Gillespie family f lying colours corp.

A strong partnership forged between twin brothers delivers special benefits to Flying Colours Corp. – an international family MRO and interiors business, based in Canada. Words: Mike Stones

Gillespie family flying colours corp.

A strong partnership forged between twin brothers delivers special benefits to Flying Colours Corp. – an international family MRO and interiors business, based in Canada. Words: Mike Stones

Left - Sean Gillespie: Executive Vice President. Sean leads Operations at Flying Colours Corp. but works closely with his brother Eric.

Centre - John Gillespie: President and CEO. John has always said his sons Sean and Eric “were on the same page”.

Right - Eric Gillespie: Executive Vice President. Eric leads Sales and Marketing.

Kate Gillespie: Vice President of Corporate Development.

Lisa Gillespie: Works across Administration and Marketing.

“All aviation business, and particularly ours, is people-driven”
Eric Gillespie

FORGET SIBLING rivalry. Working in close partnership with your twin brother delivers powerful business benefits, according to Eric and Sean Gillespie of international aviation services company Flying Colours Corp. It is a business partnership forged, together with other family members, over the past 20 years and more.

“Sean and I are very close,” explains Eric. “We very much think alike as we’ve grown up together, were educated together and have been mentored by our father together. We intuitively understand each other and normally have a pretty good idea of what the other’s opinion will be about most subjects. Communication is key, because if you’re not communicating clearly, you’re going to have problems."

Eric and Sean are both Executive Vice Presidents of the company, headquartered in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Eric leads Sales and Marketing, while Sean heads Operations. “My brother and I run the day-to-day side of things,” says Eric. “While we have our own responsibilities, there’s a lot of cross over. We try to be involved in all aspects of the business to keep on top of latest business developments.”

Communication between the twins has always been strong. “My Dad [President and CEO, John Gillespie] always said we were on the same page. This means we can usually make big decisions quickly, which is a major benefit in aviation.”

The brothers are part of a family team led by the “the boss”, their father. Joining them are two others, their older sister Kate, who is Vice President of Corporate Development. Kate focuses on maintaining strong relationships with local and federal government, while younger sister Lisa works across Marketing and Administration.

But there’s another member of the family team – Beth, John’s wife and the four children’s mother. “While she’s not officially in the business, she holds it all together behind the scenes,” says Eric. Flying Colours, which celebrated its 30th birthday last year, began, as its name suggests, with paint. John bought a small paint business with the same name in 1978 and managed its steady growth while also running a flight school and aviation sales business.

In 1989, the company began completions, modifications and refurbishments, maintenance and exterior paintwork on Beechcraft 99 Airliners, Cessna 421s and King Airs. A key milestone was passed in 1992 when, building on its success in small and mid-size refurbishments, the company completed its first large jet refurbishment and modification of a Bombardier Challenger 601. Flying Colours’ relationship with Bombardier was to play an increasingly important role in the company’s growth – as we’ll discover later.

Meanwhile, Eric and Sean grew up immersed in the family business. “When we were 12, we’d come home from school and go around the hangars picking up garbage and helping the guys to clean up’” says Eric, smiling at the memory.

Summer vacations were another time for Sean and Eric to become actively involved in the growing business. “Each summer vacation, we’d do different jobs around the business,” remembers Eric. “Whether it was cleaning airplanes in the paint bays or in stores or watching maintenance, it was a great learning experience – both about the business and the people in the business. We got exposure to all that thanks to family ownership.”

Fast forward nearly 30 years and the twins hold senior executive positions in the now multinational company. In 2009, the company bought JetCorp Technical services in St Louis, which became Flying Colours KSUS in 2013. The facility near the Mississippi has grown to 130,000 square feet; including a state-of-the-art 40,000 square feet cabinetry and interiors work area and 90,000 square feet of hangars. The latest 45,000 square feet addition opened its doors in January 2019.

Now it’s time for Bombardier to re-emerge in the story. The company expanded overseas with the opening of its Singapore interiors division at Bombardier Seletar’s Airport facility in 2015. The company maintains a team at the facility working on cabin repairs, touch-ups and interior refurbishment.

A gleaming Global, pictured in Flying Colours’ new paint shop.

Sean explains: “We are an MRO, refurbishment and completion company specialising in business jet aircraft. The completion side is what we do with Bombardier on airplanes across its Global product line.” Flying Colours is a Bombardier Authorized Service facility, Bombardier Preferred Completion Centre, and GE Aviation approved service centre.

