Jonathan Saltman’s new line of products will never take off – and that’s exactly what he’s counting on.
His soaps and polishes were developed during 20 years of use on private jets, but now will be put to the test firmly on the ground in the automotive after care market.
Saltman is introducing the products at a pivotal time in his three-decade career. International Aero, his Bellflower company, cleans and paints private jets, builds custom-designed interiors and manufacturers landing gear for companies such as Boeing.
Private aircraft sales and the jet charter business were nearly grounded by the recession and have been slow to come back – hitting related businesses such as International Aero hard.
Saltman had to lay off about 10 percent of his 190-person work force, a painful step for a small company like his.
“It was a very difficult time and a hard decision,” said the 45-year-old entrepreneur. “Airplanes are the first to be purchased when times are good, and the first to be sold when times get tough.”
So Saltman thinks by diversifying he may be able to quell some of the turbulence that has shaken his business.
The line, dubbed Aero, includes exterior soap, tire and wheel cleaners, aluminum polish, window cleaner, upholstery stain remover, and leather and vinyl conditioner. The products are packaged in upscale aluminum dispensers and have a price to match. A 16-ounce bottle of exterior wax goes for $27.99.
Currently, the products are only available online, but Bill Buchanan, Aero’s director of new business development, said he has auto store chain distribution deals secured in 14 Western states, as well as Hawaii, Alaska and all of Canada. He said he could not yet disclose the name of the chain.
“Most of them have really sat up and looked at the packaging because it is so unique,” he said.
The company’s marketing efforts recently got a further boost when Edelbrock, a Torrance-based performance part manufacturer, endorsed Aero as its official car-care line.
International Aero is a diverse operation. The custom interiors are done at the Bellflower headquarter plant, as is gear manufacturing and other parts work that account for about 15 percent of revenue.
Three detailing teams are stationed at airports in Tucson, Ariz.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Long Beach. Saltman also has teams that float between jobs, doing work as needed at airports such as LAX.
Saltman would not disclose annual revenue, but said a typical interior job costs about $2 million. The company also has completed jobs well into the tens of millions for royal families and other customers, with aircraft ranging from small jets to customized 747s. On a recent weekday, workers were putting the final touches on an interior with leather seats costing $30,000 apiece.
The idea is to leverage that kind of work into a cachet that the luxury automobile crowd will buy into. One of Saltman’s pitches is that cars manufacturers are employing more and more materials from jets. Carbon fiber was first used on jets, as was polyurethane paint.
“The aerospace industry is always in front of the auto industry,” he said.
Saltman boasts that his waxes can protect the paint on jets from a scorching 120 degrees on the tarmac to a minus-60 degrees at 50,000 feet at speeds topping 500 miles per hour.
“Formulated for aircraft, and perfect for your car,” is how Saltman puts it.
Alan Baum, an automotive industry consultant, said International Aero appears to be picking the right time to launch a line aimed at the very top of the market.
“The luxury car market is coming back more quickly than the mainstream market,” Baum said. “The market is opening up for auto financing in general.”
With its link to jet performance, the product line could get a lift, said Darren Priest, a consultant and president of Expert Mobile Car Detailing, a Corona del Mar luxury detailer. He noted that car maker Saab parlayed its reputation for building military planes into car sales.
“When you think of jets, you think of performance and precision engineering,” said Priest. “It’s an elitist crowd. To me, that would be a good spin.”
Still, he said, car enthusiasts are fickle and International Aero has some tough competition from Meguiars, Mothers and other respected brands, all of which make good products that cost less. For example, Meguiars top-of-the-line Ultimate Paste Wax has a suggested retail price of $22.99.
If the new product line does take off, it will mean Saltman’s career has come full circle.
A few feet from the mills and lathes that cut parts for airplanes, Saltman has parked his 1977 Corvette. The cherry red sports car helped launch Saltman’s career when he repainted it at 16.
A licensed pilot at 17, he began detailing cars in his teens and started his plane detailing business in 1986 while still attending USC, where he majored in business and minored in chemistry.
After 10 years of using off-the-shelf products, he formulated his own. He realized the drawbacks of the original products: tire conditioners that slung oil film on the plane’s underbelly, degreasing formulas that were corrosive to paint, and waxes that contained silicones or would melt under extreme temperatures.
Armed with his chemistry degree, Saltman searched for formulas that would replenish the high-price hides used on custom jet seats and protect the planes’ shells. He worked with local chemists to fine-tune the products to his standards.
“We have to worry about leaving any residue for somebody in a $3,000 to $4,000 suit or silk cardigan,” he said.
He’s hoping that the same pride of ownership will compel car owners to buy Aero products.
“Autos are the second most expensive asset that most people will own,” he said.
If you don’t already own a private jet, that is.
YEAR FOUNDED: 1986
CORE BUSINESS: Detailing private jets. Custom building jet interiors. Manufacturing landing gear for aircraft makers.
GOALS: To distribute new line of auto-care products through retailers nationwide.
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