Frenetic flier Featured

9:49am EDT July 22, 2002

Rock Ferrone isn’t what you’d call a patient man. He never has been. Perhaps that’s why his high school principal once took him aside after he missed 60 days of school and told him, “Some kids just aren’t meant to finish school — and you’re one of them.”

He was too busy launching his first business. That year, he dropped out of school to become an entrepreneur.

If only his principal could seem him now. Frenetic impatience, coupled with an intense, high-energy passion for problem solving and an uncanny gift of inventiveness, has led him down a frenzied path that has included car repair, telephone system installation, awning design and production, commercial printing and even publishing before he settled into printing equipment manufacturing.

But until recently, even Ferrone, 36, says he could never have imagined that such impatience with time would place him among the clouds in the cockpit of his own small airplane. Or speeding down the runway of his own airport. Or at the drawing board mapping out plans for an airport industrial park that would become one of the state’s prime tax-free economic development zones — and one in which his own manufacturing company would become the anchor tenant.

Ferrone has embraced general aviation so fervently that it literally has changed the way he and his company, Rock-Built, do business throughout the eastern United States. This new disciple of flight has become so passionate about how even smaller companies can benefit from the adoption of general aviation into their businesses that he has agreed to help the state’s Bureau of Aviation create a marketing video on its virtues. The government’s goal: To attract a whole category of business growth and prosperity in the state via general aviation.

So what is general aviation? In its simplest form, it’s the use of smaller, noncommercial aircraft for recreation or business. According to Demetrius Glass, director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Aviation, the state’s system of airports makes the region among the best in the country for general aviation.

There are 835 airports and heliports in the state, 148 of them public-use airports that can be utilized any time by the public. Such numbers make the state fourth in the country for its number of airports.

Still, general aviation has maintained a seemingly low profile in Pennsylvania when it comes to promoting economic development and job creation. States such as New Jersey and Arizona have found visible ways to sell the virtues of general aviation to the business community, leading to economic development and growth in those regions.

If Ferrone has his way, general aviation in Pennsylvania will become a trendy buzzword of the new millennium, and he in all of his expressive intensity will find himself among those leading the charge.

Says Glass of Ferrone: “He not only has enthusiasm, but he also has the ability and energy to get things done.”

Kind words for a man who tends to make quick decisions and move forward at warp speed, with little patience for government bureaucracy or politics. But he’s quickly learning the ropes as he raises government funding for his airport efforts and weaves his way through the maze of government regulation and bureaucracy.

Since his odyssey began, he has flown a number of times to Harrisburg and even to Washington, D.C., to make his rather commanding voice heard among legislators and regulators.

His biggest challenge, though, is to keep in the front of his mind his main reason for entering new airspace in the first place: To help his printing equipment manufacturing business grow more quickly.

Getting there from here

Ferrone had been working feverishly with a Philadelphia-area printing company in 1997 on the installation of a new prototype Rock-Built stacker that connects to the back end of a printing press. As part of the process, he would come across a product shortcoming, then drive back to his Sharpsburg headquarters, design a solution to the problem, then race back to eastern Pennsylvania to make the adjustment.

The defining moment came after making five arduous trips to Philadelphia in four days. On his final trip, he caught a glimpse of a small airport near the installation site.

“I thought, ‘I have to figure out a way to fly in one of those airplanes,’” Ferrone says. “I call it a moment of temporary insanity.”

Insanity or drive, impatience or vision, call it what you will. Ferrone set his mind to his new obsession with high-octane determination. The first place he looked was on the Internet. Then, armed with information, he began flying lessons at the Allegheny County Airport. He says he initially had to sort of sneak around because his wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time, didn’t like him flying.

But as Ferrone says, “I knew that the only way I could develop the equipment was to be at two places at once. I knew that the major hurdle was to get to the plant to look at the problem and then come back and solve the problem.”

As with everything else he does, Ferrone put all of his energy into his new quest. While the Federal Aviation Administration requires at least 40 hours of flight time to earn a license, and the national average is about 70 hours, Ferrone says he logged roughly 500 hours before taking the time to take the licensing test.

