Second-Generation Military Grade Tech Company on Path to Total ESOP

Business Council of Alabama member Avion Solutions in Huntsville is well on its way to total employee ownership that is good for both the business and employees who have a stake in its future, the company’s president said.

Chad Donald is the president of Avion Solutions, an engineering and logistics company co-founded in St. Louis by his father in 1992, board Chairman Gary Donald, who retired as president of the medium-size, family owned business three years ago.

Avion Solutions is a national engineering, logistics, software engineering, and test and evaluation business that specializes in material solutions and technical support for military grade products, especially aviation, providing engineering, logistics, and software solutions.

It’s part of the vast network of supporters of military and affiliated organizations in Huntsville, Fort Rucker, and elsewhere. Avion also provides software, energy, unmanned aviation systems training and hardware with commercial applications, and solves technical and operational problems through research, analysis, computer and software technology.

About 12 years ago after spinning off two related companies, the Donalds started looking at the benefits of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, and 10 years ago executed the first ESOP transaction. (The 2016 BCA chairman, Tommy Lee, profiled in Business Alabama magazine’s Business Advocate, relates how the family owned Vulcan Inc. became an ESOP company. Lee is president and CEO of Vulcan Inc. in Foley.)

“At the time, we looked into what an ESOP does and in 2007 did the first ESOP transaction of 32 percent,” Chad Donald said. “It gave us an additional ability to incentivize our people. They have pride of ownership, and that makes us more productive.

“Employee owners have skin in the game and they are out there looking for new customers and solutions for those customers and following a philosophy of let’s help our company be better, help us thrive,” Donald said.

Today, Avion is 49 percent employee-owned, Donald said.

“We believe one day we will be 100 percent ESOP,” Donald said. “There are challenges as we try to maintain the culture that we have while identifying, growing, and recruiting the next generation of leadership.”

Avion co-founder Gary Donald had more than 36 years of program management and engineering experience both in the military and as a civilian. After the Army, in 1972 he transitioned into the Army Aviation Systems Command where he spent 10 years and was involved in development and testing of the Blackhawk and Apache helicopters. He then worked in private industry holding positions of program manager, COO, and chief engineer.

Gary Donald and two partners 25 years ago formed Avion, Inc., where the Iowa State University aerospace engineering graduate served as president until his retirement. Chad Donald is a graduate of Universal Technical Institute in Houston with a degree in marine technology. He joined Avion in the mid-1990s.

After moving to Huntsville, Chad Donald supported projects at Redstone Arsenal and moved into the role of director of special projects responsible for multiple contracts, IR&D projects, and proposals. In 2010, he became executive vice president and president in 2014 when his father retired.

When the Donald’s moved Avion from St. Louis to Huntsville 20 years ago to be near and support its primary customer, 13 employees moved. Today the company has 175 employees.

“That philosophy I spoke of is it’s important to do innovative things and not only focus on growth,” Donald said. “We’ve grown organically and sustainably.”

The company is a four-time Best Places to Work winner as voted by employees, including winning the 2011 and 2016 Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the year in Government Contracting award. “Avion employee owners are proud of work they do and we allow them the freedom and flexibility to do it in a way that is best suited to their customers,” Donald said.

While Avion Solutions mainly serves Air Force, Army, and missile aviation, it still looks for products and conducts research and development, all to provide benefit “to our war fighters, and our communities,” Donald said.

Donald said he believes in treating people fairly and giving them the leeway to always do the right thing. “That’s something I want every employee to feel,” Donald said.