VOL. 129 | NO. 135 | Monday, July 14, 2014
Wright Taking UAM to New Heights
By Don Wade
When Keri Wright was a little girl, her dad built an airplane out of plywood and fitted it with controls and switches, and she and her brother would play in the plane next to their sandbox.
As she grew older, the family went to an airshow every summer in Oshkosh, Wis., and Wright loved watching the F-16 fighter jets zoom overhead.
“I just thought that was so cool, having all that power and control and going fast, no limits,” said Wright, 31, who owns Memphis-based Universal Asset Management, which acquires, manages and leases aviation assets.
But Wright never saw herself in the cockpit until one day, at 15, she watched a squadron of those F-16s land, and the possibilities opened up before her like that see-forever-view behind an airplane’s windshield.
“I was sitting on the front row of the flight line,” Wright said, “and this chick pops out. That was like, `Wow.’ That was the first connection where I said I guess that’s something I could do.”
From that point on – and that summer her mother began dropping her off at the local airport near their home in tiny Richmond, Ill., but wouldn’t allow her to drive a car to the airport – Wright has been flying in fast forward.
She was a flight instructor at age 18 even as she was a college student at Purdue University with a bike and no car. She was a commercial pilot by age 19. She briefly thought that’s what she wanted to do, but aside from the thrill of taking off and landing jets – especially in thunderstorms – she found the task to be lacking in challenge.
Wright recalls the first time she was up in the air learning to fly and what she loved most: “There were no stop signs. There were no limits. And that probably was the metaphor that led to everything else beyond that.”
To be sure, it’s an approach she has brought to bear in business. She came to work for Universal Asset Management in her 20s, and by 24 she was chief operating officer. Wright grew the business from 44 employees to 110, and last year she purchased UAM. Now, Wright is aiming to expand the company’s business in a bigger way and has put in a new executive management team.
Shawn Kling accepted a position as company president four months ago after running both public and private companies; he will oversee UAM’s strategic leadership.
“I liked what I saw, the financial state of the business,” Kling said. “I thought we could do more, especially internationally with some of the relationships that I had. But the tipping point for me is Keri. I knew she needed an executive team with a broader depth and experience than what she had previously. I knew I could help her.”
The business has three main areas: asset management, including leasing; aftermarket supply chain; and disassembly services. The aftermarket supply chain is the strongest of the three and much of business comes from selling to the airlines. UAM has disassembled more than 300 aircraft worldwide and specializes in all transport aircraft, including the full line of Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer fleets.
“There’s a point where it’s more economically viable to (sell the airplane parts) as separate components,” said Yohaan Demel, executive director of acquisitions. “An engine might have just came out of overhaul, but there’s a lot of life left in it.”
UAM has its corporate headquarters on Poplar Avenue in Memphis, a disassembly facility in Tupelo, Miss., a global distribution center in Verona, Miss., and a sales office in the United Kingdom. But that’s just the start.
“We’re replicating what we do in the U.S. and we’ve targeted Singapore or Malaysia to establish our new operation,” Kling said. “It’s a fantastic market down there. We will be the first large-scale disassembly warehousing provider in that part of the world.”
It’s a long way from playing in a toy airplane by a sandbox. Or even giving flying lessons to make money while attending college.
One thing hasn’t changed, though: Wright, as chairman and CEO of UAM, still prefers an airplane to a car, especially when she’s at the controls and there’s a business meeting in progress.
“Deal negotiations now,” she said with a laugh, “are just turning the plane inverted until you get what you want.”