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Spring 2011 -- Steve Walton may well owe his big break to a Saudi prince.
In 1996, Walton, a former naval officer, took a position on the prince’s flight crew. The job came with one big perk—after serving 30 days Walton would have a month off. In his spare time, he took a side job consulting with people and companies who wanted to refurbish old airplanes.
Fourteen years later, Walton’s part-time gig has paid off in a big way. His company, Virginia-based BaySys Technologies, is a multi-million dollar firm that upgrades airplanes for VIPs around the world. BaySys employs more than 250 designers, engineers, and mechanics who customize planes for the various heads of state and celebrities. The customizing includes design and installation of matchless avionics, luxurious interiors, and top-shelf entertainment systems.
Walton began working in the airline industry in 1982, when he was fresh out of the U.S. Navy. He accepted a job modifying airplanes for VIPs, and was soon an executive within that company. “It was really my navy training that led me into this work,” he said. It also led to his job with the Saudi prince, and his side launch of BaySys.
Walton’s client list grew quickly thanks to contacts built up from his previous work. Soon he had enough business to focus on BaySys full-time. In 2006, he shifted from consultant to creator, buying 100,000 square feet of hanger space in Wallops Island, Virginia, in order to start building and refurbishing more planes. He also slowly bulked up his staff, adding mechanics, avionics experts, sheet metal and fabrication specialists, inspectors, and installers.
In 2007, he expanded his company’s offerings further by buying Interad Ltd., a Maryland-based research and development company that designs custom communications electronics for government and military use.
Exciting projects soon followed. Walton’s team created the Speed Bird, a single-engine personal jet that made Popular Science’s list of the 100 best innovations of 2007. The plane was heralded for its compact size—at the time it was built it was the smallest, lightest four-seater plane on the market. Walton said the Speed Bird is one of the planes he’s most proud of. “It’s a departure from what we do on the big airplanes,” he said. “But in the industry, it was an important project.”
Walton’s record of technical innovations even extends to in-flight entertainment. When Spielberg hired BaySys to design a personal airplane, the director had high expectations of the entertainment system that wold be installed. “It was very technically challenging,” Walton said.
Once Walton opened his own factory, he attracted bigger clients and BaySys’ revenues soared. In 2006, the company’s gross revenues were $3 million; just a year later, they jumped to $50 million. Over the last four years, while most companies have trimmed costs, BaySys has expanded aggressively. Today, the company’s 300 employees operate in a 200,000-square-foot complex, and further expansions are planned.
“Starting BaySys was a significant risk,” Walton said. “But I’m a risk-taker. It's part of my DNA.”