This Woman's Place Is In The Hangar

Linda Lang has carved out her territory in a previously all-male preserve: Chopper repair

Linda Lang's life story unrolls like the lyrics of a country & western ballad: Her heart has been broken, and plenty of times she has barely made the rent. But two divorces, a busted business venture, and a nervous breakdown didn't destroy her spirit. Instead, Lang has found riches in a previously all-male domain.

Her gold mine: the helicopter-repair industry, where she has built a booming business in less than three years. In 1993, Lang founded Arizona Rotocraft Inc., a helicopter engine repair shop, with $25,000. It's now a $6 million company, and she predicts revenues will double to $12 million in 1996. The company's Mesa, Ariz. facilities are bustling as workers throw up walls and move in tooling and parts. For now, ARI's 21 employees share offices at headquarters, a converted hangar at Falcon Field Airport.

Lang's quick success--customers include McDonnell Douglas Corp., AlliedSignal Inc., and the Indiana State Police--is stirring envy among helicopter-repair dealers. "Last year she was a novelty," says industry consultant Bill White. "This year she's making everyone in the industry wince."

How did a grandmother with no experience in aerospace subcontracting break into this all-male club? Credit Lang's natural business smarts, her doggedness, and great timing.

As recently as 1992, Lang, 49, was at rock bottom. When her second marriage fell apart in the late 1980s, so did the concrete business she had started with her husband. To partly pay off creditors, Lang chose to liquidate, not declare bankruptcy. Then, a court battle over a contracting deal won her enough money to pay off the rest of her debts. But by then she had suffered a nervous breakdown. After a brief hospitalization, she says, "I hid for three years."

Gradually, she pulled out of her slump and began selling insurance part-time. But her lack of a degree made finding a good job hard. By late 1992, out of money and leads, Lang was planning to move back to her hometown in Colorado when her 22-year-old son, Brett, proposed a new career. Brett, an apprentice helicopter repairman at a local shop, had heard that Ryder-Aviall, Inc., a large, Dallas-based aircraft-repair company, was pulling out of Phoenix. Figuring lots of chopper work would be left behind, he suggested they start a business.

STAR TECH. Lang was reluctant. "When you're knocked down like that," she says, "it's hard to stand back up." But at last she plunked down $25,000, much of it borrowed from friends, for the tools and inventory of a failed repair shop. Since she had no customers, she started selling the inventory to pay the $3,500-a-month rent. Then, knowing that customers often choose a repair shop because of a particular mechanic, she began wooing Kurt Yackey, Ryder-Aviall's star technician. Even though he had been offered a raise to relocate, Yackey was won over by Lang's easy, open manner. "I figured it was a risk worth taking," he says.

ARI struggled for a year until Lang learned that to get fat contracts, it would have to become authorized by a big engine maker. That's no small matter. The largest maker, Allison Engine Co., has only 25 authorized maintenance centers worldwide. And once a shop gets Allison's nod, it must pay a $500,000 fee, in part for training and support.

Lang wasn't fazed. After hearing that Allison was taking new applications, "I called them every day for a year," she says. She also drove across the Falcon Field tarmac to McDonnell Douglas' helicopter manufacturing plant, an Allison customer, and met with its liaison to women and minority subcontractors, Rebecca McGarrah. Lang, McGarrah recalls, "told me flat out she was going to be an authorized dealer, and we should do something together."

Impressed, McGarrah put McDonnell Douglas' weight behind Lang's application. Good thing. "When I called Allison," McGarrah says, "the feeling was that a woman-owned firm was not capable of doing the work. It had to be a white, male-owned company." Allison executives admit they were stunned by Lang's application, but they point out that she was treated like everyone else and, ultimately, got her franchise. "The fact is, this is a man's business," says Ben Doll, a customer-support manager. "But so far the customers are very happy with her."

Getting authorized was crucial to Lang's larger plan--to sign up as many former Ryder-Aviall workers as possible. In addition to mechanics, she pursued the company's far-flung network of salespeople. Lang expects to add at least six more repair workers this year. And she just hired a former business-development manager for Douglas' helicopter unit to spearhead a push into government contracting. Many new workers are drawn by Lang's vision of a small shop where everyone is on salary and family comes first. Explains Lang: "If you're working on an engine and your kid is in his first kindergarten play, you are in jeopardy of being fired if you don't stop work and go to the play. There are 24 hours a day for doing business. But family events only happen at certain times in your life."

It's all a long way from Lang's first job. After marrying at 18 and having two children, Brett and Sharon, Lang joined a concrete company as a secretary--work she loved. "I came in at 6:00 a.m.," she says. "By the time anyone else showed up, the desks were dusted, the pencils sharpened, and the coffee was made." Soon named office manager, she started tagging along to her husband's business classes, studying finance and construction management. But when he couldn't find a job after graduating, the marriage ended. They divorced in 1976.

Struggling to raise two kids alone, Lang decided to start her own concrete company. In the early 1980s, she persuaded Jan Murphy, a concrete superintendent she knew, to put up $500 for 49% of a new company. She would put up $500, too, and get 51%. With the Southwest booming, Lang and Murphy landed road contracts and poured concrete for the foundations of countless strip malls. Sales soon hit $1.5 million. Along the way, Lang and Murphy discovered they shared a passion for race cars and began pouring their profits into a series of expensive dragsters. Murphy was the mechanic, Lang the racer. Several trophies later, the two married.

The seemingly perfect partnership soon deteriorated, however, and the business faltered. One morning in 1987, Lang fired her husband, then drove to the courthouse and filed for divorce. She tried for two years to run the company alone. "It is the only time in my life I've ever quit anything," she says.

Now all Lang misses from those days is the racing--and the odds are she'll be back in the cockpit soon. Notes Douglas' McGarrah: "When she says she's going to do something, she has a way of making it happen." For now, though, Lang is happy to be the first one into the office every morning. But these days she doesn't have to sharpen the pencils or make the coffee.

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