Belting it out

Fixture coating company Signature Plating is flying high after taking off beyond the airplane seat belt market

9th December 2005




Before preparing to sign a multimillion-dollar deal while flying in the company jet, make sure the seat belts are properly polished. A sparkling safety restraint may make just the right impression on that hard-to-please business associate.

If unsure whether polished chrome, brass, nickel or gold is a better finish, Signature Plating can advise. The company coats seat belts, washbasins, door latches -- almost anything on an aircraft that stays put.

Founded in 2002, Signature Plating caters to members of the business aviation industry, providing high-flying customers with service, quick turnaround times and constant attention to their multimillion-dollar aircrafts, says Signature Plating Chief Financial Officer Frank McKnight.

In addition to coating fixtures on the inside of planes, Signature Plating also coats firearms and weaponry, yacht interiors and custom cars and motorcycles -- providing everything from polished chrome door knobs to engraved initials and company logos.

"If it can be plated, we do it," says McKnight, whose father-in-law, Michael Donoho, founded Signature Plating and is still involved with the company.

Signature Plating started when its affiliated company, Aircraft Belts Inc., began experiencing an increased demand for custom plating jobs. At the time, Aircraft Belts operated as a middleman between its own safety restraint business and the plating companies that provided the seat belts' finishes. Aircraft Belts saw a need to service plating customers more quickly and efficiently, and decided to step in.

"The delivery of our products was dependent on contractors," says McKnight, who also serves as president of Aircraft Belts. "We were losing control of the quality."

In 2002, Aircraft Belts, which had been in business for 21 years at that time, set up its own plating operation, Signature Plating. Revenue for both companies took off almost immediately.

In 2003, combined revenue for Aircraft Belts and Signature Plating hit $3.2 million, reaching $4.2 million the next year. McKnight says 2005 revenue will surpass $5 million, with much of the business coming from current or repeat customers.

"None of our competition in the plating industry went away," he says. "I think the customers had no other place to go, until we started Signature."

McKnight says Signature Plating's most important tool for growth has been constant communication.

"Phone calls, e-mail, instant messaging -- we use all of those methods to stay in touch with customers," he says. "In this industry, it's all about time and quality. If their aircraft is sitting on the ground, it's costing them time and money. Not knowing when their project is going to be finished is what drives them crazy."

Signature Plating fills approximately 3,000 orders annually, in addition to Aircraft Belts' 6,000 to 7,000 orders for safety restraints. Combined, the companies employ a total of 48 people.

Typical Signature Plating orders run between $600 and $1,000 each for custom plating jobs -- slightly higher than the average order of $600 for new seat belts.

To keep up with Federal Aviation Agency requirements, airplane seat belts need to be replaced approximately every 10 to 12 years, McKnight says. Business aviation aircraft are refurbished slightly more frequently.

Replacing belts on a four-seat Cessna 172 runs approximately $70 per lap belt, and on Aircraft Belts' Web site, customers can build custom belts, specifying type of buckle, the length of the restraint, and the color.

A link connects Aircraft Belts customers with Signature Plating's Web site, although McKnight says only about 5 percent of Aircraft Belts' business comes from its Web site, with Signature Plating relying on the Internet even less.

More important for building Signature Plating's business is attending trade shows such as the National Business Aviation Association show and the Aircraft Interiors Expo, which will be held in Hamburg, Germany in 2006.

The National Business Aviation Association has represented the business aviation community for the past 55 years, and since 1990 its membership has doubled. Approximately 30 percent of the NBAA's 7,577 members are manufacturing firms that own or operate their own aircraft, with another third of the members coming from the real estate, banking and insurance sectors.

According to 2003 industry data, more than 700 of NBAA's members are located in Texas, a state with membership behind that of only Florida and California. Signature Plating targets these customers by offering finishes that go beyond the basic commercial and industrial methods used by the competition, McKnight says.

Between 50 and 100 other plating companies exist in Houston alone.

Flying high
McKnight says the highest cost of doing business is not the actual plating process itself, but safely handling the coatings and maintaining the tanks that hold them.

Many of Signature Plating's employees came from competing companies in Houston, and many were attracted to Signature Plating's technology and working conditions, McKnight says.

"We have a fully-ventilated production floor, with a vent over each tank, so that our working environment meets all current EPA regulations" McKnight says. "We treat our people well, and in addition to providing our employees with traditional benefits like insurance, we provide them with the support and resources they need to do their job."

McKnight says future plans include developing new finishes, including swirled finishes that are becoming increasingly popular, as well as fulfilling unusual requests, such as the customer who recently wanted to plate an entire barber's chair.

In October, Aircraft Belts and Signature Plating shipped an order for seat belts plated in 24-carat gold on the same day the order was placed. This focus on quick turnaround is also one of the company's focuses going forward, McKnight says.

Indeed, Jimmy Jones, a managing partner with Aircraft Interiors of Memphis who has worked with Aircraft Belts for more than 20 years, says if Signature Plating offers the same kind of service Aircraft Belts does, loyal customer relationships will follow.

Jones' company used to re-web customers' seat belts, outsourcing only some of the work to Aircraft Belts. Jones quickly discovered that Aircraft Belts could re-web belts faster and at a more reasonable cost than his own company could, and began outsourcing all of the seat belt work.

Now, Jones places one or two orders each month for between six and 16 seat belts from Aircraft Belts, and is beginning to use Signature Platings' services as well.

"One thing they understand is a quick turnaround time," Jones says. "They can turn an order around that day."

© 2005 American City Business Journals Inc.