CEO Interview – Tony Prewitt

Interview with President Troy Prewitt, of Ultrax Aerospace, Incorporated

with MARGARET REYNOLDS in October 2018

Growth is in their DNA: Clear Strategy and Strong Culture Makes it Easier to Bet on the Future

“We bet on the future because we can’t bet on the past”

Troy Prewitt is at the helm of a 23-year-old company that is creating the future—for themselves and their customers. As Troy explains it, “we are betting on the future because you can’t bet on the past”. This robust future is predicated on a well-defined mission: “We create the mission-critical support solutions demanded and needed by discerning customers.” That statement is loaded with mandates and innovation is at the top of the list.

Ultrax provides the tools to keep complex aircraft electrical systems “in the air.” They use Artificial Intelligence (AI), named Condition-Based Intelligence (CBI), to diagnose problems quickly and accurately enabling aircraft to function at maximum capability. While their biggest customers may be military helicopters they work around the globe to ensure aircraft electrical systems work safely. Since most of us are aircraft passengers on occasion, it is a benefit we can appreciate.

What makes their approach different is that the system often can identify the problem before people know there is one. CBI talks to the aircraft operational systems and interfaces with other tools to provide diagnostic information that can make the difference between costly downtime and repairs, and full asset utilization.

What makes the future feel like a pretty safe bet is that the entire product offering is based on the value it provides the customer, which Prewitt says, helps insulate the company from the unknown while creating opportunity. “Our passion for creating value for the customer will always reward us.”

It is about what customers need, not just what they want

While their industry leadership and advanced technology are impressive, what is even more impressive is that they challenged themselves to invest in the next level of solutions before the customer demanded it. They were growing and profitable with their proprietary aircraft “electrical brain” referred to as CNS or Central Nervous System. A small black box the size of a cable box, the CNS hooks into an aircraft’s operational system and tells it what to do while collecting data on its operation.

Over years of trouble shooting, the CNS collected a treasure trove of information about electrical system function and failure. That knowledge was used to create the newer CBI system that is changing how people and aircraft interact to mitigate risk, provide more control, and improve customer profitability. According to Prewitt, “It is not our goal to give our customers what they want, but rather what they need. We recognized we could go further and do better, truly improving performance in ways others couldn’t because of all the data we collected. Our mission drives us to innovate and partner to advance the quality of the industry. We left money on the table because we knew we could provide more value with the next stage of development. We refuse to be a vendor because they compete on price; we will always strive to create value.”

We fund growth with no debt

The most debt Ultrax has carried since its founding in 1995 by brothers Chris and Brian Lincoln is a few thousand dollars for 45 days so they could get a banking relationship. The reason being debt free is important says Prewitt, is that “it is hard to be innovative when you are beholden to another stakeholder”. Prewitt makes it clear that at Ultrax, “they covet speed and control”. Continual reinvestment has been an operating covenant since the company’s inception. The goal is to give shareholders a better return than they can get anywhere else. Prewitt insists they don’t allow themselves to get distracted by the next shiny thing but stay focused on the goal.

Ultrax’s DNA is heavy on respect.

Respect is the bedrock of the Ultrax culture. It means that employees are motivated by not wanting to let each other down and contributing to each other’s’ success. The challenge is respect is hard to earn but easy to lose. Prewitt describes it this way, “You have to be on your A game. You can destroy your credibility with one bad moment. Humility is required; not of the giver but of the receiver. You must have empathy for someone who is having a bad day. It means we give the benefit of the doubt and assume people are fundamentally good.” It is not a matter of ambition, because they seek it. And conflict happens. It is more like the 2018 KU Final Four team where stars and bench players work together to find their roles and value each other for what they bring to the table. Ultrax finds people who aren’t a good culture fit simply don’t stay.

High Performance companies require great communication and strong belief systems

For a company to be a high-performance company Prewitt believes that the employees need to understand the vision, buy into it, and work to achieve a common purpose. The only way Prewitt knows how to sustain high performance is never assume it. By claiming to be a high-performance company, Prewitt considers that they run the risk of losing their edge. While admitting it can be exhausting to employees to hear there is always a new goal running just beyond reach, that is what performance and growth is all about. Prewitt acknowledges that it is working. “Today, Ultrax is growing quickly with a terrific strategy that creates a whole new category of value for our customers. And based on that we think we will see massive growth. “

About Tony Prewitt

Tony Prewitt was the vice president of corporate development at Ferrellgas, an energy industry conglomerate that generates $2.4 billion in annual revenue. Prewitt played a key role in the growth of Ferrellgas over the past four years by helping with numerous mergers and acquisitions. Now, (in 2014) he’s applying that experience to his new role as president of Lee’s Summit based Ultrax Aerospace, a manufacturer of testing equipment for aircraft maintenance that generates an estimated $20 million a year in revenue.

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