This summer, Cirrus Aircraft announced that CEO Dale Klapmeier would be retiring from the leadership of the company he co-founded and that he has helped guide for 20 years. Cirrus is the world leader in the light personal transportation aircraft market, and for good reason. The SR22 is a beautiful, comfortable and utilitarian ride that incorporates the best in new technology seamlessly. The SF50 Vision Jet is the world’s only civilian single-engine jet in production, and it’s arguably an even better plane than the SR22, which is saying a lot.
In years to come, we’ll look at Cirrus’ history of leadership in this arena and finally get it. Despite considerable friction from old-school elements in aviation, the company was able to create a new sales paradigm by selling very high-end aircraft to people who had the means to buy them despite not necessarily having the experience to fly high-performance singles.
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At AirVenture, I got the chance to spend the better part of an hour getting to know the new guy, Zean (pronounced just like “Sean”) Nielsen. His background is in other industries, most notably the electric mobility segment—he was a big ideas guy at Tesla. And he knows his stuff about electrics, which is a handy knowledge base these days in aviation, too.
He also understands the need for players in this industry to be able to walk the walk, which is done in aviation by getting one’s wings and flying. He’s already working on his ticket. No one comes into an aviation company from other sectors and says, “Who would want to learn to fly?” or anything remotely like that, but I got the distinct impression that Nielsen will do more than take a few lessons.
Of course, the heart of a leader isn’t measured in sound bites but in how they run the show, and that’s accomplished day to day, one interaction, one personal investment with colleagues, customers and suppliers at a time over many years. You need attention to detail, because even seemingly little details matter ultimately in aviation. And you need to work alongside your people, the ones who are assembling part by part, component by component, the machines that define a company’s success. You also need to build relationships with those who educate your customers, as well as the people who take care of them after they buy the plane. All of it matters.
Time will tell how Nielsen writes that script, but if first impressions are to be trusted, he seems like a great hire.
Cirrus Aircraft is a different kind of company, too. It’s foreign owned, which is common in today’s aviation marketplace, but you’d never know it. Even after years of ownership by an outside hand, the company still operates the same way it did before, by all outward appearances, anyway. So Job One for Nielsen is to listen. The people at the company know it better than anyone. Besides, aviation is unlike any other pursuit. There are so many things about what we do that don’t make immediate sense to non-pilots, everything from stalls to chutes, that to truly understand our market, you need to listen to pilots and owners, too. We’re the ones who live with the products.
The Farewell Part
At AirVenture, on the night before the show started, I stopped by the Cirrus Aircraft pre-show party to say hi and wish departing Cirrus leader and co-founder Dale Klapmeier a fond retirement.
By all accounts from folks who know him well, he’s already enjoying stepping back a little. He deserves it.
I’ve known Dale for a long time. I met him and his brother Alan at AOPA Las Vegas in the early 1990s when I had a chance to fly the company’s VK30 kitplane model. It wasn’t yet Cirrus Aircraft but, rather, Cirrus Design, and the VK-30 was the company’s only model, a kitplane to boot. If you’re wondering what happened to it…well, it was a bundle of cool ideas bonded together to make a really fast flying ball of risk. At some point when the brothers Klapmeier realized the big idea wasn’t the airplane but the company, they wisely moved on from the VK-30 and focused on a new lineup of more conventional-looking Part 23 planes. They, of course, would become the SR20 and SR22.
From Day One, I realized that this was a special company, one that had actual, identifiable DNA. That strand of belief integrated commitments to innovation, technology, sleek style and safety. Of course, I had no idea if they’d make it. Aviation history is littered knee-deep with companies that had great ideas and never made it past the design phase.
But Cirrus did. They somehow got the SR20 certified, and it was an immediate hit. The SR22 followed shortly thereafter, and everybody soon figured it was the real deal, a sense that subsequent chart-topping sales figures have borne out.
Safety came later, and only after the company was forced to up its game following a spate of accidents and vocal criticism from a number of directions, including pilots who thought that the company had relied too much on the chute—all Cirrus aircraft have an integrated whole-airplane recovery parachute system, which Cirrus calls “CAPS” for Cirrus Airframe Parachute System.
Cirrus surprised everyone not by stepping back from the chute as a means toward safety but by doubling down on it, incorporating into the checklist a number of chute-specific checks and call-outs. The idea behind it was this. Even with a well-trained pilot in the left seat and a bevy of high-tech safety systems, planes crash. Cirrus was out to prevent every one of those crashes and every injury and fatality associated with them by better training pilots on when and how to pull the big red handle.
Since its decision to rethink its training approach, Cirrus has developed a culture of safety that could be a model for many other companies. It’s not the only company with a world-class approach to cutting risk, it’s true, but in this segment, high-performance singles and very light jets, Cirrus is the leader.
Dale and Alan Klapmeier each brought a special world-class set of skills to their leadership at the company. Alan, a brilliant and charismatic thought leader, was the face of the company for more than a decade. He departed Cirrus years ago, when it was purchased by CAIGA, and Dale remained with steady hand to guide the company to where it is today.
His legacy will be lasting. And a big part of that record is the fact that Dale knows how to get things done. He’s not alone in that. But here’s the part that is extraordinary. He got things done while empowering his employees, who were always his colleagues, too, making them a part of the success. It was never about Dale winning. It was always about everyone winning. That’s real legacy