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Mar
05
2023

EXECUTIVE WATCH - NATE CALVIN, AEROLEDS’ CEO & FOUNDER

Posted 1 years 136 days ago ago by Admin


Small business owners and entrepreneurs often feel like they’re little David with only a slingshot going into battle against strong and tested giants. After 16 years of battle, it is safe to assume AeroLEDS is slaying giants armed with a “slingshot” that was simply the ability to out-pace the competition. “I knew that the main competitive edge we held was our ability to work longer hours and more days, with less mistakes and higher efficacy” says Founder/CEO Nate Calvin. “My work ethic was formed by the ethos of family, my upbringing in a rural environment, and experience as a young kid in wrestling. After you get your butt kicked a few times, you figure out that hard work always pays off if you want a different result”. Calvin, a former wrestling, and current Jiu Jitsu practitioner is deftly taking large competitors down to the mat by leveraging advantages that an agile, small business has over big, established competitors. He explains, “We had no business on paper going up against any of these industry giants, but you have to play to your strengths. For the first dozen years of AeroLEDS, I was working 80-100 hours a week every single week with a dogged pursuit of survival. Like any grappling match, I could live with failure as long as I knew I worked at my best.”

That best-work ethic pushed AeroLEDS to its current place as a leading innovator of LED Aerospace lighting. That innovation “is equal parts inspiration and perspiration,” according to the company’s website.   Since its inception in 2006, the company has been on its mission to redefine expectations for aerospace lighting with modern design that relies on brighter LEDs (light emitting diodes) that require less electricity than old-timey traditional lights. Calvin says, “I saw what I thought was a severe lack of innovation in aerospace lighting and started AeroLEDS while I was still working in the nuclear power industry.” What? Nuclear power industry? Was this lights guy a nuclear engineer? Well, he was. Here's his story:

Farm Boy Reader

Calvin grew up in rural Idaho “bucking” (stacking) hay bales, setting irrigation lines and working the fields.  “I think it is the best foundation for work ethic on the planet” says Calvin. Yet, the boy had uncles who did something else. “One flew for the Air Force and piloted the P51, F86, F100 and T38. The other was a 2-tour Huey pilot in Vietnam.” says Calvin. “My Airforce Uncle gave me a hardcover 2nd edition of Baa Baa Black Sheep by Gregory Boyington” {Insert Airforce Joke Here}. “I read that book at seven years old and immediately wanted to be a Naval aviator. Although that dream never materialized, I can at least hold some satisfaction knowing that lights I’ve designed are installed on aircraft by the greats in the industry” (including Kelly Johnson). “If you’d have told me as a kid that I would design lighting to be used on aircraft like that and others, I’d have laughed in disbelief and been very flattered,” he says.

One Flight, Changed Life

Calvin did not go into the military, but instead earned a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Idaho. A college classmate happened to be an A&P mechanic and sensed that Calvin was an “aviation hound.” The mechanic also had a Luscombe airplane and offered to take Calvin for a weekend flight. Surprisingly, Calvin declined. “When I didn’t go down the military path, I kind of set aviation aside as a dream that wasn’t going to happen. My thinking then was that if I can’t fly a fighter jet, I don’t want anything to do with it.” Fortunately, Calvin reconsidered and accepted the generous offer—an offer that changed the course of his life. “That flight lit a fire in me and from then I knew I was going to be pursuing a pilot’s license. (Calvin currently has certificates for private pilot: fixed-wing, multi-engine instrument, and is slowly working on his private pilot-helicopter add-on in an Enstrom 480-B.) What attracts Calvin to piloting a helicopter is the unforgiving precision required. He says, “I’ve flown a lot of unlimited fixed-wing aerobatics and I’ve found that type of flying is similar to piloting a rotorcraft in the sense that you fly precisely with limited, controlled inputs. You don’t do anything accidentally without consequence and I find that a very attractive and alluring challenge.”


