Payne Hughes is recapturing a market, one plane at a time.
Hughes is the owner and president of Thrush Aircraft located in Albany, Ga., and his company makes aerial applicators or crop dusters if you will.
In June 2003, Hughes with partner Larry Bays, bought Thrush Aircraft and acquired the Ayres product line. By that time Hughes had already created and sold a successful printing business, actually one of the largest real estate publishing outfits in the country. "The opportunity came," Hughes said, "and (Thrush) looked like a good investment. … And it's a business where a handshake still means something. … Really good people to work with."
Ayres used to be North American Rockwell, which started in Olney, Texas. In 1970, it moved the entire product line to Albany. Its 400 series of plane continued to be in demand, and Rockwell increased the production rate in late 1973 to one airplane per day. In 1977 Rockwell sold the production rights for their agricultural aircraft to Ayres Corporation, which eventually became Thrush.
Hughes was the financial backer. Bays ran Thrush's day-to-day operations. That is until Bays died of a heart attack three years ago, and that's when Hughes returned to Albany and took direct leadership of the company. And it's been growing ever since. "I want our planes to be the workhorse of the industry. The plane a father can pass down to his son if he wants to," Hughes said.
The company is on the rebound, producing and selling 50 planes last year, 35% more than in 2011. Production in 2011 was roughly 30% more than in 2010. With 184 employees, Hughes is ramping up manpower now and pulling in technology and materials to produce 60 to 70 planes in 2013. "And I don't have a limit on where we can go – 100 planes (annually) in three years, 200 planes in five years. … The demand in the market is there. The world's fleet is aging and we're pushing into those markets," he said.
Thrush planes are around the world, particularly in Central and South America, where they are used in marijuana and coca eradication, but they are also in aerial ag applications in those and other countries. The opening markets, though, will be in China, Russia and India in the coming years, Hughes said.
Thrush's only competitor really is Texas-based Air Tractor. Air Tractor now produces two to three times more planes as Thrush annually. But Hughes says there is room for competition in the market and the future of ag and its growth around the world is strong, at least several decades strong. And his bet, literally, is on aerial application playing a broader role in crop management, especially on large-tract operations.
Air Tractor is solid and well-prove in the industry, but Hughes doesn't feel the company is his primary competitor. Land applicators are, he said. "I look at ground-rig applicators as my competitor. There is plenty of room for growth in that market where aerial applicators can prove they can be more efficient in getting large areas covered quickly," he said.