Aircraft parts made by Fleet Canada in the small southern Ontario border town of Fort Erie have been globe-trotting since 1930. Their bonded wingskins on Twin Otter planes have seen everything from a medical evacuation at the South Pole research station to tourist-ferrying in the Maldives. On Chinook helicopters, their front cockpit nose enclosures have served in wars around the world, military training – and Hollywood movies.

Once a 5,000-person manufacturer churning out single-engine planes in the Second World War, the 170-employee company has maintained a steady course over its 87-year history that at times was a roller-coaster ride. Still using the original equipment to hand-tool modern parts, workers in the 500,000-square-foot facility easily meet state-of-the-art specifications exacted by today’s multinational aerospace titans.

Fleet Canada's WWII-era single-engine biplane, Model 21
Fleet Canada's WWII-era single-engine biplane, Model 21

According to Marika Kozachenko, Fleet Canada’s business development manager, the company’s controlled growth and stable environment have kept the company securely on terra firma – as has landing two major clients, Viking Air and Boeing. Being located a baseball’s throw from the Peace Bridge connecting Canada and the U.S. has been a notable advantage not only for exporting their goods, but also for attracting and retaining employees.

“Over the past six years, we have doubled our revenues to $20 million annually,” she says. “Our goal is to double them again within the next five or six by becoming leaner, working smarter and remaining very discerning about the work we bring in.”

The tools that will propel them into the future are lean manufacturing, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and succession planning. Veteran employees are training their replacements before retiring, and passing on a legacy of superior quality. While the company still uses some traditional manufacturing equipment, they will be investing in one game-changing technology: 3D printing.

Serious players in aerospace with seriously talented workers

In an industry that is extremely competitive and demanding, Fleet Canada’s strategies for keeping overhead low and quality high are paying off in spades. “We don’t try to be all things to all customers,” says Kozachenko. “We have been serious players in the aerospace arena for a long time, know our work well and keep our equipment well-maintained and in top operating condition.”

Employees have proven to be remarkable assets as well, encouraged by training and communications that build a positive culture. Weekly “chats” for all employees and exciting events cultivate a workforce that is caring, prepared and motivated. In 2016, for example, the Royal Canadian Air Force sent down a Chinook that allowed employees and their families to explore the helicopter to see how the parts they build are actually used.

“Most of our people are from the community, and appreciate not having to spend a chunk of their day traveling,” says Kozachenko, whose own short commute takes her past Niagara Falls every day. “As a company with wonderfully skilled and talented individuals and less than 2% average yearly turnover, we can effect controlled, continuous growth in a stable environment.”

From Ontario to the world: a trajectory toward continuing success

While Fort Erie is outside the Toronto aerospace cluster, Fleet Canada has always found tremendous business support from the Government of Ontario, the municipality, local and national agencies and educational institutions.

“While we sometimes feel we are an island off the mainstream, we only have to reach out to access the multitude of programs and services Ontario can offer businesses.” These include consular services that can effect introductions abroad, tax and offset credits, chambers of commerce, banking and consulting organizations, and educational institutions. Some of these connections have led to international exposure for the company.

The orderly evolution of the company over the next few years will make room for more clients and profits without forfeiting excellence. And with that forward thrust, the sky is truly the limit.

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