Aircraft painters make their clients look good on and off ground
Want to liven up your next party?
Invite an aircraft painter.
“They’re always the most interesting guy in the room,” says Reed Friese, “because most people have never thought about how planes are painted.”
Friese knows. He’s been peppered with questions ever since he joined Associated Painters almost two decades ago. He’s now vice president of operations for the Spokane-based aviation contractor, managing facilities in Everett, Oklahoma City and Jacksonville, Fla., as well as here.
Friese’s brother, Rod, bought the company in 1994 and grew it tenfold before selling it a year ago to Vance Street Capital, a private equity firm. Rod is now chief operating officer of both Associated Painters and another Vance property, California-based Leading Edge Aviation Services.
Associated Painters is headquartered in a former Washington Water Power substation built to boost voltage for trolleys traveling between Spokane and Medical Lake.
During a recent interview in the century-old landmark, Reed Friese discussed the company’s evolution, its nearly complete second hangar at Spokane International Airport, and how many gallons of paint it takes to make a Boeing 737 look new.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Friese: Parker, S.D. (pop. 1,014).
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Friese: I bounced around, changing my college major several times before graduating with a degree in elementary education. After college, I moved to Everett to work for my brother’s company. My plan was to stall for a while and buy a nice car before getting a teaching job. Then – poof – 20 years went by.
S-R: What was Associated Painters like back then?
Friese: It was intense. We might work 80 hours one week, then not work for 10 days. After six months, I was made production lead – not because I was Rod’s brother, but because our turnover was so high.
S-R: How has the company evolved since then?
Friese: The first 15 years, we were third-party providers – airlines outsourced their maintenance, and maintenance providers outsourced the painting to us. So we painted Southwest and Alaska aircraft, but got paid by the maintenance providers. Once we leased the hangar in Spokane (in 2010), we began working directly for airlines.
S-R: Why did you move your main operation from Everett to Spokane?
Friese: Our painting facility there got downsized when Boeing needed more real estate. About the same time, Spokane International Airport offered to build us a stand-alone paint facility here. And Spokane is ideally located for aircraft refinishing. Most stand-alone paint facilities are in places no one flies to, like decommissioned Air Force bases. If airlines have to ferry their planes there for refinishing, that adds at least $10,000 to the cost. Spokane is unusual, because a lot of our customers already fly here, so there’s no ferry cost.
S-R: Is most of your business refinishing?
Friese: Yes, but Boeing is building more 737s than it has the capacity to paint, so we’ll be painting at least two new planes a month for Boeing.
S-R: How about unusual requests?
Friese: One of our niches is “special liveries” – the trade term for elaborate paint jobs – and we usually do about four a year. Last spring we did one for Alaska Airlines featuring the Disney-Pixar “Cars” cartoon characters. We also airbrushed giant salmon on the sides on an Alaska jet. Those jobs can take as long as a month.
S-R: Does your workload vary seasonally?
Friese: Our slow months are June, July and August – the busiest travel time. So we market those months for cargo companies, because FedEx and UPS are busiest during the holiday season.
S-R: Was anything you learned while earning a liberal arts degree useful in this career?
Friese: Absolutely. All of my college exams were essay, so learning to write well has been very useful. Employee training plans, job descriptions, proposals for customers – for all of that I thank my college composition instructors.
S-R: Do you also use your teaching skills?
Friese: All the time. The lesson plans I learned to build for elementary students are no different than the ones I create to train our employees.
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Friese: I’m proud of having developed, along with Rod, a simple structure that’s allowed us to stay in the black. Our bigger competitors tend to have cash-flow problems.
S-R: How would you characterize your leadership style?
Friese: It’s changed as I’ve grown older. For a long time I was just stumbling along, trying to figure out my role in the company. I’m much more supportive now, and I make learning tools so others understand their responsibilities better.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Friese: The variety. There’s a little bit of sales, a little bit of planning, a little bit of management – I get to touch a lot of areas, which suits my personality. I also appreciate the opportunity to give young people a path to follow, whether it’s for one year or 20.
S-R: What do you like least?
Friese: The volatile nature of the business. Building up crews, reducing the size of crews. One thing we’ve introduced is slot holder fees, which assure our customers that we’re committed to meeting their needs, and covers the costs we’ve already put into that project if they change their minds.
S-R: What plane do you paint most often?
Friese: The Boeing 737. Most domestic travel is aboard narrow-body aircraft, and that’s our niche. Clients ask us why we don’t build a paint facility big enough to handle a 747, but a hangar that size is ridiculously expensive to build, and the market for wide-body aircraft is extremely small.
S-R: How long does it take to refinish an aircraft?
Friese: Typically seven days, working 24 hours a day. If we can’t guarantee it in seven days, we’re not competitive enough to win contracts with Southwest or Alaska Airlines.
S-R: What’s involved?
Friese: Day one is spent removing old paint using a liquid stripper. Day two is sanding the composite areas we weren’t able to strip, and getting the aluminum areas ready to paint. Days three, four and five are painting operations – no different than painting a car, except on a larger scale. We prime, paint, lay out graphic, paint, lay out more graphics, paint. Day six is detail and touchup time. On day seven, we pull everything away from the aircraft, invite the customer to view the finished product and clear paperwork.
S-R: How many planes do you paint a year?
Friese: About 100 a year in Spokane, and another 150 at our other three facilities. When our new hangar is finished in mid-June, we’ll be able to paint another 30 aircraft here.
S-R: How much does a paint hangar cost?
Friese: Two-bay hangars like the one we lease from the airport run about $10 million, and our new one-bay hangar will cost approximately $6 million.
S-R: How many more people will you be hiring when the new hangar is finished?
Friese: Two dozen, initially.
S-R: How much do painters earn?
Friese: From $12 to $26 an hour.
S-R: What do you look for when hiring?
Friese: Attitude before skills – people who are eager. Most of the time we hire entry-level workers and train them ourselves, because the skills are very specialized.
S-R: Last question: How much paint does it take to cover a Boeing 737?
Friese: Approximately 100 gallons.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.