Article Written by Rick Weatherford – Rotocraft Pro –
When talking to Frasca International President and CEO John Frasca, one discerns that not only does his last name begin with F, but that letter also coincides with other words relevant to who he is and what he does: Family and Flexibility.
Frasca International is synonymous with state-of-the-art flight training. John’s father, Rudy Frasca, was the visionary who founded the company in 1958 with the goal of building the highest quality flight simulators available. Now 58 years later, the Urbana, Illinois, company has installed over 2,600 products in over 70 countries. Yet, while Frasca International has grown to almost 200 employees, it still remains a family-owned business. Six of Rudy and Lucille Frasca’s eight children are active in the company today. In addition to John, they are:
- David, who directs engineering;
- Tom, who runs the airport;
- Bob, who is a project manager;
- Peggy, who heads up trade shows and advertising; and
- Mary, who is in accounting.
(The two children not in the business: Joe, who was killed in an aircraft accident, and Liz, who co-owns and manages a soccer facility.) It’s telling that the current generation of Frascas do not shine the light of success on themselves. Rather, the company website and brochure focus on the founding father. Not even John Frasca is profiled. In an age of self-adulation and promotion that may seem somewhat quaint … and refreshing. However, this lack of limelight is not surprising when you hear the humble way the son’s promotion to leadership in 2011 was announced to Frasca International’s staff—and to John Frasca himself. “We were just having a summer company party out at the airport with all of the employees, and Dad picked up the microphone and said, ‘Oh, by the way everybody, John’s taking over; he’s going to be president,’” says Frasca. Now to be clear, this was not nepotism run amuck. Rather, John Frasca had been preparing for this day all his life—even if he didn’t know the exact day it was going to happen. “I was born a year after Dad started the business, so basically for my entire life I was encircled by aviation and the family simulation business,” he says. This “encircling” included father Rudy bringing customers home for dinner, and taking his children along with him on business flights. Even in the 1960s, a decade when neighbors still sometimes shared telephone party lines, the Frascas had a dedicated business-phone extension in their home. “Mom would answer it after a certain number of rings,” says Frasca.
The Frasca children were also expected to work in their parents’ business. “When we got older, after school we would walk to work and do various jobs: sweeping floors, machinist, wiring, assembly, etc.” However, Frasca says they were not pressured to make a career at the company. “Mom and dad encouraged us to follow our interests, but the family business was always open to us.”
For John, he didn’t want another career. Even at the young age of 16, he was designing analog electrical systems to replace mechanical ones his father had built. He then furthered his education in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois while continuing to work in the family business. “I discovered the design I was doing at work was the same as what was being taught to me at the university. I was having more fun at work and the company had some demanding projects, so I dropped out of school with the plan to finish at a later date,” says Frasca. While he never completed that degree, he did graduate through the company: assembler, designer, project manager, department manager, and vice president … until reaching the top.
With so many siblings now working together under the leadership of their brother in a competitive and ever evolving industry, one might think the stage is set for jealousy and infighting. Yet, that doesn’t happen. Why? One reason is that the brothers and sisters understand their own important roles and realize that John put in the time and effort as he rose through the ranks. He earned their respect.
Another reason there’s family— and business—harmony at Frasca International is because of that second relevant word: Flexibility. “My management style is non-confrontational and focuses on consensus building. We huddle a lot. If someone has a good idea, I may ask some questions and ask for a detailed proposal but will almost always allow employees to go forward. Our best technologies developed this way.” Then Frasca emphasizes, “We recognize having flexible employees with lots of skills is important to us.”
For example, the company may have a period when there is a lot of design work, and therefore every engineer is needed at a computer. Then at other times the emphasismay be more on manufacturing, and those same engineers are out on the floor assembling simulators. Or someone who is in-house building products may get called out on the road to install devices. This controlled multitasking is the way the world works in the 21st century.
Flexibility also ripples from within company departments outward to the sectors of the aviation industry Frasca International serves. For example, about half of the company’s sales comes from the fixed-wing market, and half from helicopters. Similarly, there’s approximately a 50/50 split between domestic and international customers. Furthermore, the company serves customers in both the military and civilian sectors. What all this means is that Frasca International must nimbly adapt to diverse customers and their unique needs. Flexibility also helps stabilize company profits and employment. How? Frasca explains, “Smoothing the up and down periods of aviation is a challenge. It can be boom or bust. At Frasca we have seen many cycles and manage them by having a diverse product line and a wide customer base.” That flexibility through diversification is a main reason Frasca International’s business remains steady. With a segment like oil and gas currently being down, police, EMS, and ab initio training seem to be up.
Of course, being able to adapt does not eliminate the demands the market places upon Frasca International. However, it does allow the company to meet those demands. For example, simulators must be delivered on time. “There is tremendous pressure in the simulation industry to lower prices and reduce lead times,” says Frasca. “Our challenge is to maintain quality and meet our commitments. Our goal is on-time delivery; this is one of our main quality metrics.” And how do they maintain this metric? “I love systems and procedures. I have learned that everything that occurs in our business has happened before. Good procedures make us efficient and help us to avoid mistakes.”
Another challenge the company faces is combating competitors’ claims. Explains Frasca, “Many of our competitors on the lower end are trying to say that their $40,000 device that uses X-Plane or Microsoft software is equal to a full-flight simulator. Well, no it isn’t. It just flat out isn’t. You can’t do the same training in it. It may be good for a couple of hours (of training) but when that student becomes more proficient, he needs a higher fidelity system to keep learning.” That’s why Frasca is focusing on education. “We have to educate people that cool pictures are not the important thing. You can’t have good training if all you’re concerned about is having game-quality fancy pictures. You have to have depth in the simulation models and low latency.”
So, running a company that meets the demands of customers … in over 70 countries … in all sectors of aviation … in a competitive industry, must surely lead to stress and sleepless nights? Not so, says Frasca. “I run a company, but by maintaining a balance between family (He has three sons.) and business life, I never feel stressed or overwhelmed.” What? How is that possible? “Running is cheap therapy,” Frasca laughs. “I like to run, although some might call it waddling. I do several 5K and 10K races a year. There is nothing like running to clear the mind.”
Not surprisingly, the leader of this premier aviation company also gets away from the red and black of financial statements by piloting into the blue sky. “As soon as you leave the ground, you’ve arrived at your destination,” says Frasca, who does so mostly in classic aircraft. “Forty years ago I learned to fly in a 1955 Cessna 170, and I still fly that aircraft.” (The Frasca Air Museum includes dozens of aircraft, ranging from the Piper Cub to several World War II fighters.)
Then there are more down-to-earth hobbies, such as installing audio and lighting systems in his home, and maintaining his … aquariums? “I love the confluence of nature, plumbing, chemistry, and automation,” he explains. “I have two marine aquariums with fish and corals. My tanks are computer controlled; I can monitor and control them from any place in the world. It’s easy to spend hours working on or just looking at them.”
If focusing on fish seems tranquil, then Frasca becomes almost Mr. Miyagi transcendental when asked about dealing with failures: “There are no failures, only stepping stones.” He elaborates, “My Dad observed that whatever happens, good or bad, was meant to happen and is a building block for the future. We never talked about events as failures. If we lost a competition we would see it as an opportunity to learn our weaknesses and adapt.”
For going on six decades, Frasca International has done much adapting—and winning. Many employees have been with Frasca International over 20 years. In addition to that experience, Frasca says the business also has upcoming smart, young employees. He summarizes the Frasca International team by saying, “I am amazed by what they accomplish and look forward to them being with us for a long time.”
Under John Frasca’s leadership, the success streak should continue for the family that is Frasca International.