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Putting Rockford Aerospace On Upward Trajectory

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Credit RAEDC
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Aerospace has long been significant part of the Rockford area economy. Efforts continue to further build up the industry. 

It’s the last Wednesday in May, and a symposium organized by Rockford area Congressman Adam Kinzinger and the Rockford Area Economic Development Corporation, or RAEDC, is taking place at NIU Rockford.  Dozens of local businesses are lined up to meet with representatives of aerospace giant Northrop Grumman.

One of those is Jeff Kaney, CEO of Kaney Group. That includes Kaney Aerospace.  He’s also one of the organizers of the event.  He’s chairman of the Rockford Area Aerospace Network, a part of RAEDC.

“Trying to get the attention of a very large aerospace company like Northrop Grumman, if you’re a small business, it can be very difficult and challenging.  So when they come out and they give us an opportunity to one-one, for lack of a better word, speed dating, it really gives an opportunity to really showcase what our companies can do, and what niches our companies can fill.”

Gloria Pualani is Corporate Director of Global Supplier Diversity & Government Relations for Northrop Grumman. She says the company is always looking to expand its supplier base, and the event shows Rockford is a good place to do that.

“We believe this is a great opportunity for us to identify a diverse group of suppliers with commodities and services, and we are excited to be here.”

Kaney says Rockford is able to attract large companies like Grumman to events like these because the area has what he says is the 6th largest concentration of aerospace companies in the U.S.   Kaney says that means a lot more than just the ability to interview more companies in one place.

“If I need welding, if I need heat treating, if I need cold forming, if I need grinding, my manufacturing company, everything’s within a pickup truck ride away. It’s kind of an instant supply chain. Almost everything you need to have done to a product can be done right here in Rockford.”

Kaney says the cluster also allows for increased networking and mentoring between the companies, which gives every business a better chance to grow and thrive.

You’ll get no argument from Clayton Balmes. He’s with Spartacus Group.  They supply specialty lubricants to the military.  He praised all the organizers of the event, and says it was well worth it.

“There’s a lot of quality people that showed up here today to help. People that you might never have seen before or been able to contact. Myself, I got like two or three quality information leads where I can be able to help other people.”

Balmes also praised the RAEDC for helping companies like his find new markets.

Yes, they work with the city of Rockford. But more than that, they help you with international, such as with the US Department Commerce, for exporting your products.”

Balmes says, in a world where ninety-five percent of demand is outside the U.S., that support could spell life or death for a company.

Carrie Zehtmayr is Executive director of Trade & Investment for the RAEDC.  She says that the organization promotes local companies on the international market because it brings in new money, and, especially with the aerospace industry, is important to its goal of improving the area’s economy overall.

The aerospace industry, as well as other industries which have a high level of international trade, pay an average higher wage. So, while we want to promote opportunities at all levels within the community, over time, long-term, we want to increase the average wage for the Rockford region.”

Zehtmayr agrees with Kaney that Rockford’s aerospace industry has some advantages - right now.  But, she says, while there is growing demand, there is also growing competition.

“So it’s imperative that we stay ahead of the curve, and constantly evaluating our strategies, and what the demands of the industry are, and how we can we can enhance our competitiveness.”

Zehtmayr says that includes concentrating on another piece of the puzzle, workforce development, with the Joint Institute for Engineering & Technology in Aerospace that offers training, and job placement for area students in high school through college.

Some of the fruits of that effort were evident that very same day, up the road in Loves Park, at aerospace manufacturer and service provider Woodward, Inc.‘s brand-new Rock Cut Campus.  Standing within the huge, gleaming facility, Sagar Patel, president for Aircraft Turbine Systems at Woodward, announced a joint venture with General Electric to design and supply parts for new and all future GE large commercial aircraft engines.  That includes those on Boeing’s new 777X and 787 airplanes.

Patel says it’s a real boost for the company, and the region. He says efforts like the Joint Institute and others helped persuade the company to stay, and build in the Rockford area. Patel says it can serve as a model.  

"When the community comes together, with high schools, community colleges, other institutions, and rallies in support of growth, I think it can be done it can be done.”

Woodward was already committed to employing hundreds of people at the new plant.  Patel says the joint venture will likely mean a further increase in jobs, as well as increased job security for those already working at the plant.   

And the suppliers in the area? Likely more business for them, too, and maybe some new connections, which could lead to even more business in the future.

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."