Its no secret that Vans Aircraft patriarch Dick VanGrunsven has been looking forward-not just with the company’s latest design, the Light Sport RV-12, but for himself-and that view includes some form of retirement. Normally in such situations, departure of the company founder is a bad thing all around for the brand. It loses its core, its conscience (if you will), and can often be led right into the rocks by a power struggle in the wake of the departure, or through business decisions that reflect the ego of the new owner rather than a carefully chosen path that makes the most of the company’s existing strengths and resources.
For those of you holding your breath at the thought of Vans losing its center, you may now exhale. Over the last four years, VanGrunsven, along with company President Tom Green and General Manager Scott Risan, have been formulating and working a plan of succession. Gradually, Vans has become employee owned, and VanGrunsven himself has been easing out of day-to-day responsibilities.
This tactic is as smart and logical as it is rare in the homebuilt world. The conservative nature of this empire has seen it become the undisputed sales powerhouse on the back of intelligent business decisions-the most valuable is to sell your product for more than it costs to make it, a lesson not all engineer-run businesses appreciate-and careful growth.
Yeah, yeah, enough Econ 101, you say: VanGrunsven designs great airplanes that people want to build. What happens now? Good question.
As it turns out, I believe Vans is just fine on this count as well. I say that after spending time during the photography of the RV-12 with chief engineer Ken Krueger.
I have to confess that my relationship with Ken got off to a rocky start. We had a miscommunication about when I would arrive with the photographer, and in so doing I threw a king-sized monkey wrench in his testing schedule. (The RV-12 had been having oil-temp issues, and a fix needed to be tested.)
Finally, in person, as we walked around the RV-12, Ken told me about the development process and, after a bit, I figured out why he seemed on edge-and it wasn’t that Id hosed his schedule. The company has a lot riding on the 12, and it needs to be good. In fact, not just a little bit good, but kick-tail good-because Vans will, even if indirectly, be competing with Cessna and Cirrus/FK in the Light Sport market. The 12 must uphold the Vans reputation for great handling and performance.
In many respects, the 12 is Kens baby, and his desire to see it succeed is palpable. And because the company is thorough, conscientious and honest-particularly relating to its performance claims and actually meeting the ASTM specs-the RV-12 is behind schedule. In late June, empennage and tail kits were developed and basically ready to be shipped pending spin testing, which was held up by weather. How many companies would have begun UPS-ing kits before the final testing was complete, and elect to make add-on changes to the kits later if called for by the testing? The company’s caution may be unpopular with customers, but its the right thing to do.
Whatever VanGrunsven chooses to do in the coming years-fly his sailplane as much as he can, for sure-I think he can relax knowing that the company will continue down the path of thoroughness and forthrightness that has helped make it the big dog in the industry.
Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for 20 years and in magazine work for more than 25. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. Hes completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glastar Sportsman 2+2.