People - September 2007
Now that Robert Skillen has his aircraft company off the ground, he hopes it will fly well enough to lure hundreds of jobs to a county that needs them and make western North Carolina a hub for aerospace parts. But it hasn’t gained altitude as quickly as he had hoped.
Late last year, he and business partner Ray Jones bought intellectual property and other assets of New Smyrna Beach, Fla.-based Four Winds Aircraft, a struggling maker of small airplanes, and formed VX Aerospace Corp. VX, with seven employees, had grossed $400,000 through early August by fulfilling Four Winds contracts, but Skillen thinks there’s more money in making parts out of composite material — essentially high-strength fiberglass — for companies such as defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
In May, Skillen, CEO, and Jones, president, moved their offices to Morganton. They had hoped to begin production in a factory near Foothills Regional Airport in August, but permitting delays pushed it back more than a month. That could shrink 2007 revenue from the $1.2 million initially projected to less than $900,000.
VX got some lift from a $250,000 loan, which it will use for equipment, from the nonprofit Golden LEAF and as much as $4 million in performance-based incentives from the airport. Skillen, who attended high school in Spruce Pine, also says VX will be aided by the abundance of factory workers in a labor market that isn’t as tight as others. Burke County’s jobless rate was 5.9% in May, more than a percentage point above the state rate.
Skillen was born in Guam while his father was in the Navy. He moved to Mitchell County as a sophomore and later went to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he met Jones. After leaving the Navy in 1986, he worked as an engineer on government helicopters and then started a construction business. But he wanted to get back into the aerospace industry. He got the chance last year after his father, who had started the nonprofit Morrison Airfield Foundation in Spruce Pine, discovered Four Winds.
In the next year, Skillen, 48, hopes to hire as many as 45 people. VX already has orders for 13 planes that won’t be delivered to customers until 2008. If all goes well, employment could increase to 600 within seven years. But there are still some kinks to work out. “Right now, I’m trying to get my facility up so Lockheed, which is knocking on my door, doesn’t go away.”