Jim Lee still enjoys a challenge, even after 28 years in business and having his company named Kansas’ exporter of the year.
Next year, for instance, Lee Aerospace will start producing heated forward windows for airplanes, to go with the unheated windows, fuselages and other parts it now makes.
“That’s just the next step in sophistication in the window world,” Lee, the company’s owner and president, said.
Lee started the business in 1989 after working for Cessna and a company owned by his father. At the time, Lee Aerospace’s chief product was cabin windows for the Boeing 737. It employed 11 people and was located in about 5,000 square feet at Harry and Meridian.
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Today, about 230 people work in its 160,000-square-foot plant in northeast Wichita, making windows and other components for about 30 different models of aircraft, primarily in the business jet market.
In addition to selling windows to aircraft manufacturers, Lee installs replacements, inspects and evaluates windows around the world for owners of the multi-million-dollar planes.
“We send guys to Dubai. We’re sending a guy to Hawaii in a week or two. I need to see if I can get on that trip,” Lee joked.
Lee also assembles fuselages for the Viking Twin Otter airplane, which are shipped to Calgary, Canada for final assemblage. And it produces sheet metal and composite products such as cockpit floorboards and main aircraft entry doors.
“We try to diversify to keep a healthy marketplace within our company,” Lee said.
All told, exports make up about 25 percent of company sales. On Monday, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer toured the plant and posed for photographs with employees while presenting the 2017 Governor’s Exporter of the Year award. The award recognizes a company seen as a role model for others seeking similar success in international markets.
“The true success of this company is based on the employees,” Lee said, adding that some have been with him from its start.
Lee’s work in airplane windows has followed a steady progression from cabin windows to side cockpit windows to forward windshields. Pressurization, weather and other factors wear out windows on a regular basis, no matter how well they’re made. Heated windshields better equip a plane to fly in inclement weather.
“We’ve already bought new equipment” to make them, Lee said. “Now it’s just a matter of putting it to use, executing our business plan.”
Lee sold the company to the Triumph Group in 2000, continuing to serve as its president, then bought it back in 2014.
“It was a good experience being part of a large, billion-dollar corporation, but I’m really happy to have the company back private and growing it for the Wichita community.”
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Address: 9323 E. 34th St. North
Owner: Jim Lee