When Jack and Norma Rose moved with their three young children to Dallas in the mid-1950s, Jack had no interest in airplanes and knew nothing about them. His people were farmers and loggers, and flying airplanes did not figure into his or his family’s experience in rural Polk County.
While living in Dallas and working as a cab driver, he stumbled into a job with Braniff Airlines, and everything changed. When the Rose family moved back to Arkansas eight years later, Jack was a licensed airplane mechanic, an avid pilot and passionate about all things aviation.
Jack and Norma returned to their hometown of Hatfield so they could raise their kids in a rural community, and so Jack could get into the aviation business. On July 3,1964, he opened Jack Rose Aircraft in a corner of a hangar at the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, where he worked on airplane engines. At the time, the Mena airport was not much more than a few old hangars and a 3,000-foot grass runway with no lights.
“Those were some lean times,” said Keith Rose, Jack and Norma’s son, who is currently co-owner and CEO of the family business now called Rose Aircraft Services. Keith recalled living in a house without indoor plumbing and his mother working as a secretary at a school while his father did whatever he could to scrounge up work on plane engines. The hard work and sacrifice paid off. By the late 1960s, Jack and Norma had built a successful engine overhaul business and had started buying and selling used aircraft.
In the early 1970s, the Roses sold a used plane that needed some upholstery work on a seat. In those days, there were few companies in the United States that did work on airplane interiors and none in the Arkansas area. Norma and her mother-in-law, Lilly, a seamstress, figured out how to fix the seat. Soon after, Lilly learned to sew aircraft interiors by completing a mail-order correspondence course in furniture upholstery.
“That’s how it started,” Keith said. “From there, my mother got calls from other contacts they had in the aircraft resale industry. The interior business just took off.”
They set up a sewing shop in a new hangar they built at the Mena airport, which they still operate out of today. By the later ‘70s, Rose Aircraft employed some 40 people to work on interiors, including upholstery and cabinetry. “Over the years, we evolved from just a little general aviation-refurbishing center, working on smaller planes, to focusing primarily on corporate jets and turboprops, bigger planes. That’s still our primary thing,” Keith said. “We work on everything from a small single-engine trainer up to Gulf Stream Challenger-sized planes.”
The company also does a lot of work for flight schools as well as a significant amount of work for various government defense contractors. It recently completed contracts refurbishing fleets of planes for the Air Force and Navy.
In the 1980s, the company got into painting aircraft. From there, it added other services, like heavy maintenance and avionics. “We offer one-stop shopping,” Keith said. “We can provide anything that you need for your aircraft while it’s here in Mena, with the exception of some highly technical things like overhauling a turbine engine or something of that sort.”
Today, Rose Aircraft Services has about 100 employees working in some 200,000 square feet of hangar and shop space, and it refurbishes between 100 and 120 planes a year.
“It’s been very successful for us,” Keith said. “Our business has stayed relatively stable, although we’ve been up and down with various economic conditions. The 2008 recession hit us pretty hard, as it hit everybody hard. We managed to survive and continue to grow.”
The early 1970s, when the U.S. economy went into recession, was another period that hit the family business hard. Aircraft refurbishing is an industry that is typically less affected by recession than others, but Jack Rose Aircraft, as it was still called, was more into buying and selling used aircraft, and it had an Aero Commander dealership.
“Dad had a million dollars worth of airplanes out on the grass runway,” Keith said. “Interest rates were high, and no one was buying.” Though the company did not go bankrupt, the manufacturer took back the planes, and Jack had to take a job for a few years with an aviation company in Van Nuys, Calif., working overseas, mainly in Southeast Asia. When he returned to Arkansas a few years later, the interior refurbishing business was well-established and growing quickly, and the company was back on its feet.
Over the years, Rose Aircraft Services has branched out into other ventures in the aviation industry. In 2008, the company bought the Mena Air Center Services FBO, which provides a wide range of services, including fuel, to aircraft owners and pilots using the airport. More recently, it acquired the former Hawker Beechcraft facility in Little Rock and has developed the space into a full-fledged aircraft paint and interior business. Prime Completions focuses primarily on private jets and corporate jets and is the company’s first foray outside of Mena.
Rose Aircraft Services has always been a family-owned business. Keith and his sister, Brenda Sloan, the third generation of Roses, are the current owners. Keith is the CEO, and Brenda oversees interior design and accounts receivable as well as serves as the company’s vice president and secretary/treasurer. Though keeping the company family-owned is not a high priority with Keith, he and Brenda both have children working in the business. So, it appears likely there will be a fourth generation of Roses to take over when the time comes.
“As long as the kids want to continue the business, that’s fine,” said Keith, who sees room for continued growth, especially work for the Department of Defense and work on smaller planes. “None of us have exactly the same kind of passion that Dad had for aviation. He loved flying and being around airplanes. For us, it’s the family business. At the same time, we’re grateful for the opportunity and passionate about success in a very dynamic and exciting industry and making the business succeed, and doing it the right way. It’s paid off. Our children who are involved in the business want to carry on the legacy.”