we all are in that boat waiting for the answer, I bet it will be a Jet-A burner of some sort. Lack of retract time will be a big one with the Insurance Companies for a while. As a whole aviation is a fickle environment for builders...

Posted by: Chuck West | October 25, 2013 5:16 PM    Report this comment

Paul; Just happened to digest this nice write-up on China's investment in Mooney. Well articulated! Your opening paragraph sums up MOST, if not ALL, of GA's (business) problems! I'm the Lone Eagle" Intoxicated; NO - Disciplined- YES!

As you stated on GA, it's EXACTLY why I found myself "Incompatible" (1978) with those that thought "ROI" was some of modified ILS approach!

ANYONE need an aged (off GA 12 step program for decades) "marketing guru"?

Posted by: Rod Beck | November 10, 2013 8:10 PM    Report this comment

Photos From the Xi-an Airshow... https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.741975062485492.1073741827.144781592204845&type=1

Posted by: Steven Rhine | November 19, 2013 7:03 AM    Report this comment

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