Management On the Fly

June 19, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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CASCADE TOWNSHIP — Adrienne L. Stevens, the president of L-3 Communications Avionics Systems, has come a long way from her beginning in aviation on a student pilot's license. The company she heads has also come a long way from its historic founding here in the 1960s by Bill Lear, a legend in the aircraft industry.

Stevens, a native of Detroit, was just two weeks past her 16th birthday when she got her student pilot license. Her instructor was her father, a corporate pilot. To get a full pilot's license, she had to be 17 — and she was ready when her 17th birthday rolled around.

"Aviation is in my blood. I've been around aircraft my whole life," she said.

Obviously, she was a rather precocious teen, because she was only 17 when she started her freshman year at WesternMichiganUniversity in its Bachelor of Science program in aviation technology and operation.

Stevens wanted to fly, fly, fly. But that's expensive — unless you are flying as an instructor. Then the flight school pays for the aircraft and its fuel and maintenance. So by the time she was 18, she was WMU's chief flight instructor, and she also earned her commercial pilots license at the same time.

After graduation she landed a job as a commercial pilot for a charter company in Milwaukee. In the next three years, she flew many types of aircraft on various assignments, sometimes piloting an air ambulance, other times ferrying corporate executives or politicians. Then her husband's employer transferred him to West Michigan. By this point, Stevens had wracked up 1,500 hours of commercial flight and realized that flying for a living had its ups and downs. The airline industry is often in turmoil with mergers and bankruptcies, and corporate aircraft are often the first to go when a financial crisis forces companies to cut costs. So when Stevens began looking for a job in Michigan, she expanded her search beyond flying jobs and started checking out her connections.

A couple of her former flight students from WMU were working in Grand Rapids at JET — Jet Electronics & Technology Inc. The company had been manufacturing flight safety avionics since 1962 when it was founded by Bill Lear, creator of the business jet. In 1992, Stevens landed an interview and a job — in sales. JET Inc. had been owned by BF Goodrich Aerospace since 1986. After Stevens started working there, the company name was changed to BF Goodrich Aerospace, and then to Goodrich Avionics Systems Inc.

Her parents thought she was giving up a good career as a pilot, but Stevens was excited about the opportunity she saw: With all her hours of flying, she had always been fixed on flight safety, something she had emphasized as a flight instructor. Now she might have a chance to influence the products that make flight safer.

Stevens also decided to resume her education, and by 1996 she had completed the Executive Master’s of Business program through the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

At Goodrich Avionics Systems, Stevens became business unit director, overseeing sales, marketing, contracts, engineering and customer support activities, and other functions including new product development. At the time, the company also had plants and offices in Ohio and Florida

In the spring of 2003, Goodrich Avionics Systems was bought by L-3 Communications Inc. for $188 million, and later that year, Stevens became president of the division, now called L-3 Communications Avionics Systems. She was the first female president — and at age 36, the youngest president — within L-3 Communications, a New York-based corporation with scores of divisions, more than 63,000 employees worldwide and 2006 sales of $12.5 billion. The sixth largest defense contractor in the U.S., L-3 Communications companies supply a broad range of products and services used in aerospace and defense. Stevens said becoming the youngest president — and being a female in an industry that was traditionally male dominated — resulted in a lot of attention. She said she realized she had to be on top of her game, which motivated her to "try harder and do better."

Like most of American industry, her division's sales dropped after Sept. 11, 2001, but today, "the aerospace industry is booming."

"The avionics industry is a billion-dollar-a-year industry," said Stevens, and her company is one of only a few major players. While she could not reveal the division's sales volume, she did say that sales have almost doubled over the last four years.

The company designs and manufactures advanced cockpit avionics for general aviation, business jet, air transport and military markets. It sells its products to aircraft manufacturers and to the after-market. About 30 percent of sales are to the military.

This fall the company will launch a new product, SmartDeck, which integrates a two-screen display and several flight controls, including navigation, weather, collision avoidance, terrain avoidance, communications and engine monitors.

Another of its new products is the IRIS Infrared Imaging System, which can reveal deer near a runway on a pitch black night as the aircraft is making an approach.

Avionics Systems has almost 600 employees: 400 at the CascadeTownship facility just south of the GeraldR.FordAirport, and the rest at facilities in Columbus, Ohio, and in Fort Lauderdale and Phoenix. The company was recently named one of West Michigan's 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For for the second year in a row by the Michigan Business and Professional Association.

"We have very low turnover," said Stevens of the non-union plant. "I think that's a reflection on what a great place we are to work for." Employees work nine hours a day so that every other Friday is a day off, and every employee is eligible for a bonus.

Stevens meets quarterly with all employees, including at the remote locations, and does a three-minute podcast that employees can listen to each week if they choose to.

In May Stevens taxied one of five company aircraft from the nearby Ford airport to the company’s 10-acre facility, where all the employees came out to see what the SmartDeck cockpit system looks like in use.

When her workday is over, Stevens turns to her other preoccupation: her family. She and husband Joe Stevens, who works in sales for the Dial soap corporation, have an 8-year-old daughter, Joely. One of their favorite family activities is skiing. "I was always very athletic," noted Stevens.

She still flies a lot — but on commercial aircraft for business. When she does travel in Avionics Systems’ aircraft, Stevens prefers to leave the piloting to somebody else. She already has enough to do.    

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