May 1, 2020
As the former operator of the Faribault FBO, I continue to watch the "goings-on" there. Faribault is a unique airport-a small-town airport located close enough to the metro area to draw a wide variety of pilots and aircraft. It is home to homebuilders, antique aircraft owners, balloonists, a first-rate maintenance shop, a thriving and well-respected rebuilder of antique airplanes, a first-class commercial glider operation, one of the oldest pilot associations in the state, and now, Stein Air.
I've been asked - "What IS Stein Air?" Stein Air is partly parts and avionics sales, partly manufacturer, and partly installer of all of the above. It started in 2001 after the 9/11 downturn in the airline world in Rosemount, where friends Stein Bruch and Jed Gregerson were building an RV-6. With no good place to find electrical components, they purchased and then sold excess inventory to friends around the area from a garage, then from a small hangar, then expanded online, and eventually expanded into a dedicated facility. SteinAir also began building custom wire harnesses for individuals and aviation businesses. Business continued to grow, and along the way they also earned their FAA Part145 Repair Station Certification. As years progressed, SteinAir moved from their hangar in Rosemount to a facility in Farmington, along with a small hangar in Lakeville. As the company moved into providing complete custom-made aircraft panels, they realized that they had AGAIN outgrown their facilities. They started looking for a new home in the general Twin Cities metro area, and after a detailed search, "landed" at the Faribault Airport. There, they built a new facility that allows for manufacturing, as well as installation into a variety of aircraft.
One of the things that makes SteinAir unique is their work on planes many other repair and manufacturing companies are not able (or willing) to work on - from staggerwings, amphibians, warbirds, propjets, and homebuilts, as well as most certified aircraft. SteinAir also produces original equipment manufacturer wire harnesses for several general aviation aircraft manufacturers. They ship products, avionics, wire harnesses and panels to customers in the US, as well as every continent on the globe. Presently, they employ over 30 people full time and are among the largest Garmin Avionics dealers in the country.
Today, they have a new 18,000 sq.ft. hangar/manufacturing facility. I had to meet someone driving a part down to Albert Lea from the metro area, so I suggested we meet halfway at the Faribault airport. Since the new hangar/FBO is just beginning construction after the extensive damage to the Faribault airport caused by a September 2018 tornado, I suggested Stein Air. I had last been there when their facility was under construction. I wanted to see the finished building, and wanted to meet the people behind it. I arrived early, just as the workers were coming to work. I watched them as they filed in through the break room - picking up coffee and cookies from a recent birthday party. They didn't linger, going straight out to their work areas. As Yogi Berra's malapropism says, "You can observe a lot just by watching." In this case, the employees came in on time, greeted each other, picked up coffee and cookies-and went straight to their work stations. It was the sign of a company that provides for their workers-workers that get along with each other-and workers that knew what was expected of them-all good signs.
One of the workers stopped to ask if he could help me. It was another good sign: How many times have you been in a store while employees pass right by without offering to help? I introduced myself and told him that I was interested in some glass panel upgrades for my rental fleet. He immediately offered to give me the tour. We started out in the hangar area. It is large enough to hold King Air turboprops and light jets, and held six airplanes that day - a Peterson STOL 182, a stock 182, a Super Cub, and three Vans RV-series airplanes. It was bright and gleaming clean. My guide explained that "we do a lot of stuff on RVs - we build and wire entire panels for them (much easier to do than trying to integrate new radios and "steam gauges). Everything is pre-wired, cutting the installation time substantially." I observed that they were replacing what looked to be a pretty nice glass panel already installed. My guide replied "Right-some owners want the latest generation stuff. It's easier for them to come to us, where we can take out the old and drop in the new, instead of spending time and money trying to piecemeal it in, working behind the panel." Good thinking - and a great service!
We moved on to the panel shop. They literally make a cardboard or Lexan mockup for the new owner, so every radio, every switch, every circuit breaker, and every placard can be tried out and approved by the owner. They then feed the data into a laser cutter, and everything is cut precisely on the panel, right down to the N number for the airplane. Fantastic precision, and those placards don't come off!
Our next stop was the parts room, with shelf after shelf of wires, components, radios, antennas, etc. I noted that there were TWO parts rooms, with some of what looked like the same materials. "FAA regulation" replied my guide. "Homebuilt and certified airplane parts must be kept separate." Along the wall, there were perhaps a dozen "booths" or work stations, where the radios and associated wiring were being installed into the new panels. Each station had a data tag on it, listing who the installing specialist was-the name of the aircraft owner, and the promised due date. People worked there quietly-no blaring radios-no interruptions. It's the way I would want MY panel built! When ready, the completed panels would be taken out to the hangar area for installation. No working upside down behind an existing panel. Just hook it up to the power and antennas. It HAS to be faster and more reliable than normal avionics installation.
