Aviation Partners Group is the kind of tenant most airports can only dream of.
Led by charismatic Russian-born entrepreneur Boris Nekrasov, the company has grown from selling and installing aircraft avionics and spare parts to building entire airplanes.
APG provides sophisticated avionics systems to the general aviation market. The company installs these systems on airplanes and helicopters in the U.S. and around the world from Russia to Indonesia.
Customers fly in on $50 million private jets, helicopters and vintage aircraft into Punta Gorda Airport to have them maintained and serviced by a team of highly trained engineers. APG now has 34 employees at the Punta Gorda Airport.
Because of its know-how, Italian plane maker Oma Sud Aircraft has tapped APG to build the Skycar, a twin-engine airplane that can carry five passengers. Recently, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced that APG signed a contract to build 45 Skycars.
Clues that this is no ordinary aircraft maintenance facility are the immaculate conditions of the company's two airside hangars. The floors are shiny clean, every cord is coiled and all the tools are neatly stacked on carts. “This is not aviation garage,” Nekrasov says in a thick Russian accent.
Indeed, statewide economic development organization GrowFL named APG as one of its top 50 “companies to watch” this year. The organization received more than 500 nominations for second-stage companies with revenues between $750,000 and $50 million.
Moscow to Punta Gorda
Nekrasov's father was a Soviet engineer who worked on the Russian space program and he followed him into the field. His mother was an avionics engineer for Russian plane maker Tupolev, so the young Boris grew up in that environment. “Electrons are in my blood,” he smiles.
In 1992, Nekrasov joined U.S.-based Allied Signal in Moscow to work on general aviation projects. Eight years later, he formed Nebo Services, selling parts and creating avionics systems for the Russian general aviation aircraft industry.
A former Allied Signal engineer who had retired to Punta Gorda invited Nekrasov for a visit, and together they formed APG. “This is the reason why I'm here,” Nekrasov explains. “We started as two guys.”
In 2006, APG landed a deal to upgrade 23 Russian-built training planes for the South Korean Air Force. That was a turning point because it gave Nekrasov the financial wherewithal to expand his business by buying Eastern Avionics Group, a company that had been established years ago in Punta Gorda. “It was my dream to have a real high-level avionics company,” he says.
Nekrasov says pilots who are scrupulous about maintenance seek out the company's engineers. Customers can watch the repairs or relax in a lounge with plush couches, a flat-screen TV, a well-stocked refrigerator and aircraft memorabilia. Nekrasov says customers with jets want sophisticated service: “He doesn't want to come to a garage,” he says.
It was in this environment that an executive with Italian plane builder Oma Sud flying through Punta Gorda struck up a conversation with Nekrasov last year. That brief 20-minute encounter led to the deal to assemble the Skycar plane at APG's facilities in Punta Gorda.
“We have the same vision of the business,” Nekrasov says. “We are trying to do something not standard.”
In addition to Punta Gorda, Nekrasov has offices in Moscow and in Kiev, Ukraine. He estimates 70% of his business is international because he can bridge Russian and U.S. technology. For example, APG can install U.S. avionics systems on Russian-built helicopters. “We can speak Russian and English engineering languages,” Nekrasov says.
Growth challenge: Engineers wanted
The biggest challenge that Nekrasov faces is finding and recruiting qualified engineers to Punta Gorda. “They're hard to find, especially those with experience,” Nekrasov says.
Nekrasov has tried recruiting engineers from the east coast of Florida around the space program in Cape Canaveral, but he says many of those engineers don't have hands-on experience. “It's another mentality,” he says. “I need people who know how to install.”
When he was growing up as a young engineer, Nekrasov remembers his father's advice to remember always to think about the person installing or repairing a system that he designed. “Think about the technician in the field,” his father counseled him. It served little purpose to design a system that couldn't easily be fixed.
Nekrasov's engineers can design an avionics system and install it themselves if need be. “He needs to be with the customer and fly it with the customer,” he explains. In fact, Nekrasov has sent his engineers to install systems as far as Jakarta, Indonesia.
Nekrasov explains that this kind of hands-on approach sets APG apart from others. “We are trying to build the brand of the company,” he says.
The company's founder is not exempt, either. “I do installation myself,” says the 55-year-old Nekrasov, with a broad smile. “I'm still in the game on the next level.”
A million passengers
Could tiny Punta Gorda Airport handle 1 million passengers a year?
The Charlotte County Airport Authority is betting that many passengers — or more — could pass through the airport annually. That volume of passenger traffic would rival those posted by the Sarasota and St. Petersburg airports.
To handle the growth, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the airport a $5.7 million grant to expand and renovate the passenger terminal from an existing 16,000 square feet to 45,000 square feet. Naples construction firm DeAngelis Diamond is scheduled to finish the project in April 2016.
“We're not even started yet,” says Don Lee, the authority's chairman and a longtime pilot.
That's because the airport could hit the million-passenger mark with just one airline: Allegiant Air. Already, the discount airline is projecting 635,000 passengers will pass through Punta Gorda this year to and from 21 nonstop destinations.
“I think we'll easily get a million passengers,” says Lee, noting that threshold could be crossed as early as next year.
A million passengers would put the Punta Gorda Airport on par with Sarasota Bradenton International Airport and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (see graphic, right).
Allegiant specializes in flying people from smaller airports in underserved areas of the Midwest and Northeast to sunny climates. For example, the airline flies nonstop jets from Punta Gorda to places such as Asheville, N.C., Peoria, Ill., and Toledo, Ohio.
In 2010, Allegiant's first full year of operations in Punta Gorda, the airline says it flew 66,000 passengers through the Charlotte County airport. “It's been the fastest-growing market in the history of our network,” says Lukas Johnson, vice president of network and pricing at Las Vegas-based Allegiant.
In fact, the growth has been so significant that Allegiant has based 13 crews in Punta Gorda, representing 26 pilots and about 50 flight attendants. “We will have up to six and maybe seven planes [boarding] at any given time next March,” Johnson says.
Because it charges low fares, Allegiant says it selected Punta Gorda for its operations even though the airport had little experience with passenger service. “First and most important thing is that the airport keeps costs low,” says Johnson, who estimates that the airline saves $10 per passenger compared with airports in Fort Myers and Sarasota.
What's more, Punta Gorda is strategically located between Sarasota and Fort Myers. “Everyone is going to be renting a car, so they're already used to driving,” Johnson says. “The No. 1 thing [customers] find most valuable is the price point.”