For many pilots, the names Middlebrook and Penn Yan Aero are synonymous with aviation.
The Middlebrook family has owned and operated the engine maintenance facility in Penn Yan, New York, for three generations.
“It really began with Harold ‘Eagle’ Middlebrook in the 1930s,” says Patricia Middlebrook, who is part of the second generation and mother of current owner and President Bill Middlebrook.
“In his teen years, Eagle became interested in flying,” she says. “He made several cross-country flying trips and excursions into the Caribbean and South America. During World War II he was a civilian flight instructor for the Army in Americus, Georgia. After World War II he returned to his home town of Middlesex, New York, where he was instrumental in establishing an airport and establishing the Penn Yan Flying Club — a group of World War II fliers who bought a farm and started the Penn Yan Airport.”
In 1945 he founded Penn Yan Aeronautical Service at the airport. The company provided flight instruction and aircraft maintenance.
Eagle ran the show until 1964 when he sold the business to his son, Daryl, Patricia’s husband. At the time it was a repair facility, offering everything from oil changes to complete restorations, including engine overhauls. Daryl transformed the business into an engine specialty shop.
“When Daryl bought the business he also began growing the business, starting with two other employees and working up to 25 employees at his retirement,” says Patricia, who started at the family business as a bookkeeper and eventually became chief financial officer, then human resources manager.
GROWING THE FAMILY — AND THE BUSINESS
She jokes that the births of both of her children were tied to the family business.
“In the spring of 1967 Daryl and I were expecting the arrival of our first child,” she says. “One day at work our family physician, who was a member of the flying club, was getting an airplane out of the club hangar. He did not realize that the club had changed the mechanism on the overhead door. He opened it, ran it up beyond the limits and wrecked it, leaving a pile of bent tin and snapped 2 x 4s. Daryl heard the noise and ran up to the hangar to see what was wrong. He and the doctor discussed the situation and the doctor asked Daryl if he could hire him to fix the door. Daryl said yes. The doctor asked how much. Daryl said $75, so the doctor said, ‘You fix the door and I’ll deliver your baby!’ So when Nancy was born on April 29, her delivery fee was waived in exchange for a hangar door repair.”
“That’s the family story — that I was born in exchange for a hangar door,” Nancy jokes.
That same doctor was on hand when Bill arrived a few years later, in the middle of a snowstorm that buried most of western New York.
“Daryl and I were staying in town with his parents, because Daryl insisted that we could not stay at our house five miles out of town in the country,” Patricia remembers. “At 2 a.m. I told him we needed to go to the hospital. We did, in the company pickup truck, through snowdrifts and unplowed streets. Bill was delivered at 6:20 am. Then, around mid-morning, Daryl showed up with the payroll ledger and the checkbook and I did that day’s payroll for Penn Yan Aero in my hospital bed.”
The Middlebrooks insisted that their children learn the business from the ground up.
“My first job was sandblasting cylinders and glass beading rocker arms,” recalls Nancy. “I am not sure how old I was at the time. They had to build me a stool to be able to see the machines. I earned a nickel for every one I did right.”
Bill remembers mowing lawns and working in each department during vacations from school. He worked as vice president for several years before buying the business from his father in 2005.
“Today we have over 40 employees and build 400 engines per year,” says Bill.
Although there was the opportunity to work at the family business, it wasn’t automatic nor was it a guarantee of a job, notes Nancy, who worked at the Penn Yan location in Orlando, Florida, a wholesale parts distribution company that specialized in piston aircraft parts, selling everything from landing lights to tires.
That business was one of the casualties of the post-Sept. 11 downturn in aviation, says Nancy. “On April 29, 2003, my 36th birthday, and my 22nd official anniversary with the company, we closed the doors on the Florida operation and I lost my job,” she recalls. “I gave a lot of thought to another career, but the fact of the matter is, I don’t know anything else. I know aviation. So I decided to start my own company.”
Nancy utilized her contacts, gathered through Penn Yan Aeroparts, and started a distributorship handling many of the product lines that she was familiar with. The result is Aeroparts Aviation Supply, Inc., which specializes in pilot supplies, training materials and aviation gifts.
In 2005, she started the company’s “signature” product line, dubbed Girls Fly Too! which features apparel and accessories for girls of all ages.
“We have everything from infant clothing to pink logbooks,” she says.
BRINGING THE JOB HOME
Most people take their jobs home at night, to some degree. You can’t help but do that in a family business, according to the Middlebrooks.
“You can’t keep family life and a family business separate,” says Patricia.
“It’s impossible,” Bill agrees. “I have a family at home, my wife Melissa, my son Reece Patrick, and Apollo and Piper, our German Shepherds. But I also have a family at work. A high percentage of our employees have been working here since they were recruited out of high schools and colleges. Many are older than I and have been here for 20 or 30 years. You spend a lot of time helping these people and working together on everything from work issues to issues they might be having at home. I spend a great deal of time as a confidant and a counselor. It’s just the way it is.”
But there are benefits to working in a family owned business, according to Nancy.
“The best part of working in a family business is that 99% of the time we are all working toward the same goal, and we know we can rely on each other no matter what,” she says. “It offers an increased sense of trust, reliability, accountability and security that cannot be found elsewhere.”
Professional disagreements are resolved much as in any other business, says Bill. “You get the persons involved in the problem together for a discussion of how to solve the problem. As in any business, the ‘boss’ has the final say in the resolution.”
Running a family business is not for everyone, according to Bill, who notes that the dynamics of personal relationships naturally come to work.
“There is a big difference between father and son working together as compared to husband and wife,” he says. “There will be times of trouble that’s predicted, there will be times of trouble that is unpredictable, and there will be times of great success.
“I think that the aviation world today is still family oriented, so family businesses are well thought of and well received by other aviation folks,” he continues. “The love of flying is in our DNA. Others who share that DNA are eager to be part of that brotherhood. It can bring success to your business.”
There is also no such thing as retiring and walking away from it, he says.
“Although retired, Daryl is here almost every day to check in,” he says. “He’s still a valuable asset to have at our disposal. Mom still works here, although at some point she will retire. That leaves me. The next 10 years will most likely be a pivotal time in the evolution of the business. Nonetheless, if there are still aircraft out there flying around the sky, Penn Yan Aero will be here with a Middlebrook at the helm.”
For more information: 800-727-7230