Suzanne Evans sold Hugh Evans a clock. He sold her a business.
Somewhere in between, they got married.
Now they are owner and chief engineer, respectively, of Merlyn Products Inc., which designs, makes and installs aircraft components in a rundown hangar at the Spokane Airport Business Park.
The setting fits. This is high-technology with a down-home attitude.
The premises are patrolled by a huge, decidedly non-stealth black cat named B-2. And when Suzanne’s not running the office, she might be making lunch for her 13 employees, a practice she started early in the company’s 10-year history.
She’s compiling mostly original recipes into an “As the Propeller Turns Cookbook.”
But Suzanne’s hands-on approach doesn’t stop at the crock pot. She said she was mechanically inclined before she and Hugh met at Dodson’s Jewelers, where she did some minor watch repairs.
At the time - 1980 - he was developing a diesel power plant for aircraft. His company, Machen Inc., also did aircraft modifications.
“We got married and worked on his engine for awhile,” said Suzanne, 50, who helped build models of early designs.
She said Hugh set the engine aside and started another business - Entech International Inc. - that did government work on hovercraft and propellers.
Machen reorganized, with Hugh getting his engine design and a few pieces of equipment from his partners when he left the company.
He put those assets into newly formed Merlyn in 1985. He sold Suzanne the equipment in 1986, transferring the engine to Entech.
Suzanne said Merlyn struggled early on doing small aircraft modifications, then gradually expanded into twin-engine planes.
A few are flown into Spokane each year for installation of intercoolers or other Merlyn-made components, but most of the companies products are shipped out as kits for installation elsewhere.
Suzanne, a firm believer in Federal Aviation Administration standards, said consulting and certification work have been increasingly important to the company’s success.
Lately, for example, Merlyn developed and tested a mount for an engine produced in Canada. The mount performed well, she said, but some problems have cropped up in the engine itself.
Now Merlyn is negotiating to do additional engineering on the power plant, she said.
If the project comes together, the company could wind up making mounts, exhaust assemblies and intercoolers, which enhance turbocharger performance at high altitude.
Suzanne said Merlyn makes many of its own parts. The practice may not be efficient, she said, but it does assure the quality she insists on.
Defense industry giant Allied Signal actually sent some defective parts to Spokane recently hoping Merlyn could repair them. It can.
Defects have shown up on other occasions. One plane flown to Spokane for a fairly simple engine modification ended up sitting in the hangar for three years while Merlyn workers fixed a wing weakened by another company’s bungled repairs.
A federal investigation contributed to the delay.
“The damage was hidden intentionally,” Suzanne said, adding that the owner was so happy with Merlyn’s work he has become something of a promoter for the company.
She said she would like to do more major modifications, but has a difficult time finding qualified mechanics.
“What makes the company go is we’ve got really good people,” Suzanne said.
Meanwhile, the company’s ace in the hole sits on a bench in one of Merlyn’s shops.
Although the diesel engine belongs to Entech, all the work is done by Merlyn.
Suzanne said the engine, when finished, will weigh about 685 pounds and produce 650-700 horsepower. That kind of weight-to-horsepower ratio was approached during World War II, but further development of a diesel was sidetracked by the onset of the jet age.
The advantage of a diesel power plant now, she said, is the widespread availability of diesel fuel compared with aviation fuel. Diesel may also prove advantageous as aircraft emissions standards are tightened, she said.
Suzanne said the engine has taken years to develop because potential backers did not see a quick turnaround for their investment.
“Nobody believes a small company can do it,” she said.
If her gender is an issue for a would-be customer, Suzanne added, the reservations usually fade when they see what the company can do.
“Our products are our best advertisement,” she said. “Probably the hardest part is getting people to let you show them you can do the work.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo