The Second Act of Alan Klapmeier

There are numerous reasons to cheer the announcement, last week, that former Cirrus Design CEO Alan Klapmeier is partnering with Farnborough Aircraft Ltd. to form the Kestrel Aircraft Company, to be based at the former Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine.

For starters, the past 18 months have been abysmal for the aviation industry. So the announcement of any new company and product is cause for celebration. And Kestrel's first product, a six-passenger, composite, turboprop executive aircraft with speeds around 320 knots and the ability to operate out of short and unimproved runways, will fill an empty niche in the aviation market. A photo of the already-flying prototype of the "Kestrel" is below:

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But the the main reason to cheer the news is that it means aviation's equivalent of Steve Jobs is back in the game. And that means all kinds of transformative innovations will now have a place and a greater opportunity to develop.

Most entrepreneurial ventures in aviation, just like in technology, ultimately fail. The average failure rate for start-ups overall is between 75 - 80%. If anything, the failure rate for new aviation companies is even higher. Which is one of the reasons Alan Klapmeier is such a rarity. Back in the late 1980s, he came up with an idea for how to build a better, safer airplane. It would be made of composite--a substance then used almost exclusively by companies who sold airplane "kits" for pilot/builders to assemble themselves. It would be faster and safer than existing production models, incorporate the then-just-developing glass cockpit technology, and ... most controversial of all ... it would have a parachute that could bring the entire plane to earth safely in case of a catastrophic failure.

I was there when Klapmeier announced his plans and unveiled a mock-up, back around 1992. And I remember the derisory snorts from the press corps and the other manufacturers. It would never work. Klapmeier was a dreamer. The industry was in decline, the economy was sagging, and a new airplane--let alone such a radical new airplane--just didn't stand a chance.

But it did work. It took the better part of two decades, but Cirrus Design not only successfully produced the SR-20, and then the SR-22 (planes featured by The Atlantic's James Fallows in an article and later book called Free Flight), but by 2008, Cirrus was outselling Cessna itself--the longtime industry leader. Cirrus posed so much of a threat to sales, in fact, that Cessna bought the Columbia aircraft company, whose aircraft was the closest competitor to the Cirrus in performance. Cessna now markets a slightly redesigned Columbia as the Cessna 400 "Corvallis."

Along the way, Klapmeier also earned a reputation for being not only a passionate and talented visionary, but also a passionate man of his word who delivered what he promised, cared deeply about the quality and safety of his product, and would make it right, in the end. That's a rare find in any industry.

But to make all that happen, Klapmeier and his brother Dale, who founded Cirrus with him, slowly gave up majority control of the company to investors. And in a move that shocked the industry, those investors (and Klapmeier's brother Dale, in a messy family split) voted to boot Alan out of the company 18 months ago. Cirrus was working on a revolutionary new single-engine, four-passenger jet model at the time. And as recently as a year ago, Klapmeier was trying to negotiate to keep the rights to the jet, so he could develop it on his own. But the deal fell through. So for the past 12 months, everyone has wondered where Klapmeier was going to end up, or what he was going to do.

It's a story very reminiscent of the Steve Jobs/Apple break-up. A visionary entrepreneur starts a company, then gets voted out once the company is successful by investors who believe they know better how to run a going concern. The only problem for Cirrus, as it proved for Apple, is that Klapmeier, like Jobs, was both the visionary designer behind the products and the person who gave the brand strength.

Jobs, of course, went on to acquire Pixar, making a huge success of that venture before returning to Apple. So is Kestrel Klapmeier's Pixar?

Clearly, the partnership with Klapmeier will help Kestrel immensely. Klapmeier brings invaluable expertise in successfully developing and certifying composite aircraft to their project (which was started by Brit Richard Noble, better known for his land speed records). Klapmeier also brings a level of integrity and trust among both consumers and investors that's as or even more valuable than his management expertise. He also brings with him many of the folks who made Cirrus happen--the old gang, as it were. One of the engineers I talked to last week said, "Yeah, we looked at each other and said, 'Hey! The band's back together!'"

These are people, mind you, who would gather together on countless Thursday nights, in the struggling years of Cirrus, and figure out who had enough credit left on their credit cards to help make the company payroll that week. It didn't happen once, or even a dozen times. It happened constantly. That's a kind of loyalty that makes the impossible possible.

So Kestrel is a very lucky company, although Klapmeier pointed out that he wouldn't have taken on the Kestrel partnership if he didn't really like the engineering and work that had already been done, and didn't believe he could make a great success out of the Kestrel design. Klapmeier still needs additional financing partners to get the plane into production, of course, and the project could still falter. It's a tough market and economy. But the chances of Kestrel getting that financing just went up by several orders of magnitude. (And this time, the partners have it structured so that nobody will get a majority stake in the business.)

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(Alan Klapmeier, right, and new partner Adrian Norris, at the Oshkosh air show last week)

But what about Klapmeier himself? Is he really content to build even an excellent turboprop airplane company, after taking on such transformative projects as the Cirrus and then the Cirrus Vision jet?" A sly smile spread across his face when I asked him the question.

"The jet's still a possibility," he said. "I see [the Kestrel] as the basis for a family of airplanes. There's a lot that will be different even about this design when we get done with it. We might even look at putting a parachute on it. But this is a design and a company that has the capability to do a lot more."

And then I got it.

What differentiates a truly great entrepreneur--the missionary ones, as opposed to the merely mercenary ones, as John Doerr of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins would put it--is that setbacks, failure or even betrayal does not defeat them. They have a mission they believe is important to accomplish, and they are wiling to take the long view, or even the long road if necessary, to get there. For Jobs, the mission is transformative personal technology. For Klapmeier, it's transformative aviation technology.

I've known Alan Klapmeier a long time, and I've interviewed him extensively for a book I'm writing about passion, and why it matters. Passion matters for any number of reasons, of course. But one of the big reasons is this: passion for a purposeful mission is what gives people like Klapmeier (and Jobs) the ability to get up off the pavement even when the rug gets pulled out from underneath them. It gives them the staying power to have a second act, even when the first act ends unexpectedly or abruptly, and the creative drive to find another way and vision forward.

My friend Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes, often says that America loves second acts. We love stories of redemption and reinvention, whatever the details. It's true, of course. But the Kestrel announcement is particularly exciting, because when passionate, missionary entrepreneurs emerge in a second act, it often winds up even more spectacular than the first.

Which means that Kestrel is going to be a very interesting company to watch.