The man likes a challenge and is goal driven. He set three goals for himself upon college graduation, some harder than others. “One was, get a dog. Also, I wanted to start playing the drums again because I always loved that, and the third item was to get my pilot's license. I pretty much got all those done shortly after graduation” With license in hand, he started building and flying experimental aircraft. Since the mid-1990s, he’s built several airplanes, including a Velocity and is currently finishing up an RV-7 and currently fly’s a C182 in Idaho’s backcountry and a Cessna P210. All this design work and assembly inspired him to develop a glass cockpit with business partners. They co-founded Sierra Flight Systems to sell their cockpit system. They sold that company and it eventually became part of Genesis Aero Systems.

Survivor

Then tragedy struck. He and 2 of his employees were flying in a Lancair IV that crashed. Calvin was the sole survivor. “The aftermath brought series of problems that would’ve caused many to crumble, but again I faced the conflict with the determination that has defined my character of never giving up and I %^&*ing prevailed.” he says. That principled stance in the midst of adversity is one of his proudest lifetime accomplishments, but it took its toll. He reflects on that sad time of business and personal trial, “There was a lot of pressure then and it’s probably one reason I eventually took a  5 year hiatus from aviation.”

Nuclear Engineer

In his time away, beginning in 2003, Calvin turned his engineering ambitions toward the nuclear power industry, doing computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA) on various designs that help power our lives. It was a tough row to hoe for the former farm boy. “Facing the 10,000+ pages of design criteria for Nuclear power was an extremely challenging part of my career, but I found solace in the struggle to learn the material and learned a lot about myself in retroflection,” he says. “My (and all other) analysis data was heavily scrutinized and critiqued by independent review and it kept me on my toes and kept me humble. Engaging and interfacing with some of these very competent people was very rewarding. At times I felt like I’d gone through a dissertation defense (for a PhD).”

Seeing The Light

While still working at his nuclear “day job,” Calvin and his two partners noticed a lack of innovation in aerospace lighting and started AeroLEDS in their spare time in 2006. He decided to fly in to the big  Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to test the reaction for his first LED light product. “After seeing fellow aviators again, I quickly came to the conclusion that this was my tribe, my people. The culture in aviation is alluring and goes beyond a general love of flying and that culture drew me back into the industry full time.”
His fellow aviators enthusiastically saw the light in Oshkosh at that 2007 show and Calvin returned the next year with a whopping 12 AeroLEDS products. It’s been a rapid ascent for the company since then. One reason is that the traditional companies left an opening in the market that Calvin ran through. “The established players in the industry had become lackadaisical and were not innovating. If you look at the industry before the introduction of AeroLEDS, it was very utilitarian, functional products without design,” he says. “You had all these beautifully designed aircraft with exterior lights that looked like warts on a princess. The lights looked awful; they looked like they belonged on an old Ford tractor. There were no sleek features or design elements in the lighting industry; the lights were afterthoughts. So, AeroLEDS raised the standard and set it high from the beginning.”

To emphasize AeroLEDS’ lights are sleeker and brighter and branded with names like “SunBeacon” and “Pulsar,” whereas other companies called their lights by generic product alphanumeric designations. They are now seen on aircraft ranging from experimental types all the way up to tactical fighters. AeroLEDS are currently being adopted by the rotorcraft market. Enstrom was the first OEM to install them on newly manufactured aircraft, but many AeroLEDS are installed on helicopters when aircraft are being upgraded and old lighting is replaced. Calvin says, “We replace old-style lights with AeroLEDS that are multiples of magnitude brighter than the original equipment.” The overt/covert helicopter and fixed wing market is key for his company.

Susan

Strike that. AeroLEDS is not just “his” company, but also belongs equally to his wife, Susan, who is the company’s production manager. “She has been an integral, key-contributor to the success of the company since its founding,” Calvin says, and then humorously adds, “She’s the face of the company with customers. It’s not uncommon for me to meet a customer or person in the industry who asked if “I work for Susan”. As a matter of fact, YES I do, he said laughingly.”

Thriver

With the couple working together to build AeroLEDS, Calvin first points out that business does not come first; that position is for family.  (Their two daughters are in college.) Plus, surviving that fatal plane crash has given perspective. Calvin says, “The bottom line is I’m a survivor.” That’s certainly true, but not the whole story. Having built two successful companies from the ground up, and having his wife beside him in success no. 2, and with daughters out of the nest learning to  fly on their own, Calvin is more than a survivor, as great as that can be. Bottom line: He’s a thriver.

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