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Duluth's Cirrus Aircraft rebuilds production, despite turbulent year

Duluth's largest manufacturing employer had to overcome supply chain disruptions in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage.

File: Cirrus jet
Cirrus Aircraft released its second-generation Vision Jet, the SF50 G2, in 2019. Sales of the aircraft, with a base price of around $2 million, strengthened in the later half of 2020, after taking an initial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Cirrus Aircraft)
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Cirrus Aircraft, Duluth’s largest manufacturer, is hiring again these days. The company currently seeks to fill more than 200 positions, said Ben Kowalski, Cirrus' senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Before the pandemic, Cirrus employed about 1,600 people company-wide. That number has shrunk to about 1,500 today. But Kowalski expects the size of the Duluth-based company’s workforce will surpass pre-pandemic levels this year as it staffs up.

Cirrus has modified its hiring process, with an eye toward minimized contact.

“To increase the workforce in Duluth, we actually started doing drive-thru interviewing,” Kowalski said, describing how applicants are asked to stop at four separate stations, beginning with one where they were screened for any signs of illness.

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Cirrus aircraft sales 2019-20.jpg

“Then, they would pull up to each of the other stations, and interview with a different team member at each of those. We did it all contactless,” he said.

“First and foremost, our constant primary focus was on the safety of our employees, their families, their communities, our customers and their partners,” Kowalski said.

“We did continue to operate but with a lot of safety enhancements to all of our operations,” he said.

Cirrus has modified its workflow, work stations and even the way people report for work. Instead of having staff members punch in using a shared common timeclock, Cirrus switched to a system that allowed employees to use their personal cellphones to track work hours.

Employees are screened for fever as they arrive each day and wear masks on the job. Kowalski said Cirrus also has adopted strict cleaning protocols for tools and the work environment.

As COVID-19 concerns mounted in March, Cirrus slowed production significantly and furloughed a number of workers. During this pause, some supply chain issues also emerged.

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Cirrus SR-22
The Cirrus SR-22, a single-engine piston airplane, is shown in flight. (Photo courtesy of Cirrus Aircraft)

“It takes quite a few parts to build an airplane, and we need all of them to build the airplane. You can’t not have a part and complete it. So, we had a few suppliers who got into some tight spots and weren’t able to continue shipping,” Kowalski said.

For a while, Cirrus was forced to stage a number of uncompleted aircraft, leasing space formerly occupied by AAR, the recently departed operator of an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility in Duluth .

Kowalski recalled great market uncertainty at the time.

"There was this pause in March and April where I don’t think anyone in the world was completely sure what their demand profile looked like going forward,” he said.

During this lull, Cirrus also began to manufacture personal protective equipment to help keep the COVID-19 virus at bay.

But company officials soon recognized that aviators had not lost their appetite for Cirrus planes, according to Kowalski, who said, “As we realized that demand remained for our products, we ramped back up.”

Cirrus did its best to make up lost ground but managed to deliver just 420 aircraft in 2020 — 9.7% fewer than it did the previous year, according to data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

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“Being able to produce in the neighborhood of 90% of what we produced the year prior is a pretty tremendous accomplishment by our team members, by our suppliers and everybody involved," Kowalski said.

Cirrus’ sales for 2020 exceeded $55.5 million, falling 10.2% from the previous year.

Kowalski said Cirrus weathered the difficult year, in part, by strengthening its lines of communication with suppliers, employees and customers. He said the company now works more in concert with suppliers.

“We would have weekly discussions, where we would let them know how our business is going and they let us know how their business was going. Then, collectively, as a team, we could plan,” he said.

Kowalski noted that manufacturers are always going to face some supply chain challenges, but said: “At this point we don’t see any residual effects of the pandemic that will permanently impact our business.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic," he said about the coming year. "The past seven or eight months we’ve gotten our feet back under us, and we’ve seen our business stabilize. So, we do have a very positive outlook for our growth opportunities ahead.”

Related Topics: MANUFACTURINGDULUTHAVIATIONCORONAVIRUSCIRRUS AIRCRAFT
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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