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While others struggle, his business soars

The workspace at Stein Air is wide open, with several benches where employees can assemble instrument panels. The company can produces from two to 10 instrument panels a month.

From Eden Prairie to Australia, small-plane pilots around the world arrive safely at their destinations thanks to a small company based in Farmington's industrial park.

Stein Air, which makes custom-built instrument panels for personal airplanes, got its start among a group of guys used to working on much larger aircraft. Stein Bruch was a manager and a former mechanic for Northwest Airlines in the late 1990s, when that company started having financial troubles. When Bruch was laid off, he figured he could either sit around and collect unemployment, or he could do something to improve his situation.

"We wanted to do something," Bruch said.

So, Stein Air was born. The business operated out of Bruch's garage and basement for the first few years. In 2003, he expanded to a single room in the Farmington Industrial Park. It was a big move, and Bruch wondered if he'd ever have enough going on to fill the space. But seven years later he's expanded to occupy half of the building, about 8,000 square feet in all, and he's running out of space again. Stein Air has 12 employees. There are desks stuck into corners and boxes of wires along the walls. Even as other parts of the economy struggled, Stein Air's business increased.

Stein Air works with customers from the very beginning to design their instrument panels. They cut the metal sheets that form the panels and install whatever instruments the customer wants. There are no old-fashioned dials to be found. Everything is high-tech computer screens that display colorful graphics.

Depending on the number of instrument screens and the type of equipment involved the panels can run from $10,000 to $100,000.

Many of Stein Air's customers build their own planes. Others are upgrading the panels that came standard on other aircraft. Stein Air works exclusively with small-plane pilots. He doesn't build for anything that has a jet engine.

The work space at Stein Air is wide open. Colorful spools of wire hang on the back wall. At workstations around the room employees make sense of the tangles of wires that go into each panel. At one station there is an entire console from a seaplane. It was easier to take the whole thing than to separate out the instrument panel, Bruch explained.

Bruch wasn't sold on moving to Farmington at first. He wanted to find a space in Rosemount, where he lives. But the landlord here convinced him to give the space a shot. Now he's gotten to know many of the other business owners in the park. And he's started to work with many of them. He brings some of his panels down the street to JIT Powder Coating, and he does some wiring work for one of the other businesses in the park.

Stein Air employees have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to work on the instrument panels. Most of the people at the company are certified to work on planes from prop to tail, a fact Bruch said allows them to offer wide-ranging advice for customers.

"We are our customers," Bruch said. "We're pilots and home builders. We're not stuffed suits that sit in an office."

That much is clear as soon as you walk in the door. A large dry-erase board is covered with drawings and a sign reads, "We cheat the other guys and pass the savings on to you." Some of the company t-shirts bear the slogan, "We're not happy until you're broke."

The office is informal. There are dogs wandering the halls. Nobody wears anything much fancier than a t-shirt.

Bruch doesn't work much in the production area anymore. He spends most of his time in a separate office, and he's on the phone so much talking with customers and others that he seems to have an earpiece in all the time.

"The more employees you get, the more work you get," said Jed Gregerson, Stein Air's first employee and the other occupant of Bruch's office.

For all of the growth that's taken place over the past 10 years, Bruch said he doesn't make much more than he did when he was running things from his garage. And while he spends more time than he used to working on planes, he doesn't get to spend as much time flying.

"Our hobby turned into our business. Our business got in the way of our hobby," Bruch said.

Bruch doesn't know what the future will hold for Stein Air. He didn't do a lot of long-range planning to get where he is, and he doesn't expect to change his approach now. He knows he'll need to expand, and he'd like to be located on an airport. But that seems to be about as far as the conversation has gone.

As long as people keep flying, though, he'll keep building the panels to get them where they need to go.

Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series exploring the businesses that make their home in the Farmington Industrial Park.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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