Sky’s the limit? Not for Mark van Berkel, president and chief executive officer of TrueNorth Avionics Inc. in Ottawa.
Nine years ago, when he was working for a company that specialized in satellite communications for the aerospace industry, Mr. Van Berkel pitched the idea of developing high-performance telephone handsets for airplanes based on voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) technology.
Telephones were already aboard many private jets then, “but there were really no good quality aircraft-qualified handsets, and the telephones were just circuit-switched,” Mr. Van Berkel says. “This old technology produced horrible connections with lots of echo and unclear sounds, so people didn’t want to use telephones on planes.”
His employer at the time, EMS Technologies – now part of New Jersey-based Honeywell International Inc. – turned down his idea. Mr. Van Berkel left EMS shortly after. In January of 2006, he and four partners launched TrueNorth Avionics with $150,000 in seed money.
They were just in time for the global recession that touched down in late 2007.
“We started the company at exactly the wrong time,” says Mr. Van Berkel, who at one time worked for Transport Canada as chief avionics designer. “Business aviation had declined, bigger companies were letting go of people and shutting down. It was a real train wreck for our industry.”
But Mr. Van Berkel believed he had a good product and the right market for it. His company provides aviation telecommunications equipment and software for voice, Internet data and WiFi. For passengers aboard a plane tricked out with TrueNorth Aviation technology, this means being able to do many of the same things they do at home or in the office: make a phone call, surf the Net, fire off an e-mail, or send a text message.
That’s a big deal for super-busy CEOs who want to be productive in the air, or for wealthy jet-setters who want to make sure they catch the Super Bowl while they’re flying over the Matterhorn.
From the start, TrueNorth set its sights on private jets used by many of the world’s largest companies and very wealthy individuals. This strategy was right on, Mr. Van Berkel says.
“We don’t sell anything to commercial airlines,” he says. “The silver lining for us during the recession was that the companies we targeted – the high-end business jet owners – didn’t go away but in fact still had solid growth.”
Today, TrueNorth Avionics is a multimillion dollar company – Mr. Van Berkel declined to provide annual sales figures, but said it was greater than $6-million and less than $10-million – with 30 employees and a satellite office in New Jersey.
“We’ve seen almost 150 per cent growth over the life of the company,” Mr. Van Berkel says. He and TrueNorth Avionics chief technology officer Terry Markovich own 60 per cent of the company.
While he’s tight-lipped about his clients’ identities, Mr. Van Berkel says one-third of Fortune 50 companies use TrueNorth Avionics’ Simphone telecommunication system on their business jets and helicopters.
The world’s heads of state and VIPs also talk, e-mail, text and surf the Web using TrueNorth technology, he says.
“We don’t market in Canada because our market is probably less of Canada than other countries,” he says. “But name another place on the planet and we probably have customers in it – Russia, China, India, Australia, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East.”
A highly personal sales approach has helped TrueNorth get to where it is today; meetings with customers are, as much as possible, face-to-face. But Mr. Van Berkel says it’s the company’s focus on innovation that has made it stand out in the market.
“Our handsets are being chosen by the who’s who of the world. Heads of state, celebrities and VIPs are choosing TrueNorth handsets over anything else because of our quality,” he says.
The company has recently introduced a wireless telephone that uses the same WiFi network as a laptop or tablet, instead of a radio transmitter and receiver. What this means for the user, says Mr. Van Berkel, is no interference and no crackling static.
“The phone also programs itself so that wherever you are on the plane, the phone nearest you is your phone,” he says. “Because usually what happens is that, when the phone rings it’s never where you are.”
TrueNorth has also developed technology that conserves phone batteries; it recognizes when an aircraft is no longer in operation and shuts down the phone.
Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Van Berkel and his partners didn’t collect a salary for about two years after launching their venture.
“We were pretty much volunteers,” says Mr. Van Berkel, who is the majority shareholder at TrueNorth. “But now we’re profitable, we make money, and we can put money back into the company.”
And perhaps buy a private jet, fully loaded with TrueNorth Avionics technology?
“I keep putting in for it,” he says, “but my CFO keeps rejecting it.”
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