In March 2017, days after being laid off, Garrett O'Brien and Ben Davis were working from a kitchen table trying to create jobs that would let their families stay in the area they called home. Less than 2 years later, they've outgrown that table and realized their dream. Today, the pair runs a start-up aerospace company from Ace Industrial Park in Bangor Township.
Starting a new business is never easy. Opening an aerospace business offers unique challenges. "There aren't any start-up aerospace companies. There just aren't," says O'Brien. The 2019 Fortune 500 includes 13 aerospace and defense companies including familiar names such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
In the beginning, the BGT Aerospace founders bought equipment and stored it until they found a workspace. Within a few months, though, they were up and running at 4412 Ace Commercial Court in Bay City.It may be a while before BGT Aerospace, based at 4412 Ace Commercial Ct. in Bay City, lands on the Fortune 500. But O'Brien and Davis have come a long way from that kitchen table.
The original goal was simple. O'Brien and Davis each had the skills and experience to find jobs in other states. But they had homes and families here. They wanted to stay in this area. The best way to do that was to found a new company here.
They started bidding on government jobs. They worked around the clock some days, trying to get the business off the ground. They bought equipment and stored it until they found a workspace. In June of 2017, they found their current space and had it up and running a month later. Their first job was to produce three pieces for the ammunition loading actuator for the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog.
Today, BGT Aerospace designs, manufactures, assembles, and tests various mechanical components for military aircraft. “Our core competency is in ball screws — manufactured, designed, everything,” Davis says. “We know them inside and out.” BGT also offers an array of services including CNC machining, maintenance and repair, reverse engineering, and assembly and testing of gearboxes.
Davis says the government puts out around 5,000 open solicitations a day for parts. BGT scours the solicitations looking for work. "We’ve done pins for the Navy, we’ve done MK95 machine gun mounts for the Navy,” O’Brien says. “We’ve got parts from everywhere."
O'Brien encourages Michigan entrepreneurs to think beyond cars. He points out that the Great Lakes Bay Region has assets manufacturers need.The goal now is to build a quality record with the military in order to get into a higher level of manufacturing. Realizing that goal keeps them busy in all aspects of the business. O’Brien's title is Operations Manager and Davis works as the Lead Mechanical Engineer. The titles don't cover all the work they need, so each man wears many hats. “We’re in the office, we’re in the shop. I’m a toolmaker, I have a bachelor’s degree in management and finance," O’Brien says. “He’s (Davis) an engineer and a licensed professional engineer, but can program a CNC machine."
Davis adds: “Yesterday I wired in the new air compressor and ran air lines. And today, I inspected parts and did some assembly work and a little bit of engineering and government inspections."
Bay City offers a lot to start-up businesses to help navigate the inevitable ups and downs. For example, in its first year of operation, BGT lost $70,000. They had invested money in equipment and workspace, but needed time to get a product out to customers in order to bring in money. February 2019 was their worst month. “We were absolutely broke,” O’Brien remembers. Their loans were maxed out, outside investors were hesitant as BGT did not have a standard product. O'Brien and Davis weren't even sure they could pay the rent.
"So we just worked," O’Brien says. Hard work paid off and things started to click. They reached out to Bay Future, which connected them with Brenda Flory of Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “She had all kinds of resources,” Davis says. “She hooked us up with other people in our industry, in our state, and they were awesome. At the end of the day, it didn’t really mean money for us, but there was guidance out there."
Flory connected the pair with Tony Vernaci, from the Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan (AAIM). Vernaci connected BGT with RCO Engineering, which makes aircraft seats. That put BGT on the path to obtaining an FAA repair station license.
“The business is growing,” Davis says. “We don’t take a regular paycheck; we keep re-investing it back in the business. Right now, we’re doing pretty well."
BGT Aerospace designs, manufactures, assembles, and tests various mechanical components for military aircraft. The company also offers CNC machining, maintenance and repair, reverse engineering, and assembly and testing.Davis encourages others to consider building businesses in Bay City. Open space exists downtown and in industrial parks. “It’s a pretty centralized location for suppliers and the west side of the state, Detroit, Ohio, and a couple of people in the U.P,” Davis says. “The majority of our suppliers are within a 150-mile radius of this area."
Although competitive, the community also can be helpful, “Everybody kind of looks out for each other,” says O’Brien. “It’s not uncommon for me to call someone I know and say ‘Can I borrow a tool? Do you have one of these?’ and vice versa."
The schools here create a trained workforce. “You’ve got two key things right in Bay City,” O’Brien says. “That’s Delta College and the Bay-Arenac ISD." Each facility provides training for CNC certification, which many manufacturers need.
“We are not just an automotive state,” O’Brien says. “Aerospace is here. Suppliers are here. It’s some diversification. And if you’re doing military work, the aerospace work, it’s going to be a domestic resource. So why not here? This is a good area for machinists."
Business picked up enough that in March 2018, they hired an employee, Andy Mueller. Mueller is enrolled in classes at Delta College, hoping to earn his CNC Certificate and an associate's degree.
While bidding on jobs, Davis and O'Brien found a piece of Saginaw Valley history. Printing on this ball screw assembly – which was used on the Ohio Class Submarine 50 years ago – was manufactured at Saginaw Steering Gear.They've also come across a piece of local history. Davis points out a unique part. “This one’s great because there’s some info on the print that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone outside of the Tri-City area. This was made by Saginaw Steering Gear. It is a ball screw assembly used in the escape hatch system on the Ohio Class Submarine. It was cool to find something made right here in the Saginaw Valley 50 years ago out for bid in open competition."
O’Brien adds that he is proud of the work they do and to support the U.S. Military and is hardware. “There’s a whole network within Michigan that’s growing with regards to aerospace work," he says. “If we continue to grow, we will stay here,” Davis adds.