How he logged so many hours is a testimony to his momentum-building drive. He wasted little time in making general aviation his own. He invested an estimated $230,000 in a new four-seat, single engine Cessna Skylane 182, then hired a certified flight instructor to go with it. Every time he visited a customer, he took along the instructor but flew himself. Hence the 500 hours.

“Most business owners think flying is out of reach and that it seems so far out of the spectrum of reality,” Ferrone preaches, each word more enthusiastic than the one before. “But to focus on my business, I needed to be able to get there quicker.”

For Ferrone and his $3 million-plus revenue manufacturing company, which sells equipment that starts in the $100,000-plus range, the benefits were clear.

Saves valuable time and money. Prior to buying the airplane, Rock-Built would get a call from a customer that required immediate service on one of its trimmers or stackers. Ferrone and/or his technicians either got in a car and drove to the site, which typically took at least five hours, or hastily arranged for the earliest commercial flight possible, which proved costly and time consuming.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself running through the airport carrying hundreds of pounds of tools,” Ferrone says.

Often, he says, the technician had to time his service efforts around the flight schedule, which meant he either had to leave before completing the service call or risk missing the flight. Overnight trips became common.

“We were at the mercy of the airlines,” Ferrone says.

For frequent trips to a customer in New Orleans, a round-trip commercial flight on a day’s notice ran as high as $1,800, plus hotel and other expenses. On the other hand, the company’s new Cessna costs roughly $100 an hour, mainly in fuel. A trip to a Syracuse customer took close to 10 hours on the road, which typically meant Ferrone and his technicians would have to leave the night before a scheduled visit. Now, they can leave at 5 a.m. and arrive by 7 a.m., saving an entire day, as well as hotel costs.

“From day one, the airplane has been cost-justified,” Ferrone says.

Mike Negovan, corporate aviation services manager for charter service Corporate Jets, says the decision to fly other than commercial jets in many cases depends on how much value the company places on its employees’ time.

“The trend is that if a company seeking transportation realizes the value of staff tim e vs. the cost, then they’ll find chartering a jet a beneficial option,” he says. “If the bottom line is how much does it cost, then they usually go to commercial.”

Demonstrates a stronger customer service commitment. Having the plane allows Ferrone and his technicians to leave at a moment’s notice for a client’s printing plant and arrive within a couple of hours of the call. For the customer, that means less down time. While Rock-Built does have customers across the country and in China, Ferrone says the plane is used mainly to serve customers within roughly 600 miles of Pittsburgh. Any further and the cost becomes cost prohibitive relative to commercial flights.

Ferrone attributes his company’s success in selling equipment to the Chicago Sun-Times to the fact that his employees could reach the company at short notice.

“We are finding that for smaller business owners who want to get product in and out quickly or customers or technicians in or out quickly, one of the best ways to get there is through general aviation,” says Glass, the state’s aviation bureau director. “Yet some business owners are just not catching on about how air transportation can help them.”

Saves on the wear and tear of employees. Without question, constant trips to customers’ printing plants were beginning to take their toll on both the technicians and Ferrone himself.

“When you add up things like getting burned out on driving, general aviation has given me a new lease on life when it comes to building my business,” Ferrone says.

Barriers to entry are incremental. Businesses can make an investment in a plane at a variety of entry points, from small single-engine used planes for less than $100,000 to twin engines, eight-seat turboprops and small corporate jets.

“The nicest thing about aviation is that it’s absolutely incremental,” says Ferrone, who already is considering an upgrade in the next couple of years to a six- or eight-seater. “I would recommend that you buy an airplane that is adequate, put your toe in the water and then see what you can do.”

Flight of fancy

Of course, Ferrone had to jump in head first, letting his growing love for flying — and his lack of patience — create a rather strange but opportunistic twist to his flight of fancy. Ferrone quickly tired of his 45-minute drives from Sharpsburg to the Butler County Airport, where he kept his plane for $200 a month — especially when the plane trips themselves often took less than that.

