Getting off the ground

Plant Manager Jason Gruener inspects his antique plane at the Palmetto Aero hangar.

Plant Manager Jason Gruener inspects his antique plane at the Palmetto Aero hangar.

New parts manufacturer takes advantage of its location

By Andy Johns

According to Dennis Dent, Colleton County is a pretty great place to make aircraft components.

Dent, the CEO of Palmetto Aero, should know — he’s been in the business for 36 years.

Walterboro, he says, has a rare mix of everything he and his partners were looking for.

“The work ethic of the people in Colleton County is good,” Dent says. “The cost of doing business is good. The cost of real estate is good. Colleton County has a lot to offer.”

On top of that it has an excellent airport, high-speed broadband, Interstate access and is a quick drive — or an even quicker flight — from major aircraft builders in Charleston and Savannah.

“Colleton County is one of the best kept secrets in South Carolina,” Dent says. “The airport and that fiber connection made the deal happen. It’s unbelievable.”

In 2014, Palmetto Aero announced plans to invest $2.5 million in a plant that would make fasteners, filters, hardware and other components for planes and helicopters. So far, Palmetto Aero is up and running in two buildings at the Lowcountry Regional Airport, and working to move into a new 77,000-square-foot hangar in 2016. Once the new building is open, Dent expects the company will employ 44 workers.

At the time of the announcement, South Carolina Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt said Palmetto Aero is part of the “booming” aerospace industry in the state. Since 2011, the state has seen more than $1.1 billion in capital investment and more than 3,000 new jobs created in the aerospace industry. “Palmetto Aero is another example of an aerospace company that has seen the success we are having in this industry and has chosen to be a part of the growth happening here in South Carolina,” Hitt said. “We look forward to seeing the economic impact Palmetto Aero will have on Colleton County and beyond.”

Strategic position

From the Lowcountry Airport, Dent can fly to Savannah in 20 minutes and Charleston in 12 minutes. That’s important because two of the biggest names in the aerospace industry are located there — Boeing in Charleston and Gulfstream in Savannah.

Proximity is important, Dent says, stressing the idea that companies like Boeing don’t build planes from scratch. “They assemble airplanes,” he says. “There are thousands of components that come from suppliers.”
Dent and Palmetto Aero are taking steps to play a role in that supplier network. They specialize in aircraft-grade fasteners, filters and other components. They are small, specialized and hard-to-find parts that aircraft from Cessnas and Pipers to Bell helicopters can’t do without. “They’re all important,” Dent says.
In August, Palmetto Aero received the coveted AS9100 C certification that is a requirement to work with industry-leading companies.

“All aerospace manufacturing companies are requiring that certification,” Dent says. “It’s a very difficult quality standard to get.”

Most companies take two to five years to get certified, but Palmetto Aero received the distinction after only about a year of production. Soon after that, they got their first order from Boeing.

Dent credits their quick start to experience. His team has more than 40 years of experience in the industry.
Back in 1979, Dent purchased bolt manufacturing equipment from a company called Lamson and Sessions in Cleveland, Ohio, and founded his own company named Airfasco. Dent is still involved with Airfasco, which has had a longtime relationship with Gulfstream in Savannah.

In 2011, Gov. Nikki Haley approached Dent at the Paris Air Show to ask about moving Airfasco to South Carolina.
Airfasco remains firmly rooted in Ohio, but Dent is ready to soar over South Carolina.

He’s purchased a home in Colleton County and will be leaving Ohio for the Palmetto State. “I was never planning to live in Colleton County, but after spending a year down there, with the weather and everything, it’s like working on vacation,” he says. “From a business standpoint, it’s really the best place to live in the Lowcountry.”

He initially looked at homes in Summerville and Charleston, but he didn’t like the traffic. He liked the rural atmosphere of Colleton County, and he was amazed to learn he could connect to significantly faster Internet speeds with PRTC’s fiber optic network than what he could get in Charleston. That sealed the decision to relocate.

In addition to communicating with business across the United States, Dent is frequently on conference calls with businesses in Europe and needs a reliable connection.

“It’s really important for business,” he says of the connection. “That was probably the most important part. I can work from home and do everything I need in the office.”

The airport was also especially important to the decision of where to build his company and find a home. Dent is also a part owner of Air Truck, which makes kit air planes that they will build and test at Lowcountry Regional. The airport has three runways compared to two at most similar airfields and he likes the way it is run. “The airport conducts itself as one of the best county airports I’ve been to in the United States,” Dent says.

Local officials return the admiration.

“The Lowcountry Regional Airport is the largest general aviation airport in South Carolina and is one of our greatest assets,” Bill Workman, chairman of the Colleton County Resource & Development Board, said after the initial announcement. “Dennis Dent and Palmetto Aero’s investment will make our airport an even stronger force for the aviation industry in Colleton County and the entire Lowcountry region.”