By Carla McKeown
Steve Pierce sits in his office at Pierce Aero surrounded by many of the things near and dear to his heart. There are pictures of his family — his wife, three kids, parents — and friends. Three dogs eagerly meet visitors, and then Paco, the little one, settles into Pierce’s lap. And, all around him, on the walls, on the shelves, on the desk, is evidence of his practically life-long love affair with airplanes.
Pierce lives in Graham not because he was born here, not because he graduated from high school here, not because his parents live here. He lives here because he loves it here. Pierce grew up as a Navy brat, moving from place to place before his family settled in Tennessee. But, as an adult, he made his way to Graham, Texas, and it’s a great place to raise a family, he said.
He was in college when he realized that he much preferred working on his car rather than going to class. So, with his dad’s encouragement, he changed his focus and earned his A&P (airframe and powerplant) license that would enable him to work on planes.
Pierce was in Dallas attending Texas Aero Tech when his class took a field trip to visit the group now known as the Commemorative Air Force, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and showing historical aircraft.
“I saw a hangar full of warbirds (vintage airplanes), and that was my spark, I guess you could say,” Pierce said.
He began volunteering to help the CAF with the fabric work on the old planes. He’d attend class during the day and then volunteer at night and on the weekends.
After he graduated, Pierce saw a posting for a job at Ezell Aviation in Breckenridge. He worked at Ezell Aviation for several years and then took at job at the Graham Municipal Airport. In 1999, he bought a hangar to have more room to work on his restoration projects.
“In 2002, I was in a serious accident and was in the hospital for 10 days and then in a Florida hotel room for two weeks until I was able to travel again,” Pierce said. “I had time to think about things. I realized time is short…you better do what you really want to do.”
That was when he got serious about running his own business. Pierce Aero is located on Highway 380 East, on the northern edge of the Graham airport. He started participating on the Super Cub online forum and eventually started a similar forum dedicated to the Short Wing Piper (www.shortwingpipers.org).
Through his participation in the forums, Pierce picked up restoration business and made connections with other restoration experts. Along the way, he earned his pilot’s license.
Pierce estimates that there are only about five or six businesses in the country that specialize in the restoration of Cubs or Piper airplanes. “We pretty much specialize in Pipers,” he said, although he does do work on other types of planes if he needs to.
In 2006, Pierce Aero hosted a seminar by Clyde “The Cub Doctor” Smith of Lock Haven, Pennslyvania. Smith was hesitant to hold the clinic in such a small town, Pierce said, and he was concerned they wouldn’t be able to draw the minimum six participants.
“We had 20-plus people who came to Graham, Texas, for three days for the seminar,” Pierce said.
A year later, people on the forum started asking for another seminar. Fast-forwarding to this year, Pierce hosted his eighth annual seminar. Now, Pierce teaches the seminar himself, having turned it from classroom-type instruction to a more hands-on experience.
Annually, Pierce brings in 30 to 50 people from all over the country. They come to Graham every February, stay in local hotels and resorts, eat at local restaurants, shop in the stores.
“Some stay for just one weekend, some stay the whole week,” he said. “I get people with all sorts of skills and experience. About half are return visitors, and half have never been here before.”
Additionally, Pierce said, now vendors are involved and come to Graham to show their wares to the seminar participants.
Pierce is almost 50, and he has as much business as his facilities and staff of four employees can handle. Still, he’s always looking to add something new to his company. As he walks through the hangar, showing planes in various stages of restoration, he talks constantly about wanting to expand and improve.
He also has added to the business by designing and selling a couple of specialty parts useful in plane restoration. He enjoys working with other local businesses and has the machine work done at Young County Machine. Pierce is also in negotiations, trying to secure a distributorship to sell the fabric used on the wings of the Piper Clipper.
Some of the important aspects of running a successful business include treating people with respect, knowing what you’re talking about and working hard, he said.
“And, you have to be passionate about it,” Pierce said. “I think they key to all this is I’m passionate about what I do.”
Pierce said that one thing people considering going into business for themselves need to realize is that there is a big time commitment involved. “They have to realize, it’s not an 8 to 5 deal,” he said. “I come in at 7 in the morning, and I’m here till 7 or 8 at night. I’m here on Saturdays and most Sundays. I can’t get away from here unless I leave town.”
But, it’s a lifestyle Pierce enjoys. Up until a few years ago, his wife worked with him; now she works for an accountant in Graham. And, now his oldest daughter, Tabitha, works for the business doing fabric work on the wings and is studying for her airframe license. His younger daughter, Taylor, is a senior in high school, and his son, Lee, is 10 and basically grew up in the airport, he said.
Some of the things Pierce said he enjoys about owning and operating Pierce Aero are the many experiences it has allowed him to have. Through his work, he gets to meet people from all across the country and often from all over the world. He and his family — his dad, Gilbert, and his wife, Cathy, also have pilot’s licenses — often travel to air shows or to pick up and drop off planes for restoration.
“I get to fly to some awesome places, and most of my customers become my friends,” he said. “And, I feel fortunate for that.”
Pierce takes a look around his cluttered office, scratches Paco on the top of the head and says, “The thing about my business…it’s still fun.”