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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

Company grew rapidly, but recent revenue declined

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

Grand Aire, Inc., the suburban Toledo air charter firm that lost two planes this week, was once one of America's fastest-growing private companies.

It continued to grow rapidly for two years after it moved its headquarters to Toledo Express Airport in 1999, reaching $67 million in annual revenues and employment of 250. Then, cutbacks trimmed its revenue to under $40 million and its work force to below 100 in the past year.

The owner, Tahir Cheema, a native of Pakistan, incorporated Grand Aire in Michigan in 1985, while he was still working for Chrysler Corp. in Detroit as a design engineering manager for vehicles that included Jeep trucks. Before that, Mr. Cheema - who has an engineering degree from the University of Alabama and an MBA from the University of Detroit - had been an engineer for Ford Motor Co. for five years. He started his air cargo firm at age 31.

Grand Aire grew from three employees and just $139,000 in revenue in 1987 to 41 employees and revenue of $3.8 million in 1991. The company, operating out of Custer Airport in Monroe, Mich., was named the 77th fastest-growing private company in the nation in 1992. It had expanded into passenger and business charters as well as medical flights for such purposes as delivering organs for transplanting.

The following year, Inc. magazine ranked the firm, then with 14 airplanes, as the 82nd fastest growing company. In 1994, it ranked 171st.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Cheema decided to relocate the business to Toledo Express, at least partly because of incentives that included 60 percent property-tax abatement for 10 years, Ohio job credits, and some physical improvements provided by the airport.

Grand Aire moved into its new $4.5 million, 18,000-square-foot facility in January, 1999, with a work force of 110. That year, its revenues were $40.5 million, according to Dun & Bradstreet, a national financial monitoring firm.

By the next year, it had smaller bases in Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Oakland, Louisville, and Columbia, S.C., and claimed to have flown more than 50,000 charters since 1987.

Mr. Cheema was named one of several northwest Ohio Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2000, in a competition sponsored by Ernst & Young. He had received a similar honor in Michigan in the late 1990s.

The firm claimed a customer base of more than 400 companies, including the Big Three automakers, Lear Seating, and Johnson Controls, and routes through Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and parts of Europe.

Until this week's two crashes, Grand Aire had 26 aircraft, ranging from piston-engine airplanes to turboprops to business-class jets. It has two charter services: Grand Aire Express, which flies parts, largely for speedy delivery for the automotive industry, and Executive Aire Express, which ferries executives and other passengers around the country.

The company advertises a variety of services, including flight instruction, maintenance, fueling, freight unloading, trucking, package delivery, and charter-flight monitoring via its Internet-based tracker system.

But the firm had heavy layoffs in 2001, trimming first to about 180 employees, and shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to 140. Early this year, it reported 89 Toledo employees and an unspecified number elsewhere. Dun & Bradstreet's latest report on Grand Aire put its revenue at $37.9 million for 2001.



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