The tour of the work area was over, and my guide took me back to the office, where I was to meet "Stein." My wife was along, and I had left her in the waiting area while I toured. She had pointed to a dog bed when we came in, and now told me "Look what I found!"-a small dog sitting on her lap. She is a "friend of animals", and the dog could sense it. "The name is Piper!" she told me (we once had a small dog of the same name). "The employees tell me that they ordinarily make it wear a vest that says don't feed me! because it is getting too fat!" Another good sign-any place that has an animal mascot that the workers seem to like HAS to be a good place to work!
I met "Stein", and complimented him on the clean and well-organized building. There had been some discussion on saving the pre-war small hangar at Faribault. He replied "we would have liked to have saved it, but it was in such disrepair that it would have cost far more than building new. We explored keeping the original hangar arches and utilizing the space for the office-a combination of the "old and the new", but they were so far gone that we couldn't. We even considered putting up the metal arches out back for a picnic area that could be utilized for our employees, and for the people watching gliders and airplanes, but that wouldn't work out either." I"m glad that he was sensitive to consider aviation history. I explained to him that I am the FBO operator at Albert Lea, and that I was interested in upgrading my instrument trainers to glass. He showed me the lowest-cost option first-the Garmin G-5 all-in-one solid state unit. It fits in an instrument cutout. It has a battery backup for up to 4 hours of power, and if you install two of them, it provides total redundancy because either of them is able to switch back and forth from an attitude display to an HSI. You can toss out your vacuum system. We also looked at G3X and Avidyne displays, and I quizzed him on the relative merits of each. He took me to several of the small panel display rooms, where each of the systems is "live" and powered up in the panel.
I was so enthused that I asked him about replacing the old Bendix flight director/autopilot in a Baron that I'm thinking about purchasing. He explained all of the options for that as well-from the aforementioned G-5 system to a full autopilot/flight director system. It was expensive, but not as expensive as I had thought.
I asked about replacing the Collins Flight Director system in a King Air 200 that I fly. I'm not a fan of replacing perfectly good units while they are still working, but the time will come when the Collins flight director quits working, and I wanted to have a budget for that eventuality as well. Stein had a ready answer for that as well.
I noted that I hadn't seen an avionics bench while on my tour. Stein answered: "Our primary focus is on manufacturing and installation of complete panels and new installations-not repairing older systems. Our business includes (but is not limited to) full panel upgrades, avionics updates, ADS-B installs, and IFR certification checks. We work WITH avionics shops. Sometimes, it is faster and cheaper for them to pick up the phone and tell us that "I need a mounting bracket or wire harness for a _________." We can fabricate one quickly and get it out to them-often faster and for less than the cost of a factory part. We also do install work on major assemblies (like instrument panels) that we produce for many shops across the country and internationally. We work WITH avionics shops-not AGAINST them."
He continued: "We offer 100% custom panel and wiring - but if you want to do some of that yourself, we can help with that as well. We offer custom wire harnesses. We offer unparalleled customer service and dedicated customer support. We offer homebuilders and mechanics avionics sales, wire, switches, connectors and contacts, tooling, hardware, LED lights, and panel accessories." You have to like a guy that is brutally honest (but with a laugh!) - he says he doesn't want ALL of the work - and by helping avionic shops and homebuilders, he is guaranteed MUCH of the work. That's an attitude to be respected in any business!
Stein Air is a valuable asset to the Faribault airport, and to the Minnesota aviation industry. Not only do they provide 30 skilled jobs, but they export Minnesota quality and inventive technology to the rest of the world. Their products are used on the smallest homebuilts to turbine aircraft. They have a "can-do" attitude-doing what they can to help aircraft owners upgrade to new technology-helping them through the selection and installation process. As an aircraft owner and FBO, I'm glad to have discovered this company-they run a quality operation, their people are friendly, and they take the time to explain and demonstrate their product. It's the kind of place we LIKE to do business with!
Steinair can be reached at 651-460-6955. Visit their website at http://www.steinair.com
Jim Hanson has been flying for almost 58 years, and has been in the FBO business for most of that time, including almost 40 years as the operator at Albert Lea, MN. Jim has “seen it all”, and is not easily impressed—but was impressed by this operation. If you have something that you think Jim hasn’t seen before, contact him at 507 373 0608 or firstname.lastname@example.org