Classic sales pitches lift aviation technology

Elizabeth
Elizabeth Howell
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After six years running an aviation electronics company in a struggling industry, TrueNorth Avionics CEO Mark van Berkel says it was the tried-and-true sales techniques that helped the company achieve its growth.

The Ottawa-based company builds systems that keeps fliers on executive jets connected to the Internet and cell phone service in the air. 

Sales staff make as many in-person visits in possible, sometimes leasing aircraft and flying to the client's door to demonstrate TrueNorth's Simphone system to prospective clients, Mr. van Berkel says.

With one-third of the Fortune 50 companies using Simphone, as well as the prime minister's Challenger fleet and many U.S. military personnel, Mr. van Berkel says the approach is working so far.

"If I look back, I started the company in the worst possible time in financial history, but the customers we're serving still have a demand," he says.

A former director of sales and marketing at EMS Technologies, Mr. van Berkel started TrueNorth's technology as "a bit of a skunkworks project" and pitched the idea to the aviation communications provider, which has since been acquired, in 2004.

But he says he was turned down, and chose to start TrueNorth on his own in 2006, after a couple of years of development. Six years later, he says things are going pretty well.

In the past year, TrueNorth has seen 130-per-cent revenue growth, achieving more than $6 million in sales. It hired four people since the fourth quarter of last year and expects to add six more in 2012 to its current headcount of 30.

The company's electronics is installed on one-quarter of the world's "heavy jets" or "bizliners", manufactured by companies such as Boeing and Airbus. 

Its goal for 2012 is to be installed on three-quarters of these heavy jets that are being completed and delivered globally.

According to Mr. van Berkel, the firm is already making progress on that goal through a distribution deal signed in November with integrator Jet Aviation to provide TrueNorth's telecommunications solutions for the Switzerland firm's VIP Aircraft.

But like any chief executive, Mr. van Berkel is keeping his eye out for turbulence, and expresses worries that fuel prices could take a bite out of the business in future years.

That's why he hired several sales people to promote TrueNorth's products in the United States, which is where most of the company's business comes from. The hires this year will, he hopes, include engineers and software developers.

The company is also ramping up its manufacturing capacity to deal with more demand as sales increase. Late last year, Sanmina-SCI announced it would manufacture the in-cabin equipment for TrueNorth for undisclosed financial terms.

"We just really decided to start consolidating and working with a bigger partner," Mr. van Berkel said, adding he was concerned a "bottleneck" in manufacturing could have slowed down sales.

While acknowledging the recession was difficult on most industries, he adds the way around that is to think creatively and to find ways to market your product in every way possible.

"The one thing I've learned is 'build a better mousetrap and a world will beat the path to your door' is not going to happen," he says.

"You need to get out there, be creative, tell people your story. You've got to make it happen."

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