“They say that necessity is the mother of invention,” Ferrone says, “so when I’m spending more time getting to the airport than it takes to get to a customer’s plant, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that I

needed to have a closer airport.”

Not one to miss an opportunity to solve problems, he activated the Global Positioning System in his plane one day as he flew over his headquarters. The system, which has an option that will identify the nearest public-use airport to the plane at any given time, identified West Penn Airport, a small airstrip in West Deer Township — a 15-minute drive from the office. So Ferrone landed there.

But Ferrone didn’t just want to rent space in one of its hangars. In March 1998, he sought the owner and asked if he’d sell. The owner agreed, and they closed the sale in August 1998. For roughly $575,000, Ferrone bought the airport, which included 144 acres, hangar space for 40 planes and 53 aircraft that rented space there.

Meanwhile, Ferrone had been looking for acreage on which to build a larger manufacturing facility to replace the Sharpsburg building he was quickly outgrowing. The West Deer site along the edge of the runway would suit Ferrone fine, he figured. His plan was to take full advantage of his proximity to the airstrip, ultimately being able to fly customers right to the company’s front door to demonstrate its equipment and make a unique impression.

All the while, Ferrone notes, the airport was generating $3,000 a month in revenue — and it offered a fueling service, which he managed to turn into a profit center. Prior to his arrival, he says, the fuel service sold about 15,000 gallons a year. Now it’s pumping 20,000 gallons a month.

“We created a second business by osmosis,” he says.

The grand plan

Once Ferrone began to map out his plan for the airport, now named Rock Airport, there was no stopping him. He figured that if such a site proved valuable to his company, why wouldn’t others find it just as valuable, especially with access to Route 28 and a railroad line that runs along the edge of the property?

Township supervisor George Hollibaugh, who manages the airport for Ferrone, suggested that West Deer was in need of aggressive commercial development efforts such as what Ferrone had in mind. That’s when he hired David McMaster, a real estate attorney who had been a partner with law firm Papernick & Gefsky for the past 14 years, to serve as vice president and general counsel.

“When Rock quickly explained the economics of it all and that he was moving his company to the site, I thought that for a business man, that’s a smart move,” says McMaster.

When all was said and done, Ferrone somehow convinced the local school district, township, and, ultimately, the state, to designate the property, including adjacent property that Ferrone would later buy, one of its new Keystone Opportunity Zones. The designation, which went into effect last spring, turns 207 acres within the property into a local and state tax-free zone for the next 12 years.

Ferrone says he wants to model it after an airpark in Scottsdale, Ariz., which houses 1,800 businesses that provide 25,000 jobs.

Said Kent George, director of aviation for Allegheny County, in a letter to the state’s Department of Transportation supporting Ferrone’s effort: “His work toward the establishment of the old West Penn Airport into a viable entity is commendable, and we at Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County look forward to working with him in this endeavor.”

Without a doubt, Ferrone has taken his general aviation interests further than most, but his struggle to make the project work is by no means over. Crews are already at work clearing trees and moving earth to make way for a new and improved runway. That work is expected to finish next spring, after which a new runway will be created. Only then can Rock-Built and others begin their plans to construct buildings around the airstrip.

Funding for the work also is taking time, since much of it will come from the state and federal governments. However, Ferrone will be required to turn over ownership of the airstrip itself to a public entity to become eligible for the millions of dollars available for such projects. All told, Ferrone says, the work will cost between $20 million and $30 million.

Still, as the state’s Glass stresses, the state is very interested in seeing public-use airports such as Rock Airport succeed, since such airstrips serve as relief for larger airports, which struggle with excessive air traffic.

“We consider airports like Rock to be crucial for the system,” he says.

Asked his evaluation of the projected success of the project, Glass simply says, “Let’s see what happens.”

In spite of all the obstacles, government regulations, funding issues and the coordination of the massive airport project, Ferrone doesn’t budge from his initial enthusiasm about flying and what it does for Rock-Built.

Says Ferrone: “I’m convinced that, for our business, it’s the way to go.”

How to reach: Rock Airport, for information about the Keystone Opportunity Zone there, at www.rock-port.com

Daniel Bates (d bates@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.