I’ve only met Van’s Aircraft founder Dick VanGrunsven once but it left a lasting impression of the man and a positive reflection of his company. I believe it was at an industry event in Palm Springs and the company he created, literally with his bare hands, was entering an entirely new phase. Rather than tirelessly perfecting almost foolproof kit airplanes for affordable aviation, Van’s was becoming an OEM, an airframer turning out finished aircraft that customers could fly away.
The platform for this toe dipping in aircraft manufacturing was a modest one. The RV-12 is Van’s smallest design and fits the Light Sport category, which is easier for manufacturers to navigate in terms of regulatory approval. Still, it was a big shift for Van’s and none other than its CEO was there to gauge public reaction.
For three days, VanGrunsven stood in the heat and wind, patiently answering the same questions over and over again, showing kids the controls, having his picture taken with countless happy RV owners and, I assume, mentally tabulating the results of his hands-on survey. He would have been in his 70s then and he was always there when I went past the airplane. I spent an hour shooting a video with him and he was unfailingly patient, kind and laughing with me about our fumbling quest for cinematic greatness.
Now, VanGrunsven could easily have sent some of his talented staff (no single employee would have accepted the punishing schedule, I suspect) but I doubt that was a consideration. Every self-made man operates to some degree on instinct and this was a gut check. Apparently he heard what he needed because the RV-12 SLSA is still in production.
This kind of hands-on management is pretty much nonexistent in companies as big as Van’s was even then and there are certainly those who would be critical of that approach. Business experts would likely argue that a CEO should be far too busy with much more important stuff than actually dabbing on sunscreen on a blistering California convention center parking lot. Given the recent events, I would argue that his willingness, or rather insistence, on spending three days of his valuable time that way is the biggest asset the company now has.
When a company files for Chapter 11, it accepts a new reality. It is no longer in control of its own destiny. Up until that point, it was calling all the shots and that didn’t work out so well. At this point, it doesn’t really matter why. The court now has the duty to try to minimize the damage to those who put their faith in the company going forward. It sucks for all concerned but it’s the only hope the customers, staff and VanGrunsven have of this all being turned around.
The company history and the relationships it forged over the years are now the greatest hope for that outcome. The lawyers and accountants are hard at work and the precise timeline of trouble that led to this juncture is undoubtedly documented to the fine decimal points. And all that matters in that it informs those now calling the shots on what not to do, and on what their duty is to the thousands of people who are directly affected by all this. And that is as it should be.
But what it doesn’t do is inspire the will to ensure the very best possible outcome for all those people. And that’s where we return to that hot afternoon in Palm Springs. VanGrunsven didn’t have to be there except that he couldn’t stand to be anywhere else while his company went out on a limb with a new idea and a new product in a way that had never been tried.
While they went about their business in Aurora the employees at Van’s shared that risk as did the thousands of customers who were anxiously awaiting the shipment of their dream project and those who were flying their aircraft and in need of ongoing support for it. They had no idea they were risking anything, but VanGrunsven did and he took personal responsibility for mitigating it.
He’s also stepped in to become the financial savior of the company by putting his and his family’s money up to get the company back on its feet. As many commenters have pointed out, he’s taken security against the company’s liquifiable assets and will never see the inside of a soup kitchen because of it. But he did not have to raid the proceeds from his life’s work to help fix this, except that he probably couldn’t do anything less.
And even though he’s technically retired and no longer the CEO (an employee group took over the company years ago), it’s VanGrunsven who has personally made the difficult announcements about the financial difficulties and the Chapter 11 filing, by inference at the very least taking personal responsibility for both.
I suspect he’s not the only one in Aurora with those values. Like minds tend to find each other so there’s likely a lot of others whose primary goal is now to ensure something like this isn’t repeated, assuming they all get the chance to try again. Changes have already been made and I’m pretty sure the company won’t ever unknowingly make parts and kits at a loss after the court-appointed suits have left the building.
But here’s the ticklish part. It’s now largely up to customers to determine the company’s fate. There’s a huge amount of work to be done and not much time to do it to get Van’s back on its feet. It needs customers to support that process so the question is whether the bankruptcy, followed by a 32 percent price increase, has shaken their faith to the point where they’ll look elsewhere for an airplane kit.
The early betting is that Van’s will emerge from this a better, stronger company and I think that’s the hope of most people involved. One of those working hardest to ensure that outcome will be a spry octogenarian with amazing endurance and determination and an obsessive sense of responsibility to those he knows will be either victims or beneficiaries of the final chapter of his life’s story.