In addition to Bombardier’s Global Express and Challenger ranges, no strangers to their hangars are Dassault Falcon, Beechcraft/Hawker and Gulfstream models.

About half the business is termed ‘after-market’ – spanning MRO, refurbishment and modifications and the other half is completions. The completions team involves a particularly wide range of skills. It’s a long list: upholsters, cabinetry experts, finishers, metal workers, structural technicians, electrical installers, avionics technicians, engineers and paint specialists.

“Over the years, the projects just kept getting bigger and bigger, as our reputation grew. Then we began to add new locations. Most recently we added a European sales manager to the team,” says Eric.

A Global completion project can require anything from between 50,000 to 70,000 hours. That compares with a conversion project for a Bombardier CRJ airliner, which may take about 25,000 hours. While a refurbishment of an aircraft can take anywhere between 5–10,000 hours depending on the size of the project.

As well as aftermarket and various completions, the company also offers special mission conversions, including medevac installations, avionics, flight deck cabin management and in-flight entertainment system upgrades.

So, what benefits does a family business bring? Eric thinks it’s a big asset. “There are a lot of benefits, such as being a close-knit team and being able to strategise together.”

Loyalty is another advantage. “There’s a strong loyalty aspect to the family business,” says Eric. “We all grew up together and you know that you can trust that person going into the working environment. Also, we were all mentored by our father and have benefited from his strong perspectives on business.”

But working with your family can bring strains. “Seeing the family at work and then at family events means you’ve got to be able to separate the family side from the business,” says Eric. “It can be tough.”

“Special missions is an area we excel in”

Here’s where Beth, their mother, plays a role. While business conversations at family events are far from banned, beyond a certain point, they are not encouraged. “Mom’s very good at helping us keep off the subject of work at family gatherings.”

Both have their own families and actively encourage their children to enjoy the sports they enjoyed as boys – such as basketball, ice-hockey and baseball. “Between business and the children and travel, that takes up to 95% of the time,” says Eric.

Apart from the occasional summer job, both twins, who turned 40 years-old this year, have never worked anywhere apart from the family business. When they were growing up their father had a rule: “If you want to be in the company, you have got to learn the company.”

And that’s what they did. At first, when they were much younger, the extra money earned in jobs after school and during vacations was an attraction. But over the years, as they worked in successive departments – from purchasing to paint and all the other areas – their jobs became “training grounds”. They grew up embedded in the family business and eventually, at around high school-age, decided to make it their future.

From the beginning, their father John instilled the key importance of valuing people and teamwork. “All aviation business, and particularly ours, is people-driven,” says Eric. “It’s important to relate to colleagues and to understand what they go through to complete projects that may take many thousands of hours. My Dad always says: We are nothing without the team. That’s our mentality; something that’s ingrained in all staff.”

The family business feels like a family to the whole team, according to the brothers. Many of the 500-strong staff have worked for the company for 15 years or so and some of the senior members have worked with Flying Colours Corp. for more than 30 years.

Eric picks up the theme: “It feels like a family-owned business at all our facilities in Peterborough, St. Louis and now in Singapore. Most people working with us grew up in a family environment and they enjoy working in that type of atmosphere. We offer that while delivering a highly professional operation and service: you can do both. It’s a huge selling point – inside and outside the business.”

Asked about opportunities for the business, the twins are clear. “It’s about continuing to deliver value to our customers,” explains Eric. “We will continue to grow the completions side of the business. We have just opened a new paint shop here in Peterborough which is part of a new 100,000 square feet facility. The aftermarket work is growing steadily, as our reputation has become more widely known. Special missions is an area we excel in, and enjoy as it brings us the opportunity to maximise our design engineering and structural expertise. This is becoming increasingly important to the business and we see a lot of opportunity there too.”

In a little over 40 years, Flying Colours has grown from a modest paint business operating out of a hangar in Peterborough to a truly international business with a 500-strong workforce. Whatever opportunities and challenges lie ahead, Eric and Sean, together with father John and sisters Kate and Lisa and, of course, mother Beth, seem well placed to meet them. ■

Busy in the workshops. A big maintenance programme on Global airframes keeps the Flying Colours’ workshops busy.

Sleeker seat designs and lighter colours are becoming popular.

CJI Connect

Flying Colours Corp

[email protected]

+1 (705) 742-